Preventing Burnout for Non-Profit Workers

Given the importance of nonprofit engagement, I’m happy to share this post by Andrew Littlefield that appeared on the WeDidIt blog. It is reprinted with permission.

Keeping Your Team Fueled: Preventing Burnout for Non-Profit Workers
by Andrew Littlefield

Non-profit work is often romanticized. Well … at least by people who haven’t actually worked there before …

Students often pine about wanting to work for a non-profit, to pursue a career with meaning that will make the world a better place. 9-to-5ers in the business world will mention to NPO workers they meet that they would “love” to do that kind of work and feel like they’re making the world a better place.

How many times have you heard the tale of the corporate businessman or woman who left their corner office to go pursue an altruistic passion?

Then reality hits. You enter the non-profit world, and after just a few short years, you feel completely drained.

Non-profit work is tough. We love to get poetic about meaning in our work (which is undoubtedly important), but in doing so we often overlook other factors of workplace happiness that leave us feeling discouraged and defeated. Worse yet, the relentless pursuit of helping other often leaves NPO workers neglecting their own needs.

It’s a vicious cycle that has resulted in far too many talented non-profit workers falling out of the ranks.

So how do you keep this from happening to your team? You want to aggressively chase your organization’s mission, but is it worth high turnover among your ranks?

It’s not (all) about the money

It’s no secret that salaries in the not-for-profit world are often lower than what we’d like to see, and that certainly can contribute to burnout. However, it’s been widely proven that higher salaries don’t automatically result in higher levels of happiness. In fact, there’s a tipping point for financial happiness that is lower than you might think.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The good news is that non-profit work is perfectly suited for several well-researched variables to burnout prevention and job satisfaction.

The bad news is non-profit work is also very poorly suited for several of these well-researched variables of job satisfaction.

In his book Outliers (highly recommended reading), Malcolm Gladwell identifies three major factors of career happiness:

  • Complexity
  • Autonomy
  • Connection between effort and reward1

It’s within these factors that we’ll find clues to successfully leading a team away from burnout and discouragement. Let’s break them down.


Non-profits win this factor by a long shot; if your organization’s mission were simple, there would be no need for a non-profit dedicated to solving that problem. NPO work is by nature complex! They tackle big problems that require big, creative solutions.

The complexity of an individual job within a non-profit organization varies, but the overall mission as a whole is complex and challenging. That’s why your team is there in the first place!


Unfortunately, autonomy in the non-profit world can be a bit harder to come by. Even the most cutting-edge, forward thinking NPO often receives funding from government sources that require strict oversight and little flexibility. This in turn can stifle the level of autonomy a certain position on your team might have. Workers may not feel they’re empowered to make the decisions they feel are best for the organization and the cause. This is a burnout danger zone.

Connection between effort and reward

At first glance, this one might seem like an obvious win for non-profit work, but I would argue it’s actually a wash. Non-profit work certainly serves a greater good, which is one of the biggest draws for many (particularly young) workers. Seeing your work in the office pay off in a veteran getting a job, a homeless child being fed, or a bill passed into law can be extremely rewarding.

The problem is, many times these payoffs are a long way away from materializing. You can work towards a cause for years, even decades, before the fruits of your labor are finally realized. There may be many micro-wins along the way, and all those micro-wins added together can be significant, but it’s often hard to recognize them in the heat of battle. That can make the effort/reward connection tough.

Your team often needs what your donors need

Even though they’re behind the scenes, your team members often crave the same kind of feedback your donors do: they want to know the details of the problem they’re solving, and they want to know specifically how their contribution has helped.

Make that connection tangible for them. Even if the payoff is a long way off, help them understand the importance of micro-wins. Do more than just tell them what a big deal it is, show them! Take them face-to-face with the people they’ve helped. Get creative and illustrate what their efforts have done.

Additionally, never stop communicating the details of the cause; the intricacies and difficulties associated with pursuing your mission. Don’t do this in a way that makes the problem seem insurmountable and discourages them, but keep them informed of how complex their job is, and pride will follow.

Finally, even though many of the factors that control the fate of your organization may be out of your hands (there goes your autonomy), actively seek out opportunities to hand over control to your team members. From big to small, give them a chance to take the reigns. That might mean they screw something up, but there’s value in mistakes.

  1. Gladwell, M. (2008). The Three Lessons of Joe Flom. In Gladwell, M., Outliers (149-150). Back Bay Books: New York, NY



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