Do Something: Six Tips to Reinvent Non-Profits

Not-for-profit work is draining Nancy Lublin and driving passionate talent from the sector. What can we do?

I'm burned out. No, not like the guy in high school who listened only to Led Zeppelin, kept a cigarette behind his ear, and bathed every fifth full moon. I'm talking about my career.

It's not the workload or the relatively low pay; I like working hard and have declined more compensation. It's the not-for-profit sector that makes me crazy. And I'm not the only one who feels disgruntled: According to a poll by the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, 45% of not-for-profit employees surveyed said their next professional move would be to leave the sector.

What's the problem? The biz model destines us for burnout. We take people with big hearts and crush their souls; you sign on to help cure cancer and then leave because you're just shilling rubber bracelets. You want universal literacy, but the only way to move toward it is a big chicken dinner at a fancy hotel.

If we want to keep good, sane, driven people in the field, we have to change. How? That's a long conversation or 10, not a column. (Email me your ideas.)

In the meantime, let's start with three ways organizations can help keep staff in the sector.

1. Don't be crazy. You want to eliminate homelessness? Nice. But a goal so huge — and unattainable — leads to disillusionment. Instead, set ambitious but realistic targets; perhaps it's finding housing for 20% of the homeless in your town this year. Then report regularly on progress and include bad news. Be frank with your staff and supporters so they know what more they need to do.

2. Ground people; don't grind them. Offices kill dreams. Cause-y people need the rush of the front lines to remind them why the work matters. Do Something focuses on teens; once a year, I send my employees back to their high schools. That grounds them quickly.

3. Give them a break. After two-and-a-half years at Do Something, employees can take a month-long paid sabbatical to do volunteer work if they commit to another year. The three who have accepted so far went to Mozambique, Costa Rica, and Nepal. All returned energized, with renewed perspective on doing good.

Now here are three suggestions for unhappy worker bees.

1. Don't go it alone. Some disaffected do-gooders start their own thing, imagining they'll be more satisfied — greater control! greater impact! But that might be the most direct route to burnout. I know a famous women's-rights leader who left her huge platform in frustration and started her own organization. Now she's jostling with hundreds of other small groups. She's miserable, less effective, and realizes she should have worked to make her old organization better.

2. Redecorate. The last thing you want at your desk is a photo of you and your significant other making googly eyes on your romantic summer vacation. That moves your focus off work. Instead cover your walls with job-relevant cues. Those could be copies of great letters you've received or even cheesy motivational posters. For me, it's a collection of my name badges from conferences I've attended, which remind me of the cool things I've learned and the amazing people I've met.

3. Shut up. You think talking about it will make you feel better? That's a load of crap. Don't complain at work; it demoralizes your colleagues, who will further demoralize you. Instead, think of things to celebrate: great orgs, terrific people, change happening. Despite our problems, the do-gooder world is doing good. Be happy about that.

I feel better already.

Dress for Success founder Nancy Lublin is CEO of Do Something.

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  • Tiana Kai

    Haha, I love the last one. I started a non-profit in 2006 in Miami and it's still up and running. I did it with a partner after seeing that there was not a huge eco-friendly group in the land of excess food and water. It was fun, we raised awareness, it utilized skills that I'm good at while learning a few new tricks and I became more tied to the community. I loved it, but it was not easy and luckily I had a job that paid to keep me up while working on the non-profit. 

  • Tasha Mac

    I'm glad you feel better, because I'm feeling a little uncomfortable.

    A coworker forwarded this to me because we're all feeling a little disgruntled in our current non-profit organization.  When I saw the title, I was ecstatic, and settled in to read some insight.

    My reaction could be summed up as :|

    You raise some excellent points.  I like the idea of being grounded and setting realistic goals.  Unfortunately, around that point's where the wheels fall off.

    Since I don't want this to just be a bash session, I thought I'd give my own thoughts as someone ground under the heels of a non-profit.  Please keep in mind that I've been working for non-profits off and on for the last 10 years, with 5 of those completely dedicated to them.  I've also only worked for churches.

    1) It's a fallacy to believe the only reason you'd ever work for a non-profit is because you're a card-carrying member of the cause.  I am of the same faith as the churches I've worked for in the past, but I've heard many different reasons why people wish to work for a church.  Some people believe they'll respect family time better, others believe they'll find a more friendly work environment with less crude behavior.  With the way megachurches are going now, it's also a more friendly environment to dabble in the creative industry without the soul-crushing stress of trying to start out in the secular world.  Some people just like doing church work and enjoy doing work that has a purpose for something other than lining a CEO's pockets.  However, don't be surprised if someone doesn't live and breathe your church.  To some people, shockingly and rightfully, it's just a job.  Burger-flippers don't put in 20+ hours of overtime a week and field calls at home about the proper way to load up the griddle, so don't be shocked when one of your workers feels the same way.  As long as they're doing their job, getting it done right and on time, they aren't doing anything wrong if they leave at 5 and turn their cell phones off.

    2) Time off is a REQUIREMENT, not a LUXURY.  After two and a half years of working at a megachurch, I'd like a month long sabbatical to clean my house since I haven't had the time to do so.  People believe that since you're working for a non-profit, well, you should work longer hours and put in as much time as necessary to get it to their definition of right because your rewards are in heaven!  (I have heard that phrase so many times I want to punch small cute things when I hear it now.)  Just because your cause is noble and just and righteous doesn't give you the freedom to use people until they're completely squeezed dry and then let the wind carry away the empty shell that used to be a vibrant person excited about working for your company.  (But don't go it alone, whatever you do, cause that's bad, I guess.)

    2a) Respect your workers' time off.  Only call if it's an extreme emergency that simply cannot be handled without their input (and no, that doesn't mean "it's slightly inconvenient for me to have to do this without their help so I should call them).  Time off means nothing if their minds are dragged back into work.  I have literally felt my stress level rising after a phone call from the office when I get some time off, and I have to go through the process of decompression all over again.

    3) "Shut up" should never be a response given in jest or seriousness to a disgruntled and unhappy worker bee.  That is not only insulting and rude, it's dangerous.  A leader that just tells unhappy people to shut up and deal with it and don't talk about it...forces their workers to go to lunch and talk about it.  Unhappy people need to be handled, not ignored and hope they go away (aaaah going alone oh nooo).  Rather than "shut up", it needs to be "speak constructively".  If there's a problem, if you feel slighted, if you feel like something isn't being done right, speak constructively about it.  Tell someone in charge about the issue, and the person in charge needs to listen.  The unhappy worker shouldn't have to bring a solution to the table to make it happen, either.  That's not what they're paid for.  That's what YOU, as a leader, are paid for.  Of course, there's those people that are just generally unhappy and will complain about anything, and quite frankly, once those people are identified, they need to be cut free.  Nothing will make them happy and it will in turn just make everyone unhappy for no specific reason.

    4) One of my biggest struggles at my current job is frustration from an ineffective and unwieldy organizational strategy.  Everything I do is bogged down in approvals and mired in countless nitpicky changes from a stable of bosses and superiors.  Every single one of them knows what the pastor wants better than me, and oddly enough, they don't match up!  One of the easiest ways to make sure your workers are frustrated and unhappy is providing them with an ineffective way to get their work done.  Sit down with your workers, listen to them, find out what they need, and integrate it into a positive workflow that will help produce results.  And, shockingly, none of that actually requires those 1 am emails. ;)

    Almost everyone I've worked with in the non-profit world no longer works in that industry.  I used to think the bad things we experienced were a product of the particular place we worked, but after living it again in another location and seeing others live it in their locations, I think it's a problem across the board.  There's a ready supply of cheap labor to replace you, so who cares if you're used up and spit out?  So what, we'll keep in touch.

    The really unfortunate thing is most of the time, if they treat their paid staff this way, they treat their volunteers the same.  I've seen the result of that, and it is honestly not pretty.

    So, those are my thoughts.  I know they probably don't apply very well to things outside of churches, so I'm sorry for that.  I hope I made at least a little sense and didn't come off like the truly burned out and exhausted worker bee that I am.  I would take some time off, but I'm not afforded any that's paid, and I've got bills to pay, so...yeah.  You know that awful googly-eyed photo of my husband that I should take off my desk?  Well, it's staying there, because I see the photo more than I'm actually able to see him.

  • Brian Hodges

    There's a huge flaw in this. You don't talk at all about *preventing* burn-out. An "industry" doesn't cause burn-out, a company does.

    If you're a leader who sees a lot of burnt-out in employees, if you look down, you're probably holding the flame-thrower. Don't tell them "shut up," instead, listen to them. They're talking because they're frustrated, and most likely with tedious rhetoric like this. Be a stable, caring employer. Have honest conversations about career growth, so they don't "go it alone" (it's ironic that you tell them not to, by the way, when you've founded one company and run another).

    You're clearly out of touch, both with your employees and how they see you.

  • Trina D

    A friend forwarded me your article because when we first met his enthusiasm brought tears to my eyes. I was sad because my enthusiasm and excitement kept getting buried in a bevy of non-profits and causes – all causing not only burnt out, but also disillusionment, which in my mind is much much worse.

    So in honor of his excitement (and in reclaiming my own), I offer two additional suggestions to your already great list of sustainable employment in the non-profit sector.

    1)Encourage Balance.

    I often tell my staff and colleagues the old adage, “You are no good to anyone unless you’re good to yourself.” The truth is that in the cause-related/non profit sector, we are deeply and truly passionate about the work we do. Nothing wrong with that. But somehow passion translates into 18-hour days, 7 days a week being the norm. Where colleagues readily exchange emails at 1am and no one thinks that’s strange.

    Work/Life balance shouldn’t only be a smiling poster by the water cooler. Nor should the programmes be exclusive to corporations who can afford to hire someone to make sure there’s yoga class every morning at work.

    As management within non-profits, we need to encourage our teams to have a life. We also need to take our own advice (even if its bitter as it goes down). Because the truth is working all the time means our families suffer, we never see our friends, and our other interests that feed out soul never see the light of day. And when the day comes that goal X is not met because of reason Y (which is generally out of your control) – as that day naturally always comes - the resentment builds and builds, until the inevitable burn out.

    We need to be reminded that balance is good and not a criminal act of betrayal to our cause. We need to be told that whenever you’re drowning in thing A that needs to get done or it will effect thing B which in turn means you HAVE TO stay until 12am – STOP, take a breath and assess the true tangible repercussions of going home. More importantly, let go of the repercussions that spark the guilt sector in your mind. Ask yourself, “Is it all REALLY going to collapse if I don’t go home?”

    Be good to yourself. Take care of your body. Treat your soul. Find balance. Your cause needs you. And needs you refreshed and happy and excited for the long haul, not just tonight.

    2)Leverage the revolving door

    Perhaps slightly more controversial – I believe moving in and out of the non-profit and corporate sector is a good thing. The passion and fulfillment of working for a non-profit is unparalleled. Structure, innovation and abundant resources in the non-profit world are also sometimes sadly non-existent.

    There is nothing wrong with learning skills in the corporate world. You are not selling out; you’re skilling up. Use corporations to teach you skills that can translate into the cause you care about. Similarly there is nothing wrong with making some money so you can save up for the pay cut at your next non-profit gig. We all have bills.

    On the other hand, if you’re at a corporation and tired of selling candy to kids and want to move to something more fulfilling, take the leap. You will feel better. But prepare yourself and find the right non-profit for you. If not always having enough paper for the copy machine is going to drive you crazy, consider a larger non-profit. If wading in hierarchy and bureacracy is what was driving you crazy in the corporate world in the first place, think direct service and smaller orgs.

    And if you do burnt out in either world, don’t be afraid to try the other. The change of pace will energize you, or at a minimum, help you re-focus. But as long as you’re always learning something new that can help you reach your goal for your cause, it’s all a good thing. Don’t be afraid to leverage the revolving door.

    Trina DasGupta is a New Media & Youth Marketing Consultant currently working in South Africa to use media & cell phones to address the social determinants of HIV.

  • Mazarine T

    Okay, this article raises a couple of good points. Mission drift is an issue. But starting your own nonprofit and getting burnt out is a symptom of a larger problem.

    Your article does NOT address the larger reasons that people get burnt out. Rather, you seem more concerned with telling people to sit down, shut up, and suck it up.

    Organizationally, people are getting burnt out because there's no institutional memory, because there's massive turnover, because there is poor leadership. We would not be so ineffective as a sector if we would automate our processes and focus on what works. But we can't figure that out when we're all so fractured and continually starting anew.

    Poor Accountability and oversight on the board's part.
    This means watching the nonprofit leaders, and firing them if they are not succeeding in doing the best for the organization.

    Poor leadership.
    If you motivate people within your organization, they will go to the ends of the earth with you. If you treat them poorly, they will want to leave.

    I disagree with you. People do NOT need to shut up.
    People need to talk about what doesn't work to make it better. I agree that negativity is a bad thing, but so is relentless positivity, pretending everything is okay when it's not. Nowhere in this list do I see the words, "Yes, leaders make mistakes, Yes, leaders need to learn from them to truly help their organization. Nowhere in this list do I see, "Leaders need to let employees make mistakes and learn from them."

    Get a grip.

  • Pamela Grow

    Timely post Nancy!

    I've worked in Development Director jobs where I was - seriously - the 5th DD in 3 years. All of your suggestions are excellent.

    Speaking from my experience solely in fundraising for the small nonprofit (1 person shop), I would add:

    Offer flex-time, work-at-home or job-sharing options
    Hire based on commitment to mission
    Don't skimp on training and explore options outside the traditional, insular world of "nonprofit"
    In addition to re-connecting with your mission, connect with your donors - via the phone, personal visits, emails - on a daily basis
    Check out Hildy Gottlieb's book, The Pollyanna Principles, for workable solutions to approaching your work from an entirely different mind set
    Be as committed to funding your mission as the mission itself


  • John Nordlander

    As the former CEO of an international humanitarian organization I loved your insight.

    The not-for-profit world is a tough place to work and you have said it
    very well. People need to be taken care of in the midst of their
    quest for helping others and making a difference in the world. Your
    list was great. Within our organization I would call for "movie day"
    during times that seemed like we were so busy that we had no time for
    anything but work. It was great to gather the entire office (6 to 10)
    people and just head out to a movie in the middle of the day, amazing
    how much work got done when we got back.

    Taking care of your people (organization) is as equally important as
    the people you serve.

  • Mark Kaech

    Would it be possible to get that survey from YNPPN that you mentioned? The one with the 45% stat listed for young people leaving the sector...? I could really use the information at the NGO I work for presently.