In this solo episode 38, Carol Hamilton discusses burnout in the nonprofit sector, what possible ways forward are, and how to stay engaged while prioritizing your own health.
Carol Hamilton: For so many check-ins recently whether it events that I've held, the recent nonprofit leadership round table or with client meetings, other webinars, and just checking in one-on-one with people when they do the check-in so many, so often I'm hearing, I'm tired. I'm exhausted. Most of us in the nonprofit sector, we're doing too much.
Before the pandemic, we worked too hard. We were sacrificing for our cause and then came this global state of emergency and we came into it without reserves our tanks on empty. This could be reserves in terms of energy. It could be literally in terms of money in the bank. And then we've been asked to do so much more over the past two years.
I'm sitting with the question of whether we can step back and ask whether another way is possible.
Mission impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast, host and nonprofits, strategic planning.
On this podcast, we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures, where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers, and all of this. For the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
My thinking on this has gone, gone back for many years. in fact, I stepped into the organization development, stumbled into into the organizational development field when I was investigating the disconnect that I saw so often in organizations between the missions that they had for the change that they wanted to see in the world, and then how staff were treated inside the organization and how organizational cultures were built.
But more recently, I was doing a webinar on healthy cultures and talking about modeling a healthy behaviors and self-care for staff and. I was getting some pushback and eye rolls from, executive directors and perhaps, you're having that reaction right now. And one executive director stated, “I have to work 70 hours a week. Should I pretend that I don't to staff?”
And she stated it as if it was a fact as if it was something that could, she could not escape. But it's really a belief and it's a belief that drives so many of us. And I thought about it later. I thought about her statement a lot after we got off that call.
And I thought, you know, if you follow the logical conclusion of that is 70 hours a week, even enough. By doing that is the leader doing everything that they could do towards moving their mission,n forward? Sadly, probably not. For most of us, our organizational missions and visions are always larger than what we can reasonably accomplish.
If we're in direct service, we're unlikely to be serving everyone who needs our services, even as we work ourselves ragged. And other areas where the mission is movement or policy or educationally focused, the urgency can feel equally real. But the truth of it is that so much of it is arbitrary. People set those deadlines and people can change those deadlines.
So is 70 hours hours a week enough? Again, probably not even working 24 7 would probably not be enough to reach everyone who needs the services or all the possible projects to move your mission forward effectively.
But we know that we can't work 24 7. That's not humanly possible, but the truth is that working 70 hours a week, week in and week out, isn't sustainable either
We know that we will burn out and we know that we'll burn out our staff as well. And it's hard to be around martyrs. They're not a lot of fun.
We feel trapped in this. The system treats us like machines as if we are worker, we are not workers. We are not people. We are machines and we just have to keep keep our heads down and be as productive as possible.
But the idea that your worth Is really inextricably tied up in your productivity that you're constantly having to prove yourself, improve your worthiness through what you accomplish, what you achieve. That's the ethos of our culture,
but many people are starting to question that we're going through. What's being called the Great Resignation, , over 4 million people quit their jobs in August, September, and October.
And we probably haven't seen the end.
And that stepping back, people are stepping back to reevaluate their priorities. And even when we're working with causes and missions that are dear to our hearts at what cost are we doing that?
There's the outside, larger culture that prioritizes work over all things.
That treats people like machines, treats us like we're expendable, but then there's also our dedication to the causes that we work for
This summer. I read a book called Work Won't love you back: How devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited exhausted and alone by Sarah Jaffe. And the book, maybe didn't quite live up to its self-help title,
but she explores how the belief of following your passion and the quote that often gets said that if you love your job, you won't work a day in your life.
That that has led us down a path of being easily exploited. She examines, the eroding working conditions across industries and the unionizing efforts that are combating them, including in the nonprofit sector. And we're certainly not immune from these trends. And in fact, I would say that as a sector, we have may have already had them embedded in how we work long before anyone else.
We've been doing more with less. We've been putting up with broken office furniture, slow computers, hand me downs that serve as obstacles to our good work. And then we also have this belief system that we almost always must put the mission before ourselves.
Fobazi Ettarh I hope I'm pronouncing that name correctly.
Coined the term vocational awe when talking about librarians. And when I heard about this term, and this was a term that I came across in that book, by Sarah Jaffe, it seemed very relevant to the nonprofit sector more broadly.
“Vocational awe describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that results in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions.
And they're therefore beyond critique in a piece that resonated by with some discomfort among many in the. At re argued that vocational law directly correlates with present pervasive problems in the profession, such as burnout, under compensation, job creep, and lack of diversity. How can the devotion to positive ideals go wrong at rare rights in the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom advocating for your full lunch break feels.
And tasked with the responsibility of sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom. Taking a mental health day feels shameful. All that vocational awe is easily weaponized against the worker.”
And I would pause it that the, uh, the rest of us in the rest of the nonprofit sector suffer from that same vocational awe in the face of
insert your very important mission.
Advocating for your full lunch break, feels petty or taking a mental health day feels shameful. How has, how has that vocational awe being weaponized against yourself and the end, your staff and your organization?
Unfortunately, so much of the literature around self care, or maybe just the way it's been described in the general media has been posited in our US culture, as an individual need to integrate into your life.
Like so many things, the onus is put on the individual to create the conditions for themselves and to thrive. But what can you do at your organization to make it part of the culture, the policies, the way leaders, model behaviors they want for themselves and staff? to create guardrails for everyone, rather than relying on individual staff, people to center their self care?
Leah Reizman. another study that I thought was interesting did a study of consultants, a nonprofit consultants for her doctoral work, and found similar patterns. One of her findings was that contrary to stereotypes about consultants. Most nonprofit consultants had their client's best interests at heart and took time to customize their work, to fit the context of the clients that.
But with this consultants often, often subverted their bottom lines and engaged in what she termed “moralizing money” in which consultants often gave more than what was contracted. Allowing scope creep to happen and modifying fees to fit the needs of clients instead of prioritizing their own needs. Their identification with the causes they support made it harder to charge their full fees. And for all of the work that they did on behalf of the organizations.
This struck me as just a continuation of that similar dynamic of the individual sacrificing for them. Accepting low pay, accepting long hours accepting, difficult working conditions, but could there be a better way?
As you think about your work in 2022, I invite you to consider the possibility of putting the people in your organization First. Creating organization, organizational cultures, that center humans with humanly possible workload. Cultures that create thriving instead of burnout.
And this might start by actually deciding as an organization, not just as an individual, to do less instead of working from your mission and your vision.
First, what if you were to start with, these are the resources we have. We have this many people. We have these many staff, these many volunteers, we have this much in our budget, this much in our bank account. What can we reasonably accomplish with those resources that move our mission forward, but does not sacrifice your staff or volunteers along the way?
This may seem simple, but in many ways feels radical to say. What if we did less?
I you leave you with the intentions that leaders who gathered from my recent nonprofit leadership round table had for their 2022s, they want to model healthy behaviors, encourage a happy and healthy, well supported staff.
One person saying if I take care of them, they take care of the mission. Letting go of the small stuff, prioritizing relationship building and advocating for manageable workloads.
I hope you get some rest over the holidays and plan now how you're going to integrate rest and rejuvenation throughout the rest of the year.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and with my guests on other episodes. I will put links to the resources that I mentioned during the show in the show notes missionimpactpodcast.com/ show notes. And I want to thank Izzy Strauss Riggs for her support and editing and production as well as April Koester of a 100 Ninjas for her production support of the podcast.
If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a colleague or a friend. We certainly appreciate you helping us get the word. I'm wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season and a happy new year. And thanks again for listening.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.