Burnt Out

I don’t like to blog about my job because one of the drawbacks of living in a small state like Maine is folks tend to know who you are so things like anonymity just don’t exist even on the web. Hell, a good portion of my Twitter followers are Mainers and it turns out the degrees of separation even on a site like Twitter when it comes to Mainers is probably about 2 degrees at best.

Yet as I have been reading some real cool blogs lately that talk about the non-profit sector as well as related articles, I feel there is a segment of the non-profit world that writers and consultants leave out. That would be those of us that work at the tiny of tiniest agencies. I am talking the agencies and organizations in many parts of the US that do serious front line work like food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters where at best there is 1-2 paid staff members and a cadre of volunteers that provide the services. The IRS recently instituted guidelines this year that all 501c3’s must now file a 990 so that they can get a better sense of who really is out there in the non-profit sector. The best estimate is that there is approximately 31% of all US charities have gross receipts under $25,000. That means until recently those folks didn’t have to file a tax return, yet that is a hell of a lot of agencies doing work and making do in many cases with some less than optimal situations.

I know because I work at such a place, granted our gross revenue is higher than the previous  minimum threshold required to file taxes but our budget doesn’t even tip 6 figures. Which when you consider the fact we are in the business of providing after school and summer programming for kids is a miracle. It’s a good thing we are faith-based because we are praying daily to keep the doors open.

Lately I have been encountering others like me though who love the work we do yet we are burnt out. However unlike life in any major sized city where even with the economic downturn if one gets truly tired of their job, one can generally make the decision to look for work at another agency it becomes virtually impossible to do that in a rural state. In 8 years of living in Maine, very little of mid and senior level management positions have turned over at any of the larger agencies in my part of the state. Of course not! Where would these folks go? Unless they are leaving the state or hanging out their shingle as a consultant or retiring from the work force, there simply is no place to go.

Which means for Gen X’ers or even some of the Gen Y folks the only viable options to get management experience is to take on the leadership roles at the tiny agencies. Yet after 18 months in my current position, I am burnt out. I wear multiple hats at my job, oh let’s share all the hats I wear: program director and designer, chief fundraiser and sole grant writer, director of volunteer management, manager of the actually site (though I do have a solid volunteer who works directly with the kids as well). On a bad week though I might even have to physically clean the facility! Two months into my position, my site guy was out on sick leave and I had to con the Spousal Unit into assisting me as I mopped and cleaned toilets. Yeah baby! Talk about the glamorous life of an Executive Director.

Though as you can imagine after 18 months of juggling all these balls in the air, it was only a matter of time before I started asking myself what the hell am I doing? I earn peanuts, have no paid healthcare benefits, thankfully I have a flexible schedule (why the hell not, I am the creator of the schedule) and generous paid time off. I will tell you that at the root of it all I love the work that I do, I love knowing our agency makes a difference, we are there for kids who have very little in terms of safe options after school and in the summer. Families trust us. Yet lately I struggle with the needs of my own family, since technically my gig is only part-time but like my predecessors I work closer to a 40 hrs a week schedule because simply put the job needs to be done.

In many ways the work I am doing goes against all I learned in grad school as well as in my job experiences in Chicago yet in rural and small town agencies it’s the only way to get the work done. Generally speaking I believe organizations have a responsibility to treat its employees well, pay them an acceptable wage and so on. On the other hand as the creator of my organization’s budget I know first hand what we can and cannot afford so realistically I can not get a salary increase when the money simply does not exist. Right now I would love to bring in a consultant to work with my board and jumpstart us towards creative and energizing ideas but that too is not within the grasp of our budget and none of my connections in the consulting world can take on a free job at the moment.

Previously I worked as a non-profit consultant with a focus on strategic planning and fundraising, most of my work was with small agencies and often we would have great sessions, renew the energy yet in smaller agencies without enough hands to do the work, such plans often go flat. So I am aware that even an excellent consultant can’t change the course of our ship without one hundred percent buy in from all participants.

So if you have ever worked or currently work in a small agency how do you stay sane? Share your tips and ideas.

5 thoughts on “Burnt Out

  1. I left rape crisis ER bedside advocacy, safer sex street team outreach, diversity/inclusion advocacy, DV advocacy, HIV case management and so forth because I could not stay “sane”. I burned out and went batshit.

    It wasn’t the work – there was support and clinical supervision for that – it was the culture of non-profit work, which is still all about excluding folks who aren’t rich (technically not my issue, but bothersome) with its poor wages and its inability to run themselves like corporations in the sense that financial solvency is an imperative.

    Now I write and administer grants. I love dealing with the boots on the ground people and being able to make those in management really provide service to their users in a responsible way, pay their works better wages so that folks don’t frame non-profit work as solely the domain of the trustifarian and I work to ensure that cooperation among overlapping agencies is incentivized.

  2. I don’t know, it just seems illogical to me that someone would want to or be able to continue to work in this kind of environment. I don’t mean that in a snarky way, I mean it in a “it is one step above slavery and not a long term approach to a career” kind of way (if that makes sense).

    I mean, as meaningful as any work is, there comes a point where you would be better off collecting unemployment and volunteering, right? 40 hours a week, no benefits and no other employees…ED having to clean bathrooms because there’s no one else to do it?

    How is this acceptable to the PTB? I would be beyond frustrated and I have no sound advice. I think if someone is going to stay sane for the long term in this type of work environment, it will come at a great cost to some other area of your life.

    I wish you luck my friend, because by all accounts, you will need it (and the folks you know who are in the same situation too). I really feel for you (all).

  3. LOL. Get out of my head. You pretty much summed up all the major issues that are threatening to drive me crazy. Prior to taking this position I spent almost 2 yrs consulting and grantwriting for several clients but in 08 when the economy tanked I was the first casualty in their budgets. Funny thing is I earned way more than I do now as a director and frankly it was a lot less stressful.

    I hate how so many agencies do not seem to grasp the need to run effiently and yes concern themselves with financial solvency rather than waiting for the grant fairy to rescue them. Its one of the reasons I ended up not getting an MSW when I went to grad school instead focusing on organizational management with a focus on non-profits. I want NPO’s especially the smaller ones to be viable long term.

    I will definitely let you know if I could use a pro bono grantwriter. 🙂

    • “I hate how so many agencies do not seem to grasp the need to run effiently and yes concern themselves with financial solvency rather than waiting for the grant fairy to rescue them.”

      1000x yes to that statement. When I was working for a nonprofit org this was my biggest pet peeve. The agency I worked for ended up in a situation where they were too dependent on grant funding to function. This led to all types of problems and unfortunately the agency is now defunct after close to 25 years of existence.

      I believe that most people who do nonprofit work do it because they love what they do and they truly want to serve the community but unfortunately the nonprofit world can be a very stressful place, as you pointed out. I’m a big believer in sabbaticals for people who work in social service type jobs. After a while we’re not really serving anyone is we’re burnt out. I just wish it was feasible for everyone.

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