And Breathe: Keeping Yourself and Your Nonprofit Healthy

I discovered E412 Consulting on a nonprofit Facebook group page — one that I usually perused when I felt desperate about work. This was summer of 2020, in the height of the pandemic, and I was the executive director and sole staff of a small arts nonprofit. I had just streamlined the budget so we could weather the pandemic. To keep money flowing in, I tripled the number of programs we offered, staffed them with volunteers, and completed a Giving Tuesday Now fundraiser. To keep expenses low, I reduced my hours and crammed every second on (and off) the clock with fundraising, earned income planning, and social media. Basically, I was working 5 full-time jobs at 10 hours a week, without benefits, during a global crisis. When I posted to the Facebook group, I was hoping for commiseration. Thankfully, E412 responded and offered an ear as well as guidance for measurable change.

Signs of burnout

To be candid, I had burned out a year before I met with E412, but like many leaders of small nonprofits, I didn’t have the luxury of recuperation. Our board underwent a major leadership shake-up right after our annual festival. By the time I posted to the Facebook group, the board had 75% turnover and the world was in lockdown. I was double, triple, maybe quadruple burned out.

According to CNN Health, the World Health Organization now lists burnout as a medical diagnosis. Signs of burnout include:

  • Depression and/or exhaustion
  • Emotional distance from work, which might include negative feelings and/or cynicism.
  • Loss of effectiveness at work or with specific work tasks.

I had all of these symptoms.

E412 met with me and examined both the biggest problems facing my organization and my personal health. After our first meeting, I thought wow, I’m heading for a crash! I realized that I needed to change my daily habits for my mental and physical health and for my family. And in slowing down, I also realized that I could only address big changes with the organization if I felt better.

Put your oxygen mask on first

We’ve all heard it before, the cliché about putting on your own oxygen mask before putting one on your children. It’s important for parents on and off airplanes, and guess what, it’s important for you, too, as a nonprofit leader. Think about the energy you give to your organization. If you are exhausted, unmotivated, and grumpy with burnout, how can you inject energy, inspiration, and motivation to your staff and board? How can you be productive and plan for the future while maintaining programs, fundraising, and community relationships? Most importantly, how can you have impact?

When was the last time you evaluated your daily habits? Ask yourself:

  • How much sleep do I get each night?
  • How much water do I drink every day?
  • What food choices am I making?
  • How often do I exercise?
  • What does down time look like for me?

If your answers to these questions cause you alarm, you might be burned out. The truth of the matter is, you’re not alone. In February 2021, Forbes noted a disturbing trend in nonprofit leadership: according to a poll from Nonprofit HR, 45% of nonprofit staff admitted they would be seeking new employment within the next five years; out of those respondents, 23% said they would not be returning to nonprofit work. Burnout in nonprofits is high for so many reasons including lower compensation and benefits. I believe burnout takes its toll on us because we care deeply about the work, which can be exhausting on its own. Combine that passion with constant stressors — an inactive board, a small budget, lack of support staff — and you are bound to break. As someone who experienced burnout, I encourage you to identify your limits, create healthy boundaries, and take your physical and mental health seriously. You can only drive your organization towards success if you take care of yourself.

Breathing on your own again

Over the course of my time working with E412, the team and I reached the same conclusions about my nonprofit organization: the board needed training, but the board didn’t want to be trained. With this impasse in mind, I faced the fact that the board didn’t have the same priorities as me.

So, I left.

I had let burnout drive the bus for too long and I needed to recover. The best piece of advice I can offer to nonprofit leaders heading towards burnout applies both to you and your organization:

When you apply this advice to your organization, assess the overall health of staff, programs, income, mission. Make the health of the organization a priority. And get support when you need it. I’ll also add, don’t wait six years like I did!

After I stepped down from my leadership position, I reached out to E412 and expressed an interest in sharing my nonprofit expertise with leaders and organizations. Today, I’m excited to announce that I have joined the E412 team! I look forward to working with nonprofit leaders and sharing what I know about grant writing and research, board training and communication, best practices, program development, and so much more.

If you think E412 could help you and your organization, please request a meeting to discuss your nonprofit goals with us. Don’t wait until you’re tired, frustrated, and burned out. Take care of yourself and let us support you!

Amy Miller is a nonprofit consultant at E412. She has worked for nonprofit arts, education, health, and media organizations. Most recently, Amy served as the first executive director of Louisville Literary Arts, a nonprofit writing center in Louisville, Kentucky.

20+ years of experience in non-profit leadership. Passion for creating integrative and intentional strategies for NPOs.