A burnout matchstick with smoke bellowing - just like an executive director, but there are things board members can do to prevent this.

Photo by 2 Bros Media, Unsplash

Opportunity cost of Executive Director burnout

By Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

I want to talk about Executive Director burnout which is one of the biggest threats to nonprofit success. According to a survey in 2022 by GiveButter.org, 30% of nonprofit employees are burnt out and 20% are in danger of burning out. This is impacting Executive Directors the hardest with 60% who report feeling “used up” by the end of the workday.

In a video by Chris Davenport for Movie Mondays, board member Earl Bell says, “Good board members recognize that in order for a nonprofit organization to be successful, the Executive Director has to be thriving in their role.” This leads me to wonder do board members know if the ED is thriving in their role and if not, what are they doing to support them? Earl asks board members to consider the last time they invited the ED for coffee to check-in and ask how they are doing in their role.

Here are four questions for board members to consider asking the ED:

  1. Is there anything holding you back from thriving in your role? If so, what specifically can I do to help?
  2. What can I do to help move the needle from negative to positive or from doing okay to much better, and what would that look like?
  3. Are there introductions I and other board members can make?
  4. What aren’t you getting from me that you wish you could?

If the relationship between the board and Executive Director is strained, rocky, or non-existent, consider asking what the board and ED can do collaboratively to:

  1. Improve the Board – Executive Director relationship.
  2. Increase the level of communication between board members and ED.
  3. Help the Executive Director reduce stress in their role.
  4. Clarify the role of board members and the Executive Director.

In an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, former nonprofit executive John Hagan shared his story of burnout after serving eleven years as the ED of a mid-sized nonprofit. During that time, John calculated he had planned and attended 55 consecutive board meetings, 243 board related committee meetings, and that staff time devoted to just one board meeting cost $17,688 in 2019 dollars. He asked, “was it my job to solve the global sustainability challenge or only to keep 20 board members happy and engaged?” I laughed and winced when I read this because I know lots of EDs who could produce similar calculations.

While articles on nonprofit burnout typically offer advice to the nonprofit employee, John Hagan says it is the responsibility of funders and boards to redirect what they are asking of staff. “They are in the trenches every day trying to make the world a better place. It’s up to you to create a nonprofit workplace where staff have time to think about the problem they are trying so hard to solve.”

John says it is easy to get comfortable in a job when the job title becomes our identity. “We become conservative and risk averse. It is easy to lose sight of questions like:

  • What is it that I am really good at?
  • What am I still capable of?
  • An economist might say, what is my competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas?
  • A more honest question might be, what makes my heart sing? Likely, the two are the same.

John encourages EDs and boards to consider the opportunity cost, which is the difference between what you will accomplish if you keep doing what you are doing versus what you might accomplish in an alternative future. “Although we can’t know the future, we can imagine a different future if we make time to imagine it. “

After leaving his position and taking time to rest and regroup, John has gone on to launch a new project, publish a report, and raise over $500,000 in support of this new work. This is the opportunity cost he was talking about.

John describes what is a reality for many nonprofit executives. “Driven by well-educated, well-meaning boards that do not ask hard questions of themselves about the root cause of the problems their organizations are tackling, nonprofit staff are drowning in servicing the board, balancing budgets, growing revenues, doing financial gymnastics to deal with misguided funder overhead caps, and looking good externally so even more revenue can be raised to continue not solving the biggest challenges of our time.”

John’s story really resonated with me because I frequently hear from CEOs and Executive Directors who struggle with the weight of responsibility for their organization with little or no board engagement. Over time, unrelenting stress and bone-deep fatigue becomes the norm and gets reinforced by other nonprofit leaders, regulators, and funders who expect, if not demand, nonprofits do more with less. Until someone stops to ask if there’s a better way to do this work, the cycle rarely changes, and unhealthy, unrealistic expectations of Executive Directors and CEOs become ingrained in the organization’s culture.

If you are serving on a board of directors, your relationship with the Executive Director is the biggest determinant to the overall success and growth of the organization. Consider if now is a good time to check-in with the ED, ask them how they are doing, and what the board can do to better support them in their role. The outcomes from these conversations could result in a happier, more productive Executive Director, a higher performing board, and a stronger organization better able to achieve its mission.

Notes on Nonprofits is produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting. Send your feedback and feedback to notesonnonprofits@gmail.com. All inquiries are confidential.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIN
Tagged in