Grantmakers, Nonprofit Boards Can Help Prevent Executive Burnout

Grantmakers, Nonprofit Boards Can Help Prevent Executive Burnout

Even under the best circumstances, serving as the executive director of a nonprofit organization is a challenge. Executive directors are expected to have programmatic expertise, fundraising skills, and financial acumen. While advocating tirelessly for a cause, idea, or community, they must also manage an organization's internal operations, support and work in partnership with the board of directors, and represent the organization to the public.

Based on sixty years of supporting community-based nonprofit organizations in the Washington, D.C., region, the Meyer Foundation believes that the leadership of executive directors is critical to the success and effectiveness of the organizations we support and to the strength and influence of the nonprofit sector as a whole. We've seen start-up organizations take off because of the vision and energy of a founder. We've watched new leaders revitalize organizations that had become complacent or overextended. And we've seen executives grow and mature along with their organizations, becoming powerful community leaders and voices for social change.

In recent years, however, we've also watched many executive directors struggle. We've spoken with founders and veteran executives who were contemplating retirement but were concerned about who would succeed them and how the organization would weather the transition. We've seen overextended leaders struggle to balance their work and personal lives, and promising new leaders leave after a few years because they're tired and burned out or because they need to make more money to pay off student loans.

Our concerns about the leadership stability of our grantees led Meyer to work with CompassPoint Nonprofit Services to conduct a national survey of nearly two thousand executive directors in eight cities across the country. Their responses were summarized in Daring to Lead 2006 (40 pages, PDF), a report that was released earlier this year.

Daring to Lead suggests that relentless fundraising pressure, weak boards of directors, low salaries, and lack of management support are causing many nonprofit executive directors — especially those of small to mid-size nonprofit organizations — to leave their jobs. Three out of four executive directors responding to the survey said they were likely to leave their jobs within the next five years. Some of this turnover is unavoidable, since a majority of the respondents were over 50. However, retirement accounted for only a small percentage of the planned departures.

Executives' attitudes about their boards of directors and satisfaction with their compensation, not their age, were the two factors most strongly linked to imminent turnover. Fundraising concerns also play a role. Overall, executives cited fundraising as the thing they disliked most about their jobs and the area in which they most needed improved board performance. In focus groups, executives repeatedly mentioned funders, including foundations and government, as ongoing sources of frustration and fatigue.

This drain of leadership talent, at a time when the baby boom generation is reaching retirement and competition for employees is increasing, is a challenge that the nonprofit sector can't afford to ignore.

In response to the issues raised in Daring to Lead, the Meyer Foundation launched Rewarding Leadership, a three-year, $2.2 million initiative to stabilize the executive leadership of our grantees and to increase the community influence and visibility of some of Greater Washington's most effective nonprofit leaders.

The centerpiece of Rewarding Leadership is the Exponent Award, which will be presented to five mid-career executive directors each year for the next three years. The award was intended for executives who have a track record of accomplishment but who may be in danger of burnout or would benefit from additional resources to help them take their skills and organization to a new level. The award includes a grant of $100,000 over two years to be used for leadership development.

The Meyer Foundation's board of directors recently selected five executive directors as the inaugural recipients of the Exponent Award. They will be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Monday, November 13. The five leaders are:

These five leaders exemplify the challenges facing the executive directors who responded to the Daring to Lead study. They have a strong ethic of service and passion for the mission of their organizations. They lead organizations that are poised for significant growth, and do so with very little management or administrative backup. Most admit that they struggle to balance their work and personal lives and to achieve a productive partnership with their boards of directors. The Meyer Foundation hopes that the Exponent Award funding will extend the tenure of these leaders, draw attention to other outstanding executive directors in our community, and inspire others to make similar investments in strengthening leadership.

But stemming the loss of leadership will require more players to act on a larger scale. For example, grantmakers need to consider how all their practices — including policies about multi-year support, general operating support, and evaluation — make life challenging for many nonprofit executives. Boards need to help raise money to offer reasonable salaries and develop senior management teams to share the executive's workload. And executives themselves should consider what steps they're taking to avoid burnout and make their job look doable to the next generation of leaders.

Talented and visionary nonprofit leaders are essential for effective organizations. Supporting those leaders — and keeping them in place whenever possible — should be a priority for everyone who cares about nonprofit organizations and the people and communities they serve.

— Julie L. Rogers is president and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.