3 Themes Behind Nonprofit Employee Burnout

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Too much work. Not enough help.  It’s a common issue for many small nonprofits. Digging through my experience for the root causes of nonprofit employee burnout, I find 3 recurring themes.

1. Over-dedicated theme. Many nonprofit employees are passionate about the cause they represent. Yet, the intensity of that passion inevitably varies from person to person. In addition, some employees may not be passionate at all about the mission. That’s a hard point to accept. Yet, the pure thought of a salary supplemented with adequate benefits, irrespective of cause, are reason enough to attract potential employees in a tough economic climate. Once the wheat is separated from the chaff, it’s easy to see there is usually a small  core group of over-dedicated employees. It’s this group that consistently goes the extra mile. Unfortunately, it is also this group that is most susceptible to burn out. When that happens, we have what I call “campfire burnout”. In this stage, up to several of your best people are at risk.

2. Cost of Quality theme.  To carry out your mission, you need to give high quality services. Attaining that quality requires many steps and plenty of fine tuning right? But what about work that has to be redone and rechecked? How about systems that don’t work?  Or work that doesn’t even really need done period?! Excessive absenteeism or duplicating effort doesn’t help either. When these type of issues persist, we have a “house on fire burnout”.  A large chunk of the organization is likely being affected- directly or indirectly- by the wasted time and effort.

3. Misdirection theme.  When the vision painted by leadership is not crystal clear, confusion results. Most importantly, burnout of the entire organization will ultimately occur. I call this “wildfire burnout”. Persistent misdirection can be a threat to the very existence of a small nonprofit. Ultimately it will tarnish the mission and have a serious negative impact upon all stakeholders.

Typically the burnout problem is “fixed” by adding more staff  or giving a raise to placate one or more employees. Unfortunately, these are weak long-term solutions that don’t address the real issues, have little staying power, result in greater costs and turn off potential funders. Being aware of the true underlying causes of employee burnout can help you to respond more effectively to this problem and make your organization more resilient in the process.


One Comment on “3 Themes Behind Nonprofit Employee Burnout”

  1. […] Conduct an employee Work Climate Survey. Get direct feedback about what motivates employees, their needs and expectations, problems they meet and their overall receptiveness to working outside the office. For more information about staff burnout, see this post. […]


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