by Gabrielle Emerson
I have always been told to be cautious going into any career that can be mentally and physically draining and has a history of low pay. Although those warnings made me question my intentions a few times, I always come back to the idea of helping my community.
Recently, I conducted research on the rate of burnout at nonprofits by sending out a survey. I received 24 responses from a diverse group of people working in larger nonprofits (40-100 employees) and smaller nonprofits (3-25 employees) in Massachusetts. This survey included 29 questions ranging from topics of self-care, the satisfaction of work, recommending the job, and pay/benefits. I hypothesized that small nonprofits would have a higher burnout rate. The small sample size affected how valid the study was, but the survey answers were telling and worthwhile.
Overall, there was a significant trend that nonprofit workers, in general, are very susceptible to burnout. Although my results did not show a significant difference between the size of the nonprofit and burnout rate, they did show other discoveries.
One of the positive commonalities between large and small nonprofit workers was that the majority found motivation in the mission of their place of employment. But a common negative comment was that they felt that their organization does not have enough staff. Lack of staff means more work on the current employees and creates more stress which leads to burnout.
One question on the survey was “Did you expect to work at a nonprofit after school?” Most respondents from both sized nonprofits did not. Interestingly, three of the respondents from the small nonprofit sector wanted to go into education, while two respondents at large nonprofits wanted to go into the healthcare system. This is interesting since all of these are in the community service sector. Surprisingly, many people in both groups wrote they were just looking for a job that would have good pay. This was striking because many of the participants in the survey felt that they were not satisfied with their pay.
Common themes from the smaller nonprofit employees were that they didn’t feel satisfied with their pay, the workload or the financial place the organization was in. One respondent who worked in the financial side of nonprofits stated, “Nonprofits tend to not have any money, so cash flow is always an issue. I get very stressed out when I know there are bills to be paid if the company doesn’t have money to pay them. Nonprofits generally have minimal staff, so there are always things to be done. It’s very stressful when I go home knowing there’s still lots of work to be done. Fundraising is always on my mind, coming up with creative ways to get people to donate.” This emphasizes that the employees of a nonprofit can be impacted by the financial hardship of the organization, not just regarding their salary, but also through the stress of keeping the doors open.
Common themes from larger nonprofits were that they were more satisfied with their jobs; most believed their pay was commensurate with their work, and they felt supported in their position. All the large nonprofit employees responded with “agree” or “strongly agree” when answering questions about recommending their job to a friend. Some small nonprofit employees agreed, but the majority said they would not. The bulk of the respondents at larger nonprofits responded that they have not thought about leaving their current job in the past three months, while smaller nonprofit respondents looked for other job opportunities.
Nonprofit workers are motivated by their work leading them to utilize many skills to help issues that are prevalent within their communities. Though this study didn’t reinforce my hypothesis, I found that both large and small nonprofits struggled with worker retention. Although it was not the outcome I was expecting, there were lots of signs leading to small nonprofit employees feeling more dissatisfied with their jobs. Nonprofit work is challenging mentally, physically, and financially, but when the right people are motivated and determined, nonprofits can be one of the best career choices.
One common way to counteract burnout is to do self-care every day. Many respondents mentioned some techniques, such as exercise, reading, and family/friend time to decompress from work stresses. But the overall lesson learned is that nonprofit management should make changes to help support their workers who are on the verge of being burnt out.
Gabrielle Emerson is a junior at Lasell University who is active in reducing food insecurity in Greater Boston.
For more information on preventing nonprofit staff burnout, see the Staffing the Mission report at our web page, https://classism.org/programs/staffing-the-mission/