People in nonprofit work are driven. Not by chauffeurs, not by a desire for mansions or Maseratis; they are driven by a desire to do something to make their communities, countries, environments better. The drive to improve, to help, probably comes from multiple sources; people may be motivated by personal experience, faith, an ideal, an individual.

The issues addressed by nonprofits are vast and complex. Climate change. Homelessness. Lack of mental health care. Conflict. Not situations to be remedied in a day or a week or a year.

Which means that we have people who genuinely care, and are driven to help in situations that are vast and complex. Nonprofit workers know that the issues they are addressing don’t stop when they stop working at the end of the day. People are still living on the streets or in refugee camps. Wars don’t stop at five or six or midnight. And because people are driven, there is often the feeling that they need to work and work and work because even in the worst of situations, those providing assistance are better off than those on the ‘receiving’ end.

People in nonprofits are harder on themselves than anyone else could be. They will often demand things from themselves that move them into the danger zone for burnout, and chances are they will not realize it’s happening.


Herbert Freudenberger mapped 12 stages of burnout. The first two stages include some characteristics of people who go into nonprofit work:

Stage 1: The compulsion to prove oneself

  • Excessive enthusiasm and ambition for work
  • Appetite for action and control
  • Increased expectations are turning into pressure on high performance
  • Personal limitations and needs are overlooked

Stage 2: Increased effort

  • Unusual willingness to take on more tasks
  • Feeling happy when feeling needed
  • Wanting recognition at all cost
  • Everything is undertaken to get recognized
  • Voluntary and/or unpaid overtime,
  • Feeling of being indispensable
  • Delegation considered to be time consuming and unnecessary
  • Personal limitations aren’t noticed any more

Sound familiar? It’s like the genetic code for nonprofit workers, with some exceptions of course. As a manager, do you see these characteristics in yourself? How about in your team? And then in either case, what do you do about it?

Addressing Burnout

If you see these in yourself, congratulations! That’s the first step. The next step is to create some boundaries; recognize when you are taking on more than you should/need to, prioritize and limit what you commit to. If you feel indispensable, let me assure you that you are not—I’m not being mean, the reality is that everyone is replaceable at work. You might need to delegate more. Or go home at a reasonable hour. By doing this, you are setting an example for your team.

If you see these characteristics in your team members—and I guarantee you will—make sure your staff is not staying till all hours of the night: studies show that this leads to a decrease in productivity. Recognition for work well done is critical, but acknowledging when people are setting good boundaries for themselves is equally important. The trick is to balance your team’s motivation and ideas with sustainable work habits that will allow for long-term participation.

As nonprofit managers, it is our role to acknowledge that our team members (and ourselves) can be driven individuals and, to the best of our ability, help them to do their jobs in ways that can lead to long and productive careers, not flash fires that burn hot and intense—and then burn out.