Executive Director Burn Out – When is it time to move on?

I gather quotes from using Twitter – I’ve found some really funny ones and some really thought provoking ones as well. Yesterday I posted this quote from Oprah: “When you’re doing the work that you were meant to do, it feels right & everyday is a bonus regardless of what you’re getting paid.” I agree – even though we all know that Oprah is a bazillionaire, I do believe she still has the heart of someone who enjoys making the world a better place for those she deems needy. Do Oprah and I focus on the same “needy” groups – yes and no, but that is what makes us unique in this world.

Working for nonprofits can be so rewarding, and it can be so frustrating as well. Not enough money, not enough staff to do what is really needed, and not enough interest in “your” cause, etc. can cause those working in the industry to “burn out” quickly. For example, I did a Google search for “executive director burnout at nonprofits” and the page was full of articles about burn out within seconds. My peers and I were discussing burn out this week, and in jest, one Executive Director said she’d been at her organization 6 real years, but in a dog’s life, it felt like 7 times the 6 years of her tenure. I laughed uncomfortably, because it is so true. A year at a nonprofit can feel like seven very easily when you are focused on the minutia surrounding your organization and its needs, as well as working with people who don’t have the amount of passion you do about your mission. In reality, the fact that burn out is so high is a huge issue that needs to be addressed by nonprofits everywhere because burnout leads to turnover; turnover leads to losing years of history with an organization when its executive director leaves, and it can cause chaos when experienced executive directors decide they’ve had enough of the “life”.

I added this to my quote in response to post by a friend:

“In my opinion the hardest part of working in a NPO is the constant struggle to keep the mission pure and not be swayed by shiny promises of those people who don’t care about your core mission and just want to promote their cause or organization. What’s easiest is not always what’s best for the organization as a whole – some refuse to see that and want to push that “easy” button and move on. When I walk away from the nonprofit world, it will be because of that “easy” button & people who aren’t willing to fight for what’s right – no matter how hard it is. For me integrity always trumps “easy” money.”

Am I in the burn out stage – absolutely, I’m in the sixth year of being an Executive Director (I did have a sabbatical after my parents died, but was still grant writing at the time) and I’m already making plans to leave the industry when I finish my doctorate in psychology in a few years. Don’t get me wrong – I am passionate about my work and our mission. I was just as passionate about my last nonprofit and its work; in fact, both organizations have collaborated as a result of me serving as Executive Director at both organizations. I know the best of each organization, and I know how to bring the best of each organization together to serve our mission, as well as continue to serve the mission of my last organization. I love what nonprofits do for society; I just believe there has to be a better way to affect change and serve people in need. I’m not sure what changes should be made, but I do know that to survive and thrive nonprofits (smaller nonprofits especially) need to create a model of leadership that uses nonprofit management better and boards of directors better as well. Big nonprofits tend to keep their leaders much longer than smaller organizations; perhaps it is because they’ve developed a better management style in their organization and within their boards in their years of existence.

So my question to you is – how can we make smaller nonprofits stronger and how do we keep our seasoned, and tired, executive directors in place so that the nonprofit can grow and thrive? I’d love to hear your theories!