Nonprofit burnout is real. Beth Kanter, an internationally-recognized nonprofit trainer and author who has worked in the field for 35 years, knows this all too well. Kanter has seen firsthand what overwork, overwhelm and an always-on lifestyle can do to organizations and individuals, including herself. Her new book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout, which she coauthored with web pioneer and tech wellness advocate Aliza Sherman, is an exploration of why nonprofit professionals tend to prioritize work over personal well-being and how they can change that.

I spoke with Kanter, who is donating her royalties from the book to fund the first staff position for the Women's Resource Center in Cambodia, about the pervasive nonprofit culture that leads to burnout and unhealthy lifestyles. As we walked the Stanford Dish loop—one of Kanter’s go-to trails—we talked about how this culture came to be, how to change it, and why modeling healthy nonprofit behaviors is important.

Cat Johnson: Why is burnout a problem in nonprofits?

Beth Kanter: We have a lack of resources. Nonprofits physically don’t have enough staff to do all the things we want to do to change the world. Sometimes we don’t have leaders who are good at prioritizing and saying no to things. Maybe part of that is because they have to chase the funders and the funders are creating extra work. There’s the myth of low-overhead, which is funders not wanting to pay for basic things.

We also have the scarcity mindset that we don’t have enough. There’s research that shows that leads to poor decision making, as opposed to thinking about abundance and more collaborative things.

There are some different generational takes on the burnout thing. There are older people, like me, and maybe baby boomers. When we came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we had a mindset of working for the cause. We did everything for the cause, even to the point of ignoring our health. Those people lead organizations and maybe some of them have created dysfunctional cultures of overwork.

Then you have millennials, who maybe have a different view of overwork and realize that self-care is important, but they may be trapped in a culture of overwork. Or else maybe, in some ways, they’re exploited because they want to get ahead. There’s some of that going on.

A few years ago, you discovered you had high cholesterol levels. That seemed to be a real turning point for you.

It started with my father being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He was on the East Coast and I’m here in California. I had launched my second book so I was crisscrossing the country to spend time with him while continuing to work. I was probably eating too many cheeseburgers, I was sitting around, maybe a tequila or two, and definitely no downtime—not taking breaks, not taking vacations.

When he passed, I wasn’t feeling great so I went to my doctor and got my usual checkups. My cholesterol was over-the-moon. Triglycerides were 399 and normal is less than 150. She said to me, “Before I put you on statins, let’s try to get some of the basics in-place. Even if you walked for 20 minutes a day, that would help you.” I bought a Fitbit and started with a couple thousand steps, and got up to 15,000. Over 16 months, I kept it up, I watched what I was eating, eating more vegetables and fruits, no cheeseburgers. I came back and was in the normal range, and I had lost 40 pounds.

But something else happened, I was able to get more work done by taking breaks. It dawned on me that taking care of yourself is part of doing the work.

You and Aliza write that well-being isn’t just about an occasional social event or taking a walk, it’s bigger than that. Tell me more about the whole picture of self-care.

It begins with some self-awareness. You have to recognize the potential symptoms of burnout. In the book, we have the Nonprofit Passion Fatigue Scale, from passion driven to passion depleted. It’s an educational assessment, not a medical assessment, but it looks at the physical and mental feelings when you’re burned out. If you’re feeling burned out, how are you handling your stress? Is it positive self-care or negative self-care? Positive self-care might be regular walks; negative self-care might be downing some tequila.

Initially, everyone thought about self-care as wellness: good exercise, good nutrition and a good night’s sleep. That is part of it, but we wanted to think of it more holistically, so we have the 5 Spheres of Happy Living which are:

  • Your relationship with yourself, which includes physical health, spiritual health, downtime

  • Your relationship with other people: your family, friends and people in your community

  • Environment, which is your physical space both at home and in the workplace

  • Your relationship with work, which is your relationship with money, your workplace professional relationships, your productivity, how you manage your energy and time

  • Technology. We like to talk about it as technology wellness. How are we going to use technology mindfully and in a healthy way so we’re not addicted?

How do you respond to nonprofit professionals who say they already have too little time and money to implement another program?

Culture change has to start with leadership. It has to be top-down and bottom-up, but the leader has to model healthy behaviors. It’s not so much the time, and even the resources, because these things aren’t expensive. It’s the desire to change and creating a process for that, which begins with conversations and some assessment.

What criticism do you hear about workplace wellness? What’s your response?

It’s considered soft, touchy-feely stuff. But there are tons and tons of studies that back up the fact that working more than 40 hours a week doesn’t give you more productivity and you’re more likely to get sick. Switching between software and multi-tasking, which isn’t really multi-tasking, takes energy for your brain to shift from one topic to the next. If you’re constantly doing that, you exhaust your brain cells earlier in the day. You go home and that’s why you stare at the screen and scroll through Pinterest.

There’s lots of data around the connections between exercise, and the dangers of sitting. One study from the University of Illinois shows two brain scans. The one on the right is dark and the one on the left is all lit up. The one that’s dark is a brain that’s been sitting for 20 minutes, the one that’s lit up has just taken a walk. When you walk and do exercises, endorphins flow and, when endorphins flow, you can think faster and you’re more creative.

From an organizational standpoint, if you bring well-being into the workplace, you’ll have happier employees and happy employees are going to want to stay longer, so you’ll have less costs in terms of turnover and training people, and less trouble recruiting people if you’re known as a good workplace.

The other thing is, especially around things that bring healthy behavior into the workplace, like walking meetings, gyms, healthy snacks. A lot of that, you can get discounts off the healthcare insurance plans. And, healthy employees don’t get sick as often, so you’re paying less out in sick days and your premiums go down.

What are your favorite wellness strategies that can be easily implemented?

Walking. Don’t use your computer tray as a cafeteria tray. Really go out for lunch and take a walk. Author Tony Schwartz talks about ultradian cycles, which is our ability to focus and concentrate. They run in 90-120 minute cycles, then we lose our focus and we need a break to replenish. What I try to do, which is not always easy, is to schedule my workflow so I have those recovery periods during the day.

It’s really hard in an organizational context to do that, especially if there’s a culture of collaborative overload and back-to-back meetings and all of that. We interviewed some organizations that surveyed folks and tracked when they’re most productive, then made that information available to everybody. So they knew when a person was in high-peak concentration and wouldn’t bother them. They planned meetings towards the end of the day because meetings can be when you have low concentration. Then having certain days where there aren’t meetings. Google has meeting-free Thursdays.

There’s a lot you can do for yourself, but it’s hard to carry it into the workplace unless the workplace has that culture of well-being established. You’re basically taking a lot of these ideas and doing them as group activities—not shoving them down people's throats but customizing it for what people want.

What are some good first steps, from an organizational standpoint, to start creating a culture of self-care?

It’s important to have conversations about realistic workloads and expectations. Or maybe it’s just an agreement that we don’t need to send emails at 11pm at night, and, if I do send an email at 11 at night, I don’t expect you to answer it until the next day.

At bigger organizations that have an HR person, they monitor whether people are taking their vacation days. If there’s someone who’s burning the midnight oil, they’ll talk to that person’s manager and request that they talk to them about taking breaks. Some leaders will make it explicit that they’re not looking at email on the weekends and they expect their staff to do the same thing.

What’s the best case scenario here? If every nonprofit professional took the book to heart, what would you most like to see happen?

When I first started talking about this book, someone said, “Do you really think you’re going to change the whole sector by writing a book?” I thought I was. I’m not sure about that, but I’ve realized that we can at least frame this conversation and talk about it, and make it explicit, and try to make some small changes.

The more organizations that put some of these practices into place, the more they’ll be able to attract better talent and retain people and they’re going to be more effective and they’re going to get better results.

Bonus Q&A with Happy, Healthy Nonprofit coauthor Aliza Sherman

As a longtime digital marketer and writer, Sherman realized her own compulsive behavior—and resulting health issues—around technology and is focused on tech wellness and reducing tech overwhelm.

Cat Johnson: How do you define tech wellness and why is it important for nonprofit professionals?

Aliza Sherman: I define tech wellness as being mindful of the impact of technology on our bodies, minds and relationships, better understanding how we relate to our tech, and adopting better habits around how we use technology. So awareness, understanding, and habit formation and change.

In this always-on culture, where we receive work email and texts at all times, what are some simple ways people can create wellness around their personal tech use?

The beauty of tech wellness is that even simple actions can alter the impacts of technology on our lives and selves. Some ways to create wellness around tech include:

  • Be mindful when you are reaching for your devices. Do you really need to use them or are you being compulsive?

  • Turn off electronics in the evenings and engage in analog activities such as reading, doing puzzles or meditative art.

  • Set up a charging station for your devices at your living space entry way and leave them there when you're home.

  • Designate no electronics zones in your living or working spaces.

  • Set specific timeframes during your day where you shut off your devices for a break.

  • Walk away from your computer and smartphone for a real break.

  • Take a radical digital sabbatical and break entirely from electronics for a full day (or more) such as on the weekend.

  • Take a real vacation without any electronics that tempt you to check work related emails.

The ubiquity of our mobile devices creates endless temptations to check email and text. When we tuck away or turn off our devices, and the temptations—and compulsive behaviors —subside.

How can organizations encourage tech wellness among staff?

Organizational culture change can happen both trickle down and trickle up. An individual being more mindful of technology can propose and introduce changes that support better relationships with tech.

Leaders need to examine how they use technology—or abuse it—and how they both model bad behavior and make unrealistic and damaging demands of staff. If the unspoken expectation is that the boss emails at 3am and everyone scrambles to respond, bad habits become entrenched. A greater awareness of unrealistic expectations and unhealthy habits can help trigger change. Getting a leader—or the boss—to admit his or her ways are damaging is another story.

But if you do your homework, approach your proposal for making change within an organization as a process and a project, provide research and statistics to back up your claims, and lay out steps that everyone can take to be part of the change, you may be able to help shift the culture.


Top photo: mate_o (CC BY-NC-ND). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

Cat Johnson


Cat Johnson | |

Cat Johnson is a content strategist and teacher helping community builders create strong brands. A longtime writer, marketing pro and coworking leader, Cat is the founder of Coworking Convos and