Chapter 1 The Problem: Why Nonprofit Professionals Burn Out

Cartoon shows patient lying on bed and saying  “Grant …deadline…on Thursday.” unconsciously. Doctor is repeating his words to a man standing beside the patient.

When Work and Life Collide

Why does something extreme have to happen before nonprofit leaders change and start to take self-care seriously?

That was the question one nonprofit executive asked after a discussion about nonprofits, self-care practices, and well-being in the workplace during the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference in 2015. Someone shared the story of one nonprofit leader he knew who ignored the early warning signs of burnout, kept on going, and suffered an almost-fatal heart attack. That nonprofit leader was lucky. He left the hospital in a wheelchair not a hearse. He subsequently changed his attitude and behavior, prioritizing his well-being so he could continue to lead his organization’s important work.

Sacrificing one’s health in service of a cause is a common narrative in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit consultant and blogger Joan Garry1 spent eight years as a nonprofit executive director and worked herself and her staff hard. Like most nonprofit leaders, she was so driven by her organization’s mission that every task took on urgency, and there was never any downtime.

While preparing for a board meeting, Garry’s development director revealed that she was wearing a heart monitor due to stress. As the organization’s leader, Garry admits that she should have told her development director to ...

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