Op-Ed: How funders can combat nonprofit leadership burnout

Giving-Philosophy | Blog | 4 mins.
Written By: Contributor | Posted On: 10/12/2022

By Nate Angell, Senior Advisor at MFF


When I started my career in philanthropy, I set out to be involved with organizations that directly impact my home community of Denver. I wanted to make life better for all those who call Denver home and to engage with younger, smaller and grassroots organizations in the area, including Colorado Village Collaborative, Global Conservation Corps, and Colorado Open Lands. I’ve served on boards, participated in leadership development programs, and attended conferences during these first years to learn what the needs are in Denver. 

My work with these small, impactful Denver nonprofits introduced me to a topic that doesn’t get enough attention: nonprofit leader burnout. Nearly 50 percent of all nonprofit employees report being burned out or close to burnout. Burnout especially impacts nonprofit leaders who are often already stretched to their limits. As funders, we have the ability to alleviate some of this burden. 

In every conversation I have with nonprofit leaders, I hear the passion they have for their organizations and causes. Leaders and their staffs stretch themselves beyond their capacity, because if they don’t someone will be denied the services and opportunities they need.

Through my research into this systemic challenge, I discovered Thrive Impact, a nonprofit that works to solve this leader burnout problem by providing coaching, training and community to nonprofit leaders. Thrive’s research shows that nonprofit leaders live in a world of overwork and underpay. As many as 73 percent of nonprofit leaders indicate they do not have the resources they need to develop their leadership. And 51 percent of fundraisers are expected to leave their jobs within two years. 

Using my experience working with dozens of nonprofit leaders and expert advice from Thrive Impact CEO, Tucker Wannamaker, I compiled three strategies that funders can employ to prevent burnout and help their grantees be more successful with the funds they invest.


Offer more capital with fewer obstacles

From ever-increasing fundraising expectations to onerous reporting requirements, nonprofit leaders spend much of their energy and time on funders, rather than their organization’s mission. While fundraising and reporting are important parts of the job, funders have an opportunity to make these tasks simpler and less stressful for the nonprofits we fund. Although I push to be more like that, I’m still learning.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, funders should tailor reporting requirements based on the capacity of each organization and type of grant.

For example, if applying for a $20,000 grant requires an arduous amount of work–creating a formula, establishing KPIs and creating a mechanism to report back to said funder, the process may generate far too much work and stress for too little return. If each fundraising ask requires dozens of complex touchpoints, it may be worth streamlining how you build relationships with nonprofit leaders. 

While effective reporting and relationships are critically important, an overbearing process forced upon small, grassroots organizations is an “old school” way of looking at funding.


Encourage professional development

Research by Thrive Impact shows that loneliness and lack of leadership development reduces leaders’ longevity by 70 percent. Funders can provide access to leadership development programs through unrestricted funds, which leave decisions up to the organization, and by encouraging the use of funds for leadership development opportunities. 

Most funders support a cause and a leader they believe can deliver results. If grants restrict funds from being used for things like leadership development opportunities, you are almost ensuring that the leader you believe in will move on before you see the impact you were hoping for. 

Funders can offer unique value by serving as a sounding board for nonprofit leaders or just a listening ear. Take the opportunity to introduce like-minded nonprofit executives who can offer each other professional and moral support.


Recognize the long term value of supporting leaders

In my experience, funders discuss the efficiency of a dollar quite a bit. We ask how nonprofits will leverage capital and when it will be put to use. Nonprofits are often expected to change the world on a shoestring budget. As a result, nonprofit employees receive lower salaries than their corporate counterparts and must work with fewer resources and outdated tech to accomplish their mission. 

Investing in the leaders of an organization, and trusting them to best serve their employees and their mission, is critical to driving change. Data shows that when leaders are supported and given the resources they need, they demonstrate more impact and less turnover. When supported, leaders can actually increase revenue by 23.8 percent, according to data from Thrive Impact. 

As a funder, I’m floored by this. I encourage the nonprofits that I fund to invest in these types of development programs. If I intentionally invest in the development of a leader once, they will be able to put their organization on a path to sustainability sooner and with higher rates of success. I can be more successful in my funding goals and make transformational changes if I support the leaders as well as the organization. 

My call to action for funders is to invest in people AND causes. If you want to make transformational change through community based and grassroots nonprofits, invest in their leaders.