While all executives across for-profit and nonprofit entities are susceptible to burnout due to the importance of their role, nonprofit leadership has the added risk factor of the personal toll that nonprofit work can take in the form of compassion fatigue to consider as well. (Additionally, nonprofit leaders in interim roles or on consulting engagements often work more than they bill, which only adds to their vulnerability to burnout.) These factors add up to a perfect storm of physical and mental health challenges for nonprofit Executive Directors.
The numbers tell the same story. According to recent data, 30% of nonprofit employees already report feeling burnt out and another 20% feel they are at risk of burning out. That means half of nonprofit employees across the board are either burnt out now or will likely be soon! This is especially disconcerting because we know colloquially that employees towards the top of an organization’s reporting structure are more likely to experience burn out than their lower-level colleagues, which means that these numbers will skew more heavily towards leadership positions. Therefore, more than half of nonprofit Executive Directors are dealing with burn out right now!
So, how can Executive Directors take better care of themselves?
We discussed this topic at a recent Valtas all hands meeting and decided the key to taking care of yourself as an Executive Directors is prioritizing self-care to achieve a healthy work-life balance. But when we say self-care, we don’t mean bubble baths with a glass of wine. Sure, relaxing away from the office can help, and the importance of mindfulness and intentionality shouldn’t be underestimated, but professional self-care is about so much more. Effective self-care for nonprofit leaders should include:
The hardest thing for most people to do professionally is say no. This rings even truer for executive leadership because there’s a feeling of, “If I don’t do it, who will?” when saying no. However, saying no is one of the most important skills that leaders can learn. It may be uncomfortable at first and you may have to rely on preplanned phrases or responses to get more accustomed to saying no, but it’s extremely important to know and respect your own limits.
Remember, it’s always easiest to set your own boundaries before you need to enforce them. Set limits on what you will do when and stick to them so that you do not get into a situation where saying no feels like walking away from something that desperately needs to be done. And keep in mind that when you say no there will be times when some things will not get done, and that’s okay too.
If you are having trouble setting and maintaining boundaries, talk to a colleague outside of your organization to gain some additional perspective. You might be surprised how much someone else’s validation of your boundaries helps you to lean into them with more confidence when there’s pushback from within your organization.
The Right Systems
Self-care is also about working smarter, not harder. Revisiting actual work that has been performed can give an indication of whether these types of activities should be undertaken again in the future or delegated. Having these kinds of discussions with the Board Chair ensures everyone is on the same page when it comes to hiring, process outsourcing, and technology implementation.
Nonprofit leaders should identify the best use of their time and structure their day in a way that orients them toward the activities that are going to be the most important to the future success of the organization. Activities that leaders are responsible for but are not a good use of their time should be delegated to less senior staff, hired out, or automated by technology. The goal should be to put systems in place that allow the organization to run smoothly even when the Executive Director is away or off the clock.
With the right systems in place to keep everything running, nonprofit leadership can implement healthier time management strategies like creating realistic work plans and establishing time for creativity. They should honestly evaluate what of their workload is critical and prioritize working on those items, resisting the urge to treat everything as if it’s urgent. To this end, executive leaders can use their calendars to their advantage by:
Nonprofit leaders should not only use these tips themselves, but also apply them to staff, setting up the expectation that staff can be offline in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. When it seems like staff is being stretched too thin, leadership can use their same honest evaluation of the work at hand to determine if more staff is needed or if there is work being done that isn’t necessary.
If you need nonprofit leadership consulting, please reach out to us. We offer nonprofit advisory services to boards, executives, and leadership teams to help them work smarter, not harder. We will come alongside your nonprofit to help solve the kinds of work-life imbalances and expectation mismatches that can plague nonprofit executive leadership and derail organizations. Find out more about how we can help today!
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