If you manage a nonprofit team, you know that one of the biggest challenges in managing such teams is people who work too hard. I think this is easily the biggest problem and quite challenging to handle. But handle it you must. Because people who cannot stop working will eventually burn out. And bringing people back from a burnout is a long and challenging process. So, you want to avoid people getting to that point. What are important steps to avoid burnout in your nonprofit team?

What are we talking about?

If your team member is burnt out, they are extremely fatigued. They are unable to be enthusiastic about anything. They cannot plan well and cannot get stuff done, whether for work or privately. And they are irritable and pessimistic. There is a loss of energy for everything. It is therefore a very impactful condition also for their families because this condition is present also outside the work environment.

These are the things you as a leader or colleague may see. I do not have medical training and I am not a (medical) expert on this. I share a few resources below if you want to find out more.

In this article, I will focus on my own experiences with this and what I learned from them.

How can you see burnout coming?

Warning signs are actually that a person cannot let go of the work at all. They cannot stop thinking about work, even though they are getting less and less productive. It is difficult to persuade them to go on a short leave or not to work in the weekend. You may receive emails at all hours of the day and night.

Another sign might be small annoyances getting bigger. They may become more critical of others.

They may start crying when someone says something critical to them.

Or they may become more insecure about themselves, checking everything they do several times. And refusing to send that report because it isn’t finished…

Someone may even come to you and resign from the job!

Your role as leader in avoiding burnout

The signs of an upcoming burnout differ per person.

So you need to know your team members really well.

And you need to pay close attention, to notice that something is going on with them.

You also need to have invested in building a relationship with them that makes it possible for you to have an open conversation about what you see.

In my experience the role of the team leader is in safeguarding a healthy and safe team and organizational work culture, in implementing a few practical measures and in being a role model yourself.



Safeguarding a healthy and safe work culture

The culture in your organization and team is super important in helping avoid burnout. As team leader you carry a responsibility to safeguard a healthy and safe work culture. And if you define together with your team what that is then your caring team members will also play an important role in safeguarding this ideal.

There are three elements of the work culture that are especially important in my experience. They are:

  • Trust that each team member brings required quality and can and will step in as needed for others.
  • Working 24/7 and not going on leave is considered unwanted behaviour.
  • Mistakes are opportunities for learning and getting better and that is why mistakes must be shared and celebrated.

Trust in team members

It is important to build trust inside the team that if someone is not there, others can take over tasks that need taking care of or can be reachable in case of an emergency. You need to make sure that everyone feels confident that others will not drop the ball when filling in for them. It is impossible to let go of your work during a holiday if you cannot count on a colleague to take care of your project and your audience.

24/7 people are not heroes

In my experience, people working in nonprofits see their work as a life mission rather than a job. They feel extremely responsible not just for their tasks, but for the well-being of the community they serve. Their audience. It is this commitment and sense of responsibility that makes it hard to take time off, physically and especially mentally. Because it feels like they are abandoning their people. People who, in their feeling, depend on them and their work.

Of course, you cannot have a team with people who don’t feel responsible at all for the work. But together with the team you need to find where the balance is. And how to make sure everyone stays on the right side of the balance, even though that may be in a different place for everyone individually.

Space for mistakes

If you have created a safe team, where team members can discuss unwanted behaviour, there is also space for owning mistakes. To speak about things that were not so successful. Or things you did in a way that you later saw was not the best possible way ….

Implementing practical measures

Here are three things you can very practically do.

Agree on leave in advance and help people plan for it

One of the most important tasks of a nonprofit leader is to make sure that team members do take time off and that they are indeed off during their leave. The best strategy is to agree on leave dates in the start of the year, for instance in your annual work planning conversation. And if you see that this is going to be difficult for someone, help them prepare for this. You can help them hand over tasks to colleagues, and you can put someone in charge of monitoring this.

Agree on working times and communication rules

Agree with the team on what are acceptable working times for all. Is it OK to call someone on Saturday morning for something that is not an emergency? And what is an emergency? Is it OK to email team members outside working hours? Should people be part of a WhatsApp group with messages flying around on all hours? Or can they decide to leave the group or mute it outside their working hours? What is considered wanted and unwanted behaviour in the team?

Celebrate the next mistake

To show that mistakes are useful, make sure that the very next mistake you see or hear about is celebrated properly. Discuss the mistake and identify with the team what can be learned from this. Thank the person for sharing.

Being a role model

In all the above, you as team leader must be a role model. Obviously, you, too, can make mistakes. But if you call people on Friday evening, or if you email people in the weekend, you must make sure that someone addresses this in the next team meeting and that you then gracefully acknowledge this.

My key tips

  • Invest in making and keeping the team a safe space for everyone.
  • Make sure you know your team members so you can see any signs. Act immediately!
  • Promote healthy work-life balance and be a role model in that!


Here are a few resources for you if you want to read more:

How I can help

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