Mental Health Matters: Avoiding Nonprofit Burnout Year-Round

Mental Health Matters: When the Goalposts Are Always Moving, Nonprofit Burnout Is a Given

January 3, 2023
7 minutes
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For most of us, the new year provides a much-needed blank slate. What’s past is past; new year, new you! Right?

Well, not quite. In the nonprofit fundraising world, things aren’t that simple. After the mad rush of year-end fundraising—the relief when that last donation rolls in at 11:17 PM on December 31st, exceeding your goal—everyone strolls into the office on January 2nd and realizes they’re right back where they started. In an instant, your fundraising goals reset—but you’re still completely exhausted from the last few weeks.

As a new year begins, most folks are cracking their knuckles, ready to hit the ground running. But nonprofiteers the world over are burned out. Every year, it’s the same old story: We move from the frantic year-end giving season straight into the morale-destroying new year, when our fundraising goals reset. When the goalposts keep moving, how do you keep people motivated? And how do you prioritize self-care when we’re all beholden to the nonprofit cycle of ever-increasing fundraising goals?

These are the questions we’re here to answer—and it’s crucial that we answer them well, given our tight labor market and the cost of employee turnover.

What is nonprofit burnout?

Nonprofit burnout is when someone feels emotionally, mentally, and physically drained by their nonprofit job. In fact, the term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger when describing the stresses of working in “helping” professions. So, historically speaking, “nonprofit” is implied when we talk about burnout!

Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, but the “symptoms” can include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Disconnecting from work
  • Poor job performance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of energy
  • Apathy

And while nonprofit burnout is particularly prevalent in the new year, many folks in the nonprofit sector get burned out for all sorts of reasons at all different times. Whether it’s not being able to take that hard-earned time off because there’s no one to fill in or working 14-hour days during fundraising events, fundraisers have a lot of reasons to feel mentally and physically spent.

The more, more, more mentality

Nonprofit burnout is a tale as old as time. After all, nonprofits aren’t exactly known for their exorbitant salaries and half-day Fridays. Plus, there’s the emotional labor involved in working for a cause you care deeply about but being unable to do it all for everyone. But for nonprofit development staff, the new year can be especially taxing.

As the previous year draws to a close, nonprofits pull out all the stops to hit their fiscal goals. After all, in December alone, nonprofits raise about 25% of their annual revenue. It’s a flurry of campaigns, events, and personalized outreach, leading to long hours and last-minute scrambles.

Then, the new year arrives, and with it, brand-new fundraising goals. In a snap, that $5,000 year-end gift is old news. Now, it’s time to reassess your strategy, apply for new grants, and work toward new goals. And, if your team was successful last year, those goals will be even bigger than before! Just when everyone thought they could pop the champagne and take a beat, the fundraising gods moved the goalposts—yet recognition, compensation, and resources remain exactly the same.

Mental health matters

Given all this, it’s no surprise that the new year is a particularly stressful and discouraging time for nonprofiteers. You’ve worked hard, met your goals, and now you get to… work even harder to meet entirely new goals! And while goals help us stay focused, prioritize, and plan for the future, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to goal setting. When you reset previous goals to be bolder or set “stretch goals” for that extra push, you probably think they’re inspirational—everyone will rise to the challenge, as they’ve done before!

But overly ambitious goals rarely have the intended effect. What’s the point of trudging up that hill if you’re never going to reach the top and bask in a glorious view? Moving the fundraising goalposts every year tells your team members that nothing’s ever enough, and they’ll never be truly done. That leads to chronic stress, which is a leading cause of burnout and, if left unchecked, can lead to or exaggerate depression.

That may sound melodramatic, but it’s just realistic. Every year, depression impacts millions across the US. In fact, an estimated one in 10 adults suffers from depression—and that number’s only increasing (US News). Until our public health system treats it like the disease it is, employers have a duty to support their employees as best they can by fostering an environment that prioritizes mental health and general well-being. A great place to start? Setting doable goals, rewarding people’s progress, and giving everyone space to breathe.

Here are a few ways your organization can actively support employee mental health in the new year:

  • Four-day January workweeks. Maybe you’re not ready for a four-day workweek, but you can stagger staff schedules so that each team member gets an extra day off for each week in January.
  • Mental health stipend. Provide a new year bonus specifically to support employees’ mental health needs. Provide a list of services they can submit for reimbursement, such as massages, yoga classes, a meal service, or a mental health app.
  • Mandatory breaks. Most of us work through lunch on the regular, eager to wrap things up ASAP. But without a break—and, crucially, some vitamin D—we become less productive and less engaged. Want happier employees? A survey found that workers who take a regular lunch break have greater job satisfaction than those who don’t (Tork).
  • Pay for mental health support. This can be a pricey one, but if you can swing it, it will pay off. First, when you’re evaluating insurance plans, choose options that cover mental health services. Alternatively, you could offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs help workers with immediate personal or professional problems impacting their job performance or mental health. For example, they might find a childcare provider if the nanny’s sick or connect you to a therapist during a time of heightened stress.

New year, new problems

New year’s burnout is tough for nonprofiteers, but it’s not great for your organization either. A nonprofit is nothing without its people, and if your people start the year exhausted, demotivated, and just plain sad, it won’t be long until productivity and performance start to drop. In fact, Delphis created a stress-and-performance model to visualize how pressure impacts employee performance. Long story short, a stretch goal or two can be good for performance, but too much pressure leads to a rapid decline in performance, quickly followed by burnout.

When people get burned out enough, they’ll leave, and you’ll find yourself with a talent shortage in a tight labor market just as you’re gearing up for the new year. In summation, if you care about staff retention and general workplace productivity, make a resolution this new year: Stop moving the goalpost and start supporting your people.

Managing morale

Finally, let's chat "manager a manager," in the immortal words of Michael Scott. Justin Wheeler, Funraise CEO and Co-founder, sat down with someone who knows a thing or ten about staying motivated and optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles: Christina Swarns, Executive Director at the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project uses DNA evidence to exonerate innocent people who have been incarcerated—and works toward enacting legislation to ensure others aren't wrongfully convicted. It's transformational work, but for every person they exonerate, there are thousands more longing for their freedom. And after every successful exoneration, they're right back where they started.

So, how what are Christina's secrets to keeping her team going when the road goes ever on and on?

  • Keep people connected to the impact of their work. "We give folks the opportunity to interface with the clients themselves. When someone is exonerated and comes home, within those first few days, they do a Zoom with the entire office. Everyone gets to clap them home ... [Hearing about] these extraordinarily powerful moments over and over again is the most powerful way for us to inspire our staff to keep going."
  • Provide resources to support mental health. Innocence Project provides various support services for their staff, including art therapy and a psychiatrist who specializes in self-care and secondary trauma. “We’re trying to take a holistic view because it is taxing to constantly be fighting for people’s freedom.”
  • Focus on the big picture. “For the intake team, who do build relationships with people who are asking for our help, and who often view the Innocence Project as their last chance, it’s heartbreaking for them to say, ‘The evidence has been destroyed and there’s nothing we can do.’ We provide a lot of support and resources ... to make sure they have perspective and room and space ... and [we remind them] that in the big picture, the 'yeses' are so transformational.”
  • Learn from the setbacks. "We're always trying to learn the lessons of those cases we have [that don't work out] to make sure they don't happen to someone else."
  • Celebrate the small and short-term wins. “Everyone that sits in the ED chair feels, at times, like you’re pushing a boulder up a mountain, and sometimes, that boulder’s too heavy ... I try very hard to focus on the wins that you get. And most of the time, it's not a big win in the Supreme Court or an exoneration. Most of the time, it's that I found a psychiatrist to come in and do secondary trauma work, and the staff loves her—that’s a win."

As we start yet another year and another cycle of fundraising, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ever-increasing fundraising goals. But by putting people over (non)profit, you and your team can sail into the new year cool, confident, and capable of making an even bigger difference for the world—and maybe shaking up the nonprofit status quo while you’re at it.

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14 ways to reduce burnout in nonprofits—especially in the new year

Once you’ve taken a beat, there will still be stakeholders to satisfy and fundraising goals to meet. And even if they’re realistic, that can be tough for a tired team. So, here are 12 quick-and-easy ways that you can support your people and reduce burnout post-holidays.

  1. Check in. When your team returns from their various holiday breaks (and hopefully they all did indeed take a break!), schedule one-on-one check-ins to see how they're doing and open the door to honest conversations.
  2. Lean into recurring giving. Recurring giving is great for a lot of reasons, but it’s also good for employee morale. The more expected, regular gifts you get, the less last-minute scrambling and tailored donor cultivation you need to do. So take that budget and invest it in a strong recurring giving program.
  3. Be proactive. Often, nonprofits have too few people doing too many jobs, and that means everything becomes a fire drill. You might not think starting your annual report five months in advance is a priority—but five months from now, it will make life a heck of a lot less stressful. Make a calendar, stick to it, and do your very best not to save things for the last minute.
  4. Just say no to martyrdom culture. Yes, nonprofit work matters more than a lot of other work, and yes, it can be demanding! But to keep doing this challenging work, we all need to take of ourselves, and we all need to enjoy what we’re doing. So, spend money on your people and your mission. Balance being scrappy with being effective.  
  5. Change donor expectations. Of course, our donors are crucial to organizational success, so it can be tempting to bend over backward, forward, and inside-out (ouch) to make them happy. But this requires your poor staff members to do some highly uncomfortable contortions. Instead, at the end of the year, set up your automated thank you notes to say, “We’re all taking a break after a busy giving season, and we can’t wait to connect with you after the first week of 2023!”
  6. Be kind. To each other and to others. When people treat other people kindly, it makes everyone happier. So, encourage your people to be kind. If someone’s being kind of a jerk, step in. If you find yourself snapping at your intern, take a step back, apologize, and recalibrate.
  7. Invest in technology. Good technology can automate time-consuming processes, improve communication, and decrease stress. Start by investing in great reporting (we can recommend a good option!) and intuitive project management tools.
  8. Take vacations. So many nonprofit workers don’t take their well-deserved PTO because they’re too busy or there’s no one to pick up the slack. They need to take it—and so do you, because you want to model a positive culture. Encourage everyone to take their days and to fully disconnect when doing so. None of this "checking Slack from the beach" nonsense!
  9. Get flexible. COVID showed us that we can work remotely and still be effective—and no one’s forgetting that now that offices are reopening. A flexible schedule costs you nothing (it can even save money!), so give your team members back that 45-minute commute a couple of times a week and don’t push back if they want to WFH because their dog’s daycare closes early.
  10. Listen to and collaborate with your staff members. If you hear rumblings of discontent, don’t ignore them because folks didn’t come straight to you. Follow up, with intention and with empathy. Then, take everyone’s recommendations seriously and work together to seek solutions.
  11. Have some fun. When we all make fun of tech company perks, it’s because deep down, we’re a maybe teensy bit jealous. The truth is, a few perks can go a long way. Whether it’s a fancy coffee machine that makes lattes or a pet-friendly office policy, remember that small changes can add up to big morale boosts.
  12. Give people time. Even if you can’t give your team unlimited PTO, you can give your people back some hours—especially after the holidays. Start by giving your team 2-4 designated hours every week to just brainstorm and be creative. No meetings, no asks, no checking email. Everyone can sit where they want and just think. You might be surprised how those hours increase productivity and reduce burnout.
  13. Communicate goals well ahead of time. When your nonprofit's team knows what will happen as the clock strikes midnight, when there are no surprises, when they can prepare for the impact of new goals, your team will better handle the turnover.
  14. Roll over your year-end campaign. Turn your year-end momentum into new-year donations. Begin the story of your programs in December and continue the same thread into January or February. Keep your donors in the loop about the real-time impact so they can be a part of the work.

Moving the nonprofit fundraising goalposts: Key takeaways

  • Most folks begin the new year reinvigorated, but nonprofit development staff don’t get a break. After the hectic year-end giving season, their fundraising goals reset in an instant, destroying morale and leading to burnout.
  • Nonprofit burnout is when someone feels emotionally, mentally, and physically drained by their nonprofit job. While burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, signs can include exhaustion, disconnecting from work, difficulty concentrating, and poor job performance.
  • Burnout is bad for staff and organizations alike. If people start the year exhausted and demotivated, productivity and performance will quickly decline.
  • Nonprofits can help avoid burnout by supporting their staff members’ mental health and general well-being.
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