Healing Our Sector’s Secret Sickness

By Kedren Crosby, Principal, Crosby Consulting

In the nonprofit sector, we’re encouraged to punch the time clock with our hearts.  Of course, there is rarely a time clock, so often our hearts work around the clock in frenzied pursuit of our agency mission.  We love our work but can become consumed by its bottomlessness.  Perspective begins to wane, personal lives suffer, balance is lost and so goes the denouement from zealot to burnout.


The nonprofit movement in America was birthed out of the same religious fervor which esteems martyrs and saints.   In the 1800s, Tocqueville internationally esteemed our uniquely American ability to self-sacrifice and organize to create a more civil society.  Our roots are steeped in self-denial for the good of the cause.  We often throw our personal lives ‘under the bus’ for the betterment of the organization.  Honestly, is it any wonder people burn out?


Technology has inextricably enmeshed our work and personal lives.  We find it difficult to compartmentalize when one piece of our world goes awry.  Operating in this fiscally austere economy is also extraordinarily discouraging with the reality of budget cuts, program eliminations and lay-offs.  If the wrong stars are aligned for long enough, one begins to relate to Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology who was destined to push a massive boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again and again – for all eternity.  Ugh!


The symptoms of burnout are fairly self-evident, but the antidote isn’t always obvious.  We’ve all watched as some of our most valuable players have moved out of the sector because they felt too much like Sisyphus.  But I’ve also been watching those resilient professionals who, like the energizer bunny or a Timex watch, take a licking and keep on ticking.  When I look at the graceful and lengthy careers of local nonprofit professionals, I want to bottle their everlasting, balanced and effervescent mojo!  While these folks appear to know instinctually how to be balanced, radiant leaders, others of us have to break it down into the individual chemical components.


After the publication of my book (Slowly, which describes my own singed descent and recovery), my phone started ringing off the hook with nonprofit professionals who sought guidance beyond the simple ‘recipe’ I shared in my book.  I now confidentially help others prevent, curtail, reroute, deescalate, dis-empower (and sometimes even just accept and move on from) burnout.   There can be exuberant JOY in our vocations when we set proper boundaries, re-calibrate expectations, navigate around professional landmines and learn (with humor and humility) from our mistakes.

Here are a few methods which can turn the ship around for those who are losing their mojo.

Surround Yourself with Positive Peers

Peer Growth Circles (through the NRN) allow nonprofit professionals to create concrete goals each month and brainstorm action steps to bring those goals to fruition.  The wisdom gleaned by circle members is priceless.  I cannot stress enough how life-changing these circles have been for those in the throes of professional burnout.  JOIN!

Grow In Self-Knowledge

Personality profiling with the EnneagramMyers-Briggs or even journaling and contemplation allows the professional to recognize their unique foibles and assets.  A thorough knowledge of personality profiling systems can also illuminate behavior of colleagues and board members.

Improve Agency Culture

Organizations which embrace Appreciative Inquiry/Leadership and adopt collectively agreed upon Ground Rules and outlaw triangulation will grow exponentially more healthy, authentic and positive.  It’s almost impossible to despair in a healthy, open, vibrant organization.

Grow in Knowledge of Your Organization

Often an outside Organizational Assessment or the use of a Drucker Self-Assessment tool will identify areas of misalignment.  A Lifecycle Analysis of the agency explains typical obstacles at each stage of development in the life of an organization.  Learning these common characteristics and problems NORMALIZES some of what may be causing the nonprofit professional to want to tear her hair out.  An inspection of the agency mission statement, programming and key job descriptions may reveal the in-congruence which may be fueling the flames of an impending burnout.

Burnout is common, justifiable, costly and preventable.  Consider which tools can turn your sorrow into dancing, because there can be DEEP AND SUSTAINABLE JOY in being a nonprofit professional.  Now, go find your joy and get back to work making this world a better place!

“Only when we realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow but also a cup of joy will we be able to drink it.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen

The Nonprofit Resource Network is building a repository of online resources needed routinely by employees working in the not-for-profit arena.

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