• 03.01.10

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?

Do Something: Six Tips to Reinvent Non-Profits

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.