I had a terrible week. It was the kind of week that probably every nonprofit staffer you fund goes through at some point or another, and hopefully not too often. The kind of week where you find yourself sitting in your office behind a locked door, crying into your coffee and wondering why the hell you got yourself into this mess. Your friends are working for start-ups where they play video games in conference rooms while some ivy league intern feeds them sustainably sourced dark chocolate! Meanwhile, you are cleaning toilets and simultaneously answering phones because your only receptionist is out sick and you can’t afford a cleaning service. And now it’s 10:30 AM on a Tuesday and you have to stop crying because someone is knocking on your door saying we’re out of post-it notes again. That kind of week.
It was in the throes of these moments over the past few days that I started to recognize an all-too familiar sensation growing in my heart and body. As I tried to rapidly switch from one task to another – often from the important to the trivial in seconds, and then back again – I found myself losing my words, unable to hold focus, nervously scrolling through my phone instead of listening to the person in front of me. Oh no, I thought. Here we go again. Burnout, my old friend. Welcome back.
I don’t need to tell you that burnout is the arch enemy of the nonprofit sector, and it’s something that we either a) never talk about, because we don’t have the solution, or b) talk about, and then continue breeding like wildfire. Burnout is a hard reality that we have to contend with, because it is legitimately the kiss of death on most nonprofit careers, and consequently, a disease to our organizations. Burnout prevents us from keeping the bright people that walk into our doors, and when they walk out – spurned, exhausted, and forsaking the sector – a ton of institutional knowledge and potential walks right out with them. If it weren’t for burnout, let’s be honest, we probably would have saved the world by now, don’t you think?
Plenty has been written about how burnout can be prevented, but most of it has been intended for a sector that is not based on unsustainable, unpredictable funding streams that require you to do the most you possibly can for a limited amount of money. You can find a million articles that advise bosses to allow for more breaks, make sure there is food at all meetings, and model a work-life balance for their employees. But those solutions are quick fixes for a much more systemic problem. Burnout is inherent to our structure – it’s built into the very idea of nonprofits. As long as we are competing with each other for funding by promising higher and higher outcomes while paying folks as little as possible, we are fundamentally screwed. Folks can create as many ad hoc, dollar store meditation rooms in their offices as possible, but the fact is: we’re not getting healthier until our funding is more reliable and less restricted. That’s where you come in. I have compiled a few suggestions for how you can help us tackle this problem head on.
- When requesting midterm and final reports, ask for a paragraph on staff wellness. Beware: this very well may turn into a total venting session for the person writing the report. But at least you’ll get the honest picture of what sacrifices were made in order to run that perfect program with the exact attendance rate you expected.
- Require a statement of turnover rate during the application process. It’s the question we least want you to ask. But if you ask it, it’ll force us to replace all that “we love new blood and fresh energy” talk for the honest ask: “we need more money for a duplicate staff position because people are getting overworked and leaving too soon.” See? Was that so hard?
- Fund the things that actually keep us in our jobs. This is rarely professional development and staff retreats. More often, we are surviving because we have partners who feed us ice cream in bed while we cry to them about a rejected application, or we have really good therapists, or we took a few vacation days at the exact moment when we thought we were going to have a panic attack. Offer to tack extra dollars onto a budget if the organization will grant extra vacation days to each program staffer. Give the program staff some pre-paid AMEX giftcards that they can use to take their partners on a date. Fund 10 sessions of therapy for managers and executives. Trust me, we need all of the above to recover from that time we found the rat’s nest in the kitchen.
- Speaking of – make more funds available to capital projects and renovations of the building, and actually consider them central to the work. Yes, we can all *survive* in rundown buildings with dial-up internet. But our environments are critical to our productivity. Sometimes, a few coats of paint, a regular cleaning service, and a few pieces of art on the wall can radically change the way people relate to their work. Don’t believe me? Maybe we can switch offices for a few days to test it out?
- Four beautiful words: multiyear general operating support. If you believe in us, and you support the work that we do, just write us a check and watch magic happen. Over time, of course. Rome wasn’t built in a day and so neither will our youth program.
Despite what we may claim in our glittering reports, we are not superhuman. We cannot run on empty for years on end, sustained only by our passion and last night’s event leftovers. We are bright, competent, driven people who could have taken our talents to any number of places. We should start treating ourselves and our work with dignity, and you can help us get started. Which doesn’t necessarily mean organic chocolate, but I’m not ruling it out.
Tired nonprofit staffer