Her Voice Carries, Eridania Nieves.” Detail of a mural by Sarah C. Rutherford aka @msshaftway for “Color the Creek 2019,” seen in Battle Creek, Michigan. Photo by Terence Faircloth @urbanmuralhunter.

Burnout is endemic to the nonprofit sector, especially in human services-centered organizations. Nonprofit executives in particular face a high risk of burning out, and this is even more true for leaders of color. I have experienced this personally, as a woman of color leader. So let me begin with two offerings to those who are burned out or at risk of burnout, shared in the spirit of love and care:

  • You are not a failure. Being burnt out does not mean that you have failed. It’s not you. It’s the sector and the systems it inhabits. It is important to name that you are burned out and to be able to ask for resources. And resources should be provided to you—the sector is not great at this yet, but it can and should be. While we work toward that goal, please step away from the things that trigger your stress and anxiety and give yourself a break. Do the things that feel selfish and indulgent; I promise they are not any of those things. Those are acts of self-care.
  • You deserve happiness. Nonprofit workers deserve to be happy. No matter what social justice movement you sit in, the goals you are working toward will not be achieved by just you, or by you in your lifetime. Movement goals are generational goals. By caring for yourself, by centering abundance and happiness, you are dismantling white supremacist and dominant culture tropes that perpetuate a sense of scarcity and marginalization about what you deserve, what your value is, and what success means for you. Caring for yourself is also generational, movement work, and a social justice goal in and of itself—and should be resourced as such.

Burnout and Nonprofit Leadership of Color

In large part, the state of the nonprofit sector, particularly in the human services sector, is undercapitalized and overspecialized. Too often, government contracts and philanthropy do not cover the full costs of operations. A bad “solution” to this gap is to overwork, underpay, and under-resource nonprofit staff and leaders to sacrifice their bodies and health to the cause. Many nonprofits, despite all this, manage to consistently exceed expectations. But these successes come at a high price.

At some point, getting paid 60 cents for a dollar’s worth of work shows up not just in our accounting ledgers, but in the bodies of the people doing that work. At some point, being asked to fix problems without being provided the tools or support to truly dismantle enormous systems of oppression—racism, patriarchy, xenophobia—exacts a high cost upon those doing the work.

Consequently, about 30 percent of nonprofit workers are burned out, with an additional 20 percent in danger of burning out. That’s 50 percent of the nonprofit workforce at the end, or near the end of their tether. That’s half of the humans who drive this nation’s third-largest employment sector not being able to sustain a long-term career without compromising their health, resilience, and security.

Nonprofit leadership, and particularly nonprofit leadership of color, experiences this acutely. When you run an organization, you are experiencing the impact of the work, while being called to lead, through crisis and opportunity, through risk and challenge, while keeping long-term vision and inspiration centered in the work for your organization and your team. If you’re a leader of color, you also face challenges that your white counterparts do not, such as: challenges in receiving funding that white-led organizations typically do, how your board works with you, how you are perceived as a leader. This is just a typical day in the life of a nonprofit leader of color. Now let’s add the stressors of everything that happened in the past year: the disparate impact living through the pandemic, the act of domestic terrorism after the presidential election, racial justice uprisings, and ongoing financial market volatility.

During 2020, over and over, nonprofit leaders of color were asked to meet the moment. How many African American nonprofit leaders and workers had to take mental health days just to make it through another horrifying brutal murder? How many wanted to, but couldn’t, because they had to be there for their teams and their communities? During a spate of violence against Asian Americans this spring, a nonprofit leader said, literally, “I’ve been meaning to write, but this hell is just too much.” Amid organizing rallies and responding to constituents, they had to also generate thought leadership, respond to the media, and convert their pain into progressive work. It is unsustainable, and therefore the sector faces the risk of more leadership transitions due to burnout.

The nonprofit sector already faces leadership shifts. This was projected in 2012 through research analysis conducted by the Building Movement Project, which stated that “[b]y even a modest estimate, a half-million executives may exit their positions over the next 15 years.” There are real issues to contend with during this period. For example, as predominantly white leaders are retiring, they need to do a better job in supporting incoming leadership of color. Furthermore, white-led movements are missing a key opportunity to value and involve their outgoing leadership, their elders, in the way that movements led by people of color have through practices such as eldering. Movements and leaders are more resilient and contribute longer when we create space for our elders within our movements.

But those articles and analyses don’t fully address the impact of burnout on nonprofit leadership of color who are still rising. We, as a sector, must do more to prepare for the fact that established and rising leaders of color face heightened risk of burning out. Both they and the movements they work for need support to move forward.

Preventing burnout, just like promoting social justice goals, requires a dramatic shift of power and resources toward the hands of the people doing the work. Coping with burnout requires care, support, and investment, which are not adequately funded either inside or outside the nonprofit sector. We can do better. 

Duty of Care

The board’s role in nonprofit succession planning acknowledges that it is as important to end well with the departing leader as it is to start well with the new one. However, ensuring a good ending seems to center around holding a celebratory party, messaging externally and internally to acknowledge the leader’s departure, and crafting exit plans (sometimes formalized in exit agreements, sometimes not). For a nonprofit leader who is leaving in part due to burnout, a pat on the back and a fare-thee-well does not attend to their well-being and ability to be present for the long journey of social justice.

Nonprofit boards can do more. Here are some ideas:

  1. Invest more in talent development. More and more, nonprofit board governance practices demonstrate a willingness for boards to consider workplace culture and the health and welfare of nonprofit employees, particularly in the context of preventing burnout. During the past year, ensuring that nonprofit employees and organizational culture were healthy was integral to weathering the pandemic. Board governance should also ensure that the organization invests in internal talent development resources for its employees, particularly its leaders. Research proves that every dollar invested in talent yields greater impact.
  2. Craft exit agreements that address the needs of the outgoing nonprofit leader. Some nonprofit boards already have exit agreements which can serve to acknowledge that the outgoing leader may have accepted a below-market salary for years, or to honor the leader’s legacy in some monetary way. Exit agreements could further ensure that services, support, and care are provided to the outgoing leader so they may continue to be an outside resource to both the organization and the field.
  3. Don’t put the outgoing leader out to pasture. Ultimately, nonprofit boards should understand that the departing leader does not just suddenly disappear. They are just leaving an organization, but they can continue to be a part of the movement and the sector, if they are supported, through practices such as eldering. Boards of directors should engage in a meaningful discussion with their outgoing leader as to what resonates for them. If the leader is burned out, then that is important to acknowledge so that we can build awareness about this issue and dedicate more resources towards both healing and prevention of burnout. That’s long-term work; addressing the immediate needs of outgoing leaders is a feasible start.

Philanthropy can also respond. Here are some ideas:

  1. Fund talent development that recognizes the threat of burnout in our sector and the very real positive impact that leadership development programs, retreats, and coaching have for leaders. Talent development is underinvested generally, and if you are a person of color, you see even less of those dollars. The Meyer Foundation launched Rewarding Leadership, which invested in a $2.2 million initiative to support executive leadership in their grantees. They further created the Exponent Award, which gave $100,000 a year for three years to five mid-career executive directors who were amazing but at risk of burnout. Similarly, the Gifford, and Allyn Foundations provide $3,000 Kathy Goldfarb-Leadership awards to leaders for personal use, given to nonprofit leaders who embodied the values of the award’s namesake.
  2. Fund multi-year general operating grants. This addresses a root cause of burnout, the never-ending cycle of fundraising. No leader can manage risk effectively, or strategically, much less continually innovate when you don’t know whether you’ll make payroll in a few years.
  3. Fund sabbaticals. Nonprofit leadership may experience burnout and need to step away, but they aren’t gone for good. If we allowed a pause, if we held space for a step back so that we can lean in again when we are ready, we could retain so much more talent, and break another cycle—the “burnout/re-ignition cycle” where we hop from nonprofit to nonprofit, which results in folks complaining about how hard employee retention is to maintain in the nonprofit sector. Funding sabbaticals is proven to be effective in supporting leadership, as well as helping the organization build leadership skills among staff during a leader’s absence. The Virginia C. Piper Charitable Trust has done this for over 10 years through the Piper Fellows sabbatical program, which provides professional learning and personal renewal.
  4. Fund retirement planning. Supporting nonprofits’ ability to plan for their retirement is key to risk management, resource development, and long-term planning for their teams.
  5. Fund succession planning and leadership transitions. Not just to support the incoming leader to an organization, but because succession planning is key to weathering the transitions and ensuring the ongoing success of the organization. At its best, philanthropy moves resources with the long game in mind—with generational, systemic vision. Accordingly, the nonprofit ecosystem is not solely 501c3s; there are people involved, and those people aren’t always attached to an organization. Indeed, the learning edges of our movements are in the hands of activists and volunteers who operate outside of brick and mortar. So do our leaders, in the spaces in between organization leadership. They are still leaders, and they are still contributing forces. If given resources, time, love, and support, they can pause to reflect, take stock, heal and recover, and then step back into leadership with even more vibrancy and ability. Fund people like you want them to thrive for their whole life, not just the 5–10 years they lead an organization. Give them the resources they need and trust them to contribute. It will yield stunning results.

And What about Nonprofit Organizations Themselves?

Nonprofit staff can do more too. I come from movements where we do value our elders. But we value our younglings too. We don’t want anyone to burn out. We need our leaders to be a generational presence in the nonprofit ecosystem because their contributions and experiences are invaluable to all of us in achieving our social justice goals. It will harm the sector and our collective progressive goals if we don’t ensure that leaders who leave because they are burned out can receive resources so that, in the fullness of time, after recovery and healing, they can return.

This responsibility is currently solely on the nonprofit leaders themselves. But nonprofit worker and leaders—the people of color who hold up much of our movement work—are a social justice movement in and of ourselves. We should demand resources to care for our folks. We should write about the struggle and joy of navigating this work, and we should not ignore when we are seeing signs of burning out in ourselves or in our teams. I’m going to end as I began—we deserve happiness. Happiness is a movement goal, and it should be a funding priority and a call to action for our boards and ourselves.