This summer, after much convincing, one of my clients (who was close to burnout) reluctantly took a long weekend off. She said it felt amazing. But she also felt guilty. It is insane that three very short days away felt somehow wrong to this beleaguered nonprofit leader.
But, her plight, nonprofit leader burnout, is so disappointingly normal in the nonprofit sector.
I know you see it. As a board member I know you see how worn out your nonprofit’s leader is. And I know some of the blame rests on the shoulders of the nonprofit leaders themselves who are excellent at playing the martyr.
But instead of ignoring the enormous elephant in the room, how about addressing it head on? Instead of just lobbing the off-handed ask “When are you going to take some vacation?” why not explore the underlying problems that are keeping your nonprofit’s leader in this self-deprivation loop.
You could start by asking these questions:
“How can our board share more of the burden?”
This is the million dollar question right? It takes true leadership to recognize that you and your fellow board members are not doing all that you could be. So instead of just showing up to the next board meeting, take the reins and start finding ways for you and your fellow board members to carry the load — whether that’s by getting more involved in fundraising, expanding the organization’s networks, or lending your expertise more readily. I assure you there is much more that you and your fellow board members could be doing. So start by finding out what that might be.
“How do we grow her staff and resources?”
Often the biggest reason a nonprofit leader doesn’t take time off is because there is simply too much on her plate. Stop looking the other way when you see that your nonprofit leader is exhausted, overworked, and under-resourced. Ask your funders to fund more staff and capacity (as some of the biggest foundations recently agreed to do), and tap into your networks to encourage new donors to fund in more supportive ways as well. Bring the topic of resources up at the next board meeting and demand that you and your fellow board members shoulder more of the burden of growing organizational capacity so she can get a break.
“How do we support her ability to delegate?”
It’s not enough to have the right staff, although that is a huge part of it. Any good leader needs to know how to effectively delegate to ensure things are being done well and right. But this is a learned skill, one that many nonprofit leaders haven’t yet mastered, probably because they rarely have enough people to whom they can delegate. So, help your nonprofit leader invest in the training, coaching or other professional development that will make her a world-class delegator. Because the more effectively she delegates the less burned out she will be, and more importantly, the more your nonprofit will accomplish.
“How do we make downtime a performance metric?”
What if, as part of the annual performance review of your nonprofit leader, you include a metric around downtime? You would thus be creating a very clear, and measurable incentive that your nonprofit’s leader have a certain number of unplugged days. You are in essence shifting the performance expectations from exhausted martyr to well-rested, productive leader. Research shows time and again that time off is directly related to productivity. Call me crazy, but isn’t the goal for your nonprofit’s leader to be as productive as possible?
Recognize nonprofit leader burnout and that your nonprofit leader is pushing herself too hard. She, and your nonprofit, will achieve so much more if you move away from a culture of self-deprivation. Because self-deprivation typically ends in the same ways, none of them good. If you want your nonprofit leader to stick around — and more importantly, be successful at moving your nonprofit’s mission forward — it’s time to stop sticking your head in the sand.
Photo Credit: Jessica Cross