Perhaps it is the nature of trying to solve the intractable, but social change leaders are heading for burnout. I see it more often lately. A nonprofit leader gives me a dazed look, rubs her temples with exhaustion, throws her hands up in the air, seriously considers just giving up.
The exhausting, endless hamster wheel nonprofit leaders live on is just not sustainable. At some point they will give out.
But the leaders who are driving social change are the very people we need to persevere. Because if they give up, where does that leave those who so desperately need the solutions they are providing?
Here are some things social change leaders can do to overcome burnout:
- Get Brutally Honest. With your donors, with your board members. Stop telling people what they want to hear and start being honest about the limits of your time, your staff’s capacity, your program’s scope. And stop chasing rabbit holes for your board or donors. You know what the reality is, so stop hiding it.
- Stop Fundraising. The thing that burns executive directors out more than anything is the endless, dysfunctional fundraising cycle. But if you could switch to a more effective strategy for bringing money in the door, and start to engage others (board members, donors, volunteers) to help, you would have a much smaller burden on your shoulders.
- Raise Capacity Capital. Executive directors are tasked with way too much. Most nonprofit staffers are doing the jobs of 2 or 3 people. That’s fine for awhile, but not long term. The only way out of that vicious cycle is to raise some money to hire key staff, or buy effective technology. That’s capacity capital.
- Get Inspired. Social change can be very inspiring. When you hit a wall, read about other leaders and the hurdles they faced, visit your own program and see the change that is happening every day, ask your staff and board why they are involved, ask donors why they give.
- Forgive Yourself. One thing I absolutely love about social change leaders is their undying commitment to the cause. So many of them have a deep calling for the work they do. But that can also have a dark side. They can become so passionate that they think taking a day off would be to let down the cause. They sometimes picture themselves as Superman and deny their human need for rest and regeneration. But the only way to create lasting change is to make it sustainable. You need to know when to say when.
- Get Some Help. You may be born to lead change, but a true leader knows how to engage others. You cannot do it all. Recruit and retain a staff to whom you can confidently delegate. Recruit a board that steps up to take key pieces off your plate. Ask your donors to tap into their networks to do some fundraising for you. This is not a one person show, rather you need to view yourself as a cheerleader, organizer, and leader of a vast army of people who are making social change happen.
When you feel your eyes glaze over, your head start to spin, a yearning for the family you haven’t seen in weeks, it’s time to take a step back. You are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t burnout after the first 5 miles. Long-term change takes time. Pace yourself.
Photo Credit: gb_packards