Combatting Burnout in Nonprofit Leaders
Supporting the personal well-being of nonprofit leaders is critical to the success of effective organizations, and grantmakers can help.
An unexpected thing happened during Julie Rogers’ tenure as president of the Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C. “As I got to know the nonprofit leaders in my community, I fell in love with them,” said Rogers, who has led the foundation since 1986 and is stepping down in June. “The more you listen to what they do and the struggles they go through, the more you want to pull out stops to do everything you can for them.”
In 2013, the Meyer Foundation surveyed nearly 100 executive directors of nonprofit organizations to learn how it could best support them. Executive directors reported a range of challenges affecting their effectiveness; some of the most commonly cited were fundraising, personnel management, and working with boards of directors. The survey also showed that most executive directors saw strong links between leadership development opportunities, organizational effectiveness (discussed earlier in this series), and personal well-being (physical and mental health, and work-life balance).
“These people are sacrificing so much to take on the executive roles of these groups,” Rogers said. “We are watching people not just burn out but make themselves sick in service of their communities. It’s our job to take care of them.”
Leadership development grants
Often the best thing grantmakers can do for nonprofit leaders is to support renewal and reflection, and to help create the “white space” leaders need to explore new ideas. From 2006 to 2011, the Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award recognized strong nonprofit leaders and provided two-year, $100,000 leadership development grants. Exponent Award funds allowed leaders to invest in their teams and restore themselves professionally and physically. One award winner, who works for an organization serving a growing number of immigrants, used the funds to support a week-long, Spanish-immersion program, which increased her ability to connect with clients. Another created space in the organization’s office that staff could use for yoga, meditation, or quiet reflection, which led to greater staff morale.
Similarly, the Gifford and Allyn Foundations in Central New York co-sponsored the Kathy Goldfarb Findling Leadership Award in memory of the Gifford Foundation’s late executive director. The award honors nonprofit leaders who best embody Ms. Goldfarb-Findling’s approach to leadership: nimbleness, creativity, collaboration, and embracing risk and lifelong learning. Recipients of the award receive $3,000 for personal use; the award stipulates that recipients may not give the money to their organizations. Recipients have used the award for family vacations and professional development that the organization would not have been able to pay for otherwise.
“Kathy was a strong proponent of the idea that you cannot be a good leader if you don’t take care of yourself,” said Heidi Holtz, director of research and projects at the Gifford Foundation. “The things so many leaders lose are quality time with their families, downtime for themselves, and professional development. When a leader spends time with family or pursuing personal goals, and comes back refreshed, that has a benefit for the organization.”
Other grantmakers have created sabbatical programs to support nonprofit leaders. A study written by Third Sector New England found that sending nonprofit leaders on sabbaticals can help them return to their jobs refreshed while at the same time help organizations develop leadership skills among other staff in the executive director’s absence.
For more than 10 years, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust in Phoenix, Arizona, has sponsored the Piper Fellows sabbatical program. Fellows spend one or two months away from their organizations, dedicating time to professional learning and personal renewal. Piper Trust awards fellows up to $30,000 for study and travel expenses associated with the sabbatical and $10,000 to the organization for board and staff development. Fellows’ organizations are also eligible for additional funding up to $50,000.
Similarly, earlier this month, the board of the Meyer Foundation announced the Julie L. Rogers Sabbatical Program to honor Rogers’ leadership of the foundation.
These grantmakers understand the business case for investing in leadership, and through awards and sabbatical programs, they are helping ensure that leaders stay in their jobs longer, and with renewed energy. As AchieveMission’s James Shepard mentioned in a recent post, investments in human capital reap benefits that far exceed the costs.