Culture of Nonprofit Workplaces

Posted on October 12, 2011 by


Nonprofits and educational institutions are the only places I’ve been around  since I did my u-grad in 2006.  I’ve had this thought many times, but finally decided to type words to blog entry.

When I think of the word nonprofits, one word comes to mind:  “burn”…and the last syllable…”out.”


I’ve endured though I have to say not as much.  Burnout is an utter sense of fatigue, combined with disenchantment and disengagement experienced by an employee.

I’ve played witness to the enactment of burn out plenty of times.  Plenty.  So if you, person in my life (or stranger), reads this and think this post is about YOU, it is, but it isn’t.  It’s just interesting how remarkably similar the experiences seem to be from nonprofit to nonprofit.

Whether the burned out employee increased their production of snappy comments, talked a lot about stress, talked about getting the fuck away from the job, and/or even feeling overwhelmed to the point of tears.

I am sympathetic to the employee and employees around them because in each case I’ve watched and seen the burnout employee on a regular basis and saw them do their work diligently (or maybe I just assumed they did their work diligently).

Because nonprofits are always understaffed and under-resourced, the employee, a program manager or coordinator usually carries on a wide variety of duties other than what they “really” want to do or expect to do.

These employees usually have a routine of  “putting out fires.”  They can be dealing with juggling a circus of apathetic, doofus volunteers who think they are doing the organization a favor.  They may have to settle conflicts with co-workers with they are not fans of.  They may have to settle conflicts with the population that they are serving.  They have to play nice with adverse outside entities.

Whenever I’ve gotten close enough to ask the employees why they felt “burnt out”, they’ve usually said something to the effect of, “cause I’m doing too much shit.”

I always feel the need to ask if I can help in some way.  Usually turns out there’s very little that I or anyone else could do.    The organization is reliant on them to do responsibility-not-stated-in-offer-of-employment a, b, and c.  And it takes too much to explain to someone else what the fuck to do.

And so they just “suck it up”, “roll with the punches.”  They feel good temporarily after getting something significant done.  But before they can rest easy, another load of work comes in.  They seep into it, the work piles up again, more fires come up, the tension builds again, and the feeling of being overwhelmed creeps back up.

The burned out usually felt trapped, that they can’t talk to anyone else about it because they know their fellow employees also “have a lot of shit to do” and “don’t want to add more to their plate.”

The life of a program coordinator/managing nonprofiteer.

I continue to see this burnout in a good chunk of individuals in nonprofit and educational institutions.  Means that there’s a lot of jobs to do and get done, but sadly not enough money/capital/investment to circulate to people to do those jobs.

A lot of money our systems of government has gone towards beating other people up, protecting ourselves from other people, but not much has gone towards connecting people with others.