Everything nonprofit professionals need to know about coping with nonprofit burnout

Everything nonprofit professionals need to know about coping with nonprofit burnout

The most important thing you can do for your nonprofit is to make sure you’re prioritizing yourself and managing stress so that you can keep going with your mission.

Sadly, burnout rates are high in the nonprofit industry. According to a survey conducted by NonprofitHR in January 2020:

  1. About 25% of nonprofit employees plan to leave their current employer.
  2. 45% are seeking new or different employment – that’s almost half the people employed in the nonprofit sector.
  3. 23% would not pursue a career in a nonprofit organization.

How do we address these numbers?

Nonprofits need to pay a little more attention to handling stress and burnout across the org. Let’s see how.

In this blog, we’ll cover:

  • What is burnout and how to detect it
  • The reasons behind burnout and how they can be addressed
  • The human-giver syndrome
  • How to cope with burnout successfully

What is burnout?

You are burned out when your body is stressed out too frequently that it can’t really clear away stress hormones. It’s the state where your body has been flooded with stress hormones repeatedly, and it’s starting to wear down your ability to deal with stress.

How do you detect burnout?

Burnout results in the following, especially for non-profit professionals who spend most of their time giving selflessly.

  • Compassion fatigue, which means that you no longer feel able to care about the people you serve.
  • Minimizing your own suffering. When you’re working with people who are in stressful situations it’s hard to recognize the stress and trauma that you are going through.
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness.

Simply put, you will be emotionally and physically exhausted to continue doing the job that you’re doing.

What causes burnout?

Fight or flight

To understand where burnout comes from, you need to understand your body’s stress response – fight or flight. When you’re under too much pressure, your body gets flooded with stress hormones that make your heart rate speed up, allowing your body to cope with the threat by fighting or escaping.

The sudden tension that you feel on hearing the surprise deadline on the grant or attending that call from the board chair is really your body’s response to these stressors.

Unfortunately, you can’t cope with these stressors by fighting your board chair or by running away every time you get stressed out. None of these are socially acceptable.

The way to deal with stress and allow our body to process stress hormones aren’t available to us, most of the time these days.


When you don’t fight or run, your body just continues to do physical damage to your body.

You kick into the second response which is freeze. Freezing is what your body does when it assesses the situation and says, “There is no way out, we are dead.”

How to tackle burnout?

Eliminate stress

If the stress level is manageable, deal with stress as early as you can, and protect yourself from getting to the point of burnout.

How do we eliminate stress?

There are a few other ways that have proven helpful in eliminating stress hormones and getting your body to relax:


The most effective way of eliminating stress is through movement. Specifically, running. Moving your body for 15-20 minutes is what it takes to eliminate that stress reaction. Pick up something that makes you happy and stay active to beat stress.



When you are stressed, take some time to focus on your breathing. Breath in and out, and feel your body relax.

Positive social interaction

Positive social interaction

Be nice to other people and interact with them. This will help you drive focus away from stressful things and benefit from the positive energy.

Laugh or cry

Laugh or cry

Let it out. A good cry or laugh can do wonders in helping you release all that pent-up stress.



Experiencing affection helps eliminate stress and slow down your body’s stress response. A 20-second hug can help eliminate stress.



Letting out your creativity in a way that works for you – dancing, singing, etc. – is something that helps with your stress response.

One thing you should note is that while all of these ideas are free, we forget about them easily. The things that eliminate the stress most effectively are things that tell your body that you are safe from harm.

There are more things that you can add to this list – in the end, it is all about understanding that stress management is about making you feel safe.

Human Giver Syndrome (HGS)

The book Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle differentiates between human beings and human givers as, “…human beings have a moral obligation to be their whole humanity, while human givers have a moral obligation to GIVE their whole humanity, and give it cheerfully.”

Have you ever found yourself saying any of the following?

  • “I feel like I’ll be called selfish for taking care of myself,” or
  • “I feel obligated to just apologize for existing right or for taking time for myself.”

If you feel this way, you might have human giver syndrome. The nonprofit industry is filled with human givers. You wouldn’t be a nonprofit professional if you didn’t want to serve other people.

The nonprofit sector is built on the concept that some people should be of service to others. It’s not the only profession built on that philosophy – teachers and nurses do that too. But at the end of the day, nonprofit professionals go a step further to sacrifice themselves for the good of others.

This past year has made that even worse. As boundaries between work life and home life blur, nonprofit professionals feel more obligated to sacrifice more of themselves.

This is what we’d like to tell you, “You were already sacrificing so much of yourself. This past year has taken even more of you – that’s something that really needs to be acknowledged.”

Nonprofits and HGS

“When we deprive ourselves of our own basic needs as mammals under the misguided apprehension that that’s how we show our commitment to an issue, or to the people we love, we burn out. And then we drop. Only by making sure we have as much energy coming in, as we have going out, can we all stay committed, the people work and ideas we love.”   Amelia and Emily Lugosi, in Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle

Take a moment to reflect on this, think about what this means for you and your personal nonprofits journey. Make sure to prioritize yourself and your health, so that you can continue to serve other nonprofits.

Let’s look at what Human Giver Syndrome can mean for nonprofit professionals:

We are trying to save the world

As much as you try to take care of yourself, there are a lot of things about nonprofits that make it difficult to do that. You are mission-driven, you want to serve other people and you are trying to make the world a better place. It’s very hard to do that and set boundaries, to prioritize yourselves.

Low Salaries create personal stress

The nonprofit sector pays notoriously low salaries. The personal stress of financial trouble because you are not being paid enough is extremely detrimental to your mental health.

Hustle culture

Sometimes, you don’t even set the goals because the goal is to save the world, right?

But isn’t that too big a goal? You should set goals that have a finish line.

Feeling selfish because we serve people who are suffering more

You feel that you’re being selfish while taking time out for yourself because you serve people who are suffering more than you. The issues feel so urgent you can’t take a day off, go on that vacation, or leave early to take care of yourself.

What are your options?

No matter how much you hustle, no matter how much you try and take care of yourself, the culture around you is keeping you in a state of stress and burnout. You have two options:

  1. Stay and try to change the culture, or
  2. Protect yourself by finding a new job.

Stay and change the culture

If you can get to a point where you want to stay and change your nonprofit’s culture, then, by all means, do that. Here are a few ways to make this possible:

Talk to your team

Talk to your team

You work with more than one person and are feeling stressed and close to burning out. Our guess is, other people on your team feel the same as you. Reach out to them and initiate conversations on change.

Figure out a strategy

Figure out a strategy

Understand the things that need to change within your nonprofit’s culture to allow you the time and space to deal with stress.

Make a priority list

Make a priority list

Find quick fixes. What can you do immediately? What are the steps for long-term change?

Set deadlines for the changes

Set deadlines for the changes

People often make a list of things that need to change but then assign no deadlines. Keep clear deadlines starting today.

Set boundaries on your time and your energy

Set boundaries on your time and your energy

Value your team and make very clear boundaries that are expected out of them.

Protect Yourself

As an industry of givers, people largely think about what the benefits are of continuing and the costs of stopping. Give credence to the benefits of stopping and the costs of continuing, because those are the ones that are going to let you really prioritize yourself. Noting down the answers to the following questions would help you decide if you should leave or continue.

  1. What is the benefit of continuing?
  2. What is the cost of continuing?
  3. What is the benefit of stopping?
  4. What is the cost of stopping?

If the answers to 2 and 3 outweigh the answers of 1 and 4, then we suggest you prioritize your mental health and leave. If you decide to leave, do it gracefully and respectfully.

Before you go

Nothing is more important than your mental health.

If you’re looking for immediate mental health support,

  1. Visit and access mental health services.
  2. Text HOME to 741741 to connect with Crisis Text Line’s counsellors.

There are some more tools and resources that can be used to prevent burnout during these challenging times:

We’d also like to thank all the nonprofit heroes in our own unique way. Here are some freebies that nonprofit professionals can avail, to help you with volunteers, networking, and marketing

Share your Impact story: Get your nonprofit featured on our platform of 50K+ audience.

Recruit volunteers: Let volunteers do the heavy lifting.

Join the nonprofit community: Be a part of our Facebook group.

Get free resources: Read our blogs to get helpful information on nonprofits.

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