What it is, why it happens, and how to recover without feeling guilty
The nonprofit sector is burnt out. And while employee burnout has been a hot topic since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been negatively impacting nonprofit organizations for years.
Here’s why: The Georgia Center for Nonprofits (GCN) states that 30% of nonprofit workers are burned out, while an additional 20% are in danger of burning out. Here’s how that math adds up: 50% of the nonprofit workforce is hanging on by a thread, or nearing the end of their tether.
In fact, a recent report states that nearly half (45%) of nonprofit employees plan to leave their jobs in the next few years—many due to burnout. According to Nonprofit HR, low morale is the number one factor that impacts high turnover at the organization.
For years, nonprofit employees struggled with being underpaid, understaffed, and under-equipped with the tools and resources necessary to do their jobs. Now, many talented employees are throwing up their hands and saying, “I’ve had enough.”
And I was one of them.
Hi, I’m Nikki—Givebutter Expert, nonprofit marketer, fundraiser, and habitual burnout survivor. My workaholic, people-pleasing, high-achieving tendencies got the best of me and burnout caused me to take a two-year sabbatical from nonprofit work. Now that I’m recovered, my personal mission is to give working professionals—especially fundraising warriors like you—stress management tools to prevent nonprofit burnout. I believe awareness, assessment, and immediate action are all a key part of taking care of our mental health.
💡 [Givebutter Report] Check out the latest nonprofit burnout statistics and learn more about the high cost of high turnover →
What is nonprofit burnout? 5 reasons burnout happens
Nonprofit burnout is the result of long term unresolved stress—a not-so-rare condition impacting nonprofit professionals. Fundraisers are often most at risk because they fall within a stressful nonprofit role.
So, how do you prevent nonprofit burnout? The first step is awareness—by being aware of how and why burnout happens, you can take active steps toward preventing it. Below, discover the top five reasons burnout impacts fundraising professionals:
1. We feel responsible 😔
Successful nonprofit programs and services have the potential to help hundreds (or thousands!) of people. Unfortunately, successful programming relies on grants and donations from supporters, which take a lot of time and energy to acquire.
So, what happens when we don’t reach our fundraising goals? We feel responsible—which is a significant and unfair burden to place on nonprofit staff. As a fundraising professional, I often felt underlying pressure to raise money for my organization so my teammates wouldn’t face layoffs. I wasn’t the Executive Director, and yet I felt it would be my fault if the entire organization shut down.
2. We work alone 🙅
More often than not, staff members work alone or within a small team. Even if you’re not a nonprofit leader or executive, you often shoulder team-wide challenges and the burden of strapped budgets—which only compounds stress and anxiety.
Pro tip: Join a network that offers professional tips, resources, and support (like the Givebutter community!). These professional networks help fundraisers feel seen, supported, and skilled which can greatly improve your mental health.
3. We face hard deadlines 📆
Ever submitted a grant? Grant writing and submission is extremely stressful, requiring nonstop focus and brutally long hours—often for days on end.
If you submit several grants per year, you can spend months waiting on pins and needles anticipating the outcome. (And even if you are awarded a grant, you know there are more reports to draft and deadlines to meet.) As a nonprofit professional, my work-life balance was completely interrupted by a non-stop calendar encompassing fundraising campaigns, donor stewardship, and grant proposals.
3. We do more than raise funds 👀
Nonprofit team members wear many hats, fulfilling the roles of marketers, event planners, and engagement directors—all in pursuit of gaining and keeping donors.
In the nonprofit sector, being well-versed in multiple roles is no longer exceptional—it’s expected. If a certain role doesn’t come naturally to you or align with your talents, teaching yourself completely new skills can increase your stress and anxiety, thereby contributing to nonprofit employee burnout.
4. We can’t control conversion 🙏
There are so many factors that contribute to a donor’s decision to give. While nonprofit professionals do our best to encourage donors to give, we ultimately cannot control who gives, how much they give, and how often they give—which contributes to stress and anxiety.
Pro tip: Arm your team with the tools they need to do their jobs and hit their fundraising goals. Using an all-in-one fundraising platform, like Givebutter, allows you to track donor communications, launch campaigns, and engage with new and loyal supporters through SMS, email, and social media.
Understanding nonprofit burnout: 5 stages leading toward chronic burnout
Surprisingly, there’s not a ton of clinical research out there on burnout despite how pervasive it is. This study from Winona State University sums up the various research on the subject, and one thread ties them all together: burnout can come in many forms and stages. Earlier studies like Maslach and Leiter's 1997 book, The Truth about Burnout, and Veninga and Spradley's 1981 debut of their model of stages of job burnout have been instrumental toward understanding when and why burnout happens.
- Honeymoon period: You just joined a nonprofit organization, and you feel creative, energized, and productive. You don’t mind skipping lunch, taking on extra tasks, enduring long work hours, or letting vacation days go unused because you’re committed to the mission.
- Acute stress: The daily hard work has lost its luster. Now, it takes more energy to complete tasks that were once simple. Your physical health suffers, as your sleep, exercise, and eating habits have changed (Psst! If you create good stress management habits at this stage, you will decrease your risk of burnout.).
- Chronic stress: You feel exhausted 3-4 days a week. You secretly dread going to work but you soldier on. When people make requests of you—whether at home or otherwise—you feel resentful. You rely on caffeine to get you through the day. You are more withdrawn from social activities, self-care habits, and interactions with friends and family.
- Burned out: Past the tipping point, this is the critical phase when you feel the impact in your life. You may start skipping work, procrastinating, or missing deadlines. You think about quitting or running away—anything to get out of your situation. Every second at work feels like an eternity. You are often sick or just not feeling well. It’s increasingly more difficult to connect with coworkers or friends, and you begin to dissociate from your goals.
- Habitual burnout: The cycle of stress and neglect of self-care has become your new default setting. It feels impossible to begin a new routine of self-care. At this point, you may have undiagnosed anxiety or depression. You may also somaticize stress into other health conditions like high blood pressure, ulcers and other digestive disorders.
Pro tip: If you are suffering from stages 3 or higher of burnout, consider speaking to your manager about taking enough time to recalibrate and reset.
5 steps toward recovering from habitual burnout
Recovering from burnout doesn’t have to be hard, but it will take effort. You may feel you’re in too deep, but you can dig yourself out. Be gentle with yourself–you got this! Follow these five steps to recover from chronic burnout:
1. Physical recovery. 💪🏽
The headaches, muscle tension, stomach issues, and fatigue caused by toxic work stress can be debilitating. Time to create a self-care routine that can get you back to sleeping soundly and feeling rested.
- Get more sleep: Mark X on your calendar for every day you get at least 6 hours sleep. Aim for 15 days straight.
- Implement an exercise routine: Find a new workout or active hobby and do it at least 2–3 times per week. Yoga is a great way to double up on recovery—both physical and mental benefits. Even just going on walks can significantly help!
- Log food and water intake: Keep healthy snacks at your desk. Get in 6-8 cups of water each day.
2. Mental recovery 🧠
Meditation and mindfulness, journaling, and creative expression are all great ways to combat low focus and poor memory, and will rev up your brain waves to get you back on track.
- Take a deep breath: Take a breath at work using these fun, helpful breathing GIFs from Destress Monday.
- Start journaling: Close each work day journaling about what fueled progress, what caused stress, and what brought joy.
- Pick up meditation: Meditate 2-3 days each week using this Guided Meditation Playlist by Spotify.
3. Emotional recovery 💕
Increased anxiety, feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, and obsessing over work and life can make you feel trapped. Soul care, support groups, and celebrations can help you feel more seen, loved, and valued.
- Celebrate mini victories: Celebrate one “win” each week and start a “win jar” for inspiration on low energy days.
- Treat yo’ self: Find one way each week to treat yourself. It doesn’t have to cost much but it must be meaningful (e.g. your favorite latte, a midday walk with a friend or colleague, or a Friday pedicure).
- Get support: Find a support group. I offer free support groups for nonprofit professionals.
4. Social Recovery 👯
Burnout causes people to withdraw from friends and family. If you can’t remember the last time you did something fun, take these small steps to reconnect:
- Phone a friend: Phone a non-work friend for a 15 minute check-in conversation at least once a week.
- Prioritize people: Schedule at least two hours of intentional time with family/loved ones.
- Join a club or group: Find a professional group and RSVP for the next monthly meeting (Here’s a suggestion: The Association of Fundraising Professionals may have a chapter in your area).
5. Performance Recovery ✌
If you’re part of a small staff, a sabbatical may not be possible. Meanwhile, the lack of motivation, decreased productivity, and ongoing stressors can derail your recovery.
If you can’t take time away from work, implement these initiatives to recover from burnout:
- Set boundaries: Create a list of 10 work boundaries and commit to keeping them.
- Take frequent breaks: Schedule 10-15 minute “recover” intervals between meetings.
- Start over fresh: Clear your workspace at the end of each work day.
Recovering from burnout takes time—be sure to have the tools necessary to do your job
I may be recovered, but I remain intentional about managing work and personal stress, so burnout stays in my rearview mirror. I hope burnout isn’t part of your story, but if it is, know that recovery and ongoing stress management is possible. Remember: At work, you move mountains for the people within your community—don’t forget to move a few for yourself, too.
If you need more tips and tricks to recover from burnout, download my Balance the Busy Toolkit which includes ideas and templates for work boundaries, work routines, and scheduling and more to help you manage your workload and kickstart your work wellbeing.
Finally, remember that nonprofit professionals need the right tools and technology to do their jobs and prevent burnout. Givebutter is the all-in-one fundraising platform equipped with 130+ fundraising tools, marketing automation, and a built-in CRM system—all for free. To see how Givebutter can make you work smarter (not harder!) and ultimately prevent employee burnout, take a tour today.
Nikki Lavette is the Founder of Nspired Brands a virtual contracting and consulting firm for nonprofits. When she's not working, you can find her enjoying soulful experiences, music, and food in my hometown Memphis, TN.