Dealing with “Burn Out” in the Non-Profit Sector

I have worked in the non-profit sector for several years now. It can be both a wonderful and a terrible experience (depending on the situation). One issue that I have heard about is “burn out” in the non-profit sector. I am wondering, what causes this specifically in the non-profit sector? Anyone can “burn out” of their job; why do the rates seem to be higher in the non-profit sector (i.e. people “burning out” and then going to work in the for-profit sector)?

I personally think that there are several factors that contribute to burn out. One is that non-profits are usually understaffed and therefore one person is doing a job that should really be divided between two (or even three!) people. Another factor is the fact that (unfortunately), oftentimes donors, lay leaders, and volunteers can be abusive to staff*. Even if it is not severe, if it happens over an extended period of time, it can definitely impact the way a person feels about his/her job. There is also the feeling that we must “take” this behavior from our donors/volunteers, because after all, they are the “heart” of the organization. Lastly, I would say that the lower salaries also contribute to “burn out”. In fact, in my opinion, it is really all three issues together- being overworked, having to deal with abuse from donors/lay leaders/volunteers, and on top of this, having a lower salary than people who work in other industries.

So what can be done to avoid burn out? I actually think the most important factor is dealing with the abusive donors/lay leaders/volunteers. People who work for NFPs are usually committed and driven, and in general don’t mind having a lot of responsibility and doing things beyond their job description. I think what causes people the most anguish is feeling like they are not treated with respect. I feel that it is really the responsibility of the manager to make sure that his/her employees are not being harassed by donors/lay leaders/ volunteers. If this is too difficult for the manager to do (due to office politics or other reasons), then in my opinion the responsibility falls on the top-level lay leaders. If they value their staff, they need to stick up for them and make sure that they are being treated respectfully. 

What have others out there experienced in terms of burn-out? I’d be happy to hear your opinions/advice.

Chava Ashkenazi

Jerusalem, Israel

* I want to note that when I speak about donors/lay leaders/volunteers being “abusive” to staff, this does not mean G-d forbid physically abusive. I mean to say being abusive in the sense of not treating staff with respect, not respecting their workload, consistently expecting staff members to drop everything for their requests, seeing staff members as their personal assistants, etc.

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