How do I avoid burnout in my new position at a non-profit
February 8, 2015 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I am a detail oriented, personable woman in my late twenties that really likes what I do. I work for a small non-profit that is highly respected in the mid-size town that I live in. Before I had this job I worked in DC on Capitol Hill for several years in a demanding job. Last fall I was promoted to Associate Director. We also got a new Executive Director at that time (he's the one that promoted me). He is a good guy, and I enjoy the environment that I work in. That said... in the past two weeks I have started to feel a little burnout.

- We have a lot of fundraising events, and planning those events and making sure they come off successfully falls on my shoulders. This includes catering, music, flowers, getting donors to the events, the program, advertising them, etc etc etc. Every little detail. I'm talking 4-5 events a year. The big capstone event at the end of the year there is a committee for. The rest, I'm on my own.

- We don't have an HR department. We do have a part time bookkeeper, but some of the HR stuff has started to fall on my plate.

- Social media and comms stuff is up to me. I sent out a newsletter to our largest donors last week, thought it looked great and my boss (ED) came in and said to me "You know, I think our enewsletters could use a bit more pizzaz. Is there some way you could jazz them up? The format is so 2012." I'm thinking "Wow, I just spent X amount of time putting that together, editing it, adding photos, links, etc, and you don't think it's pretty enough?" Instead I said, "Sure, I'll find someone that can help out with that. I'm confident we can get it figured out." Just another thing to worry about. I try to be positive but I'm afraid I'm setting expectations too high. We have FB, Twitter, Insta as well. I think I do a good job with those. We have 21k followers on FB, 5k on Twitter and 1K on Insta so I update those frequently.

- Managing vendors and contractors (printers, designers, photogs etc) is all on my plate. I'll show my boss a graphic for some program or printed item and he'll be like "Wow, did you do this?" And I'll say No, I didn't design it myself, but I coordinated the process, and my boss will be like, Oh ok. Like he's disappointed I'm not doing everything. I don't have fancy graphic design skills!

- I've been assigned to work with our web developer on our website redo and getting that launched, which is stressful.

- On top of that, it's our legislative session for the next while in my state, and we have random press conferences I have to organize, etc, and make look great and get the media to them.

- There are other projects that randomly pop up that ED asks me to do. One he told me about on Friday is an idea he has for a video that he'd like filmed- he has written the script and has an idea who he'd like to be in it, he wants me to get them all together, set a shooting date, get the thing shot, find someone to edit it, etc etc etc. Not sure when I'm going to find the time to make that happen.

- Another project is this very specific photo shoot he wants me to coordinate with a very specific set of people.

There are more but this gives you an idea.

Really this is all very fun stuff in parcels but in one lump it is feeling overwhelming.

Where are the other staff? There are two others but they are in their own worlds and this all is falling on my plate. I do ask for help where I can but it is really difficult to get them to move out of their "silos".

I'm frustrated and don't know how to explain to my boss, ED, how all of this piling on me is not helping, how I need a clear job description (is that not "leaning in"? I never got one when I started) and how I spent all yesterday (Saturday) in bed hiding from the world and pretending I didn't have to go back to work on Monday. I know I don't tell him that last part but I don't want to dread going into work. I do love what I do, the cause, and my promotion was really amazing and I worked hard for it. ED has never managed a team of people before, so I think this may be a case where "I need to manage up" or whatever they say.

My questions.

How do I talk to ED about this? What are some catchphrases I can use?

Should I start looking for another job? I have a sinking feeling none of this is going to change. I have been with this agency for 1 yr. 2 months, in this position since last October.

Is asking for a job description now too late? ED mentioned at the beginning of the year that we should have a sit down to talk about my job descrip and there was just never time to do it and now I'm wishing I'd taken him up on it.

Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How do I talk to ED about this? What are some catchphrases I can use?

If you haven't been telling your boss that you're feeling burned out, he's going to keep throwing you more balls, because you're juggling them with your usual chipper smile (or whatever). If I have a subordinate who never complains* when I give her more work, I'm going to keep giving her more work. Don't let a dropped ball be the first indication that you have too many balls in the air.

* -- "Complains" in this context doesn't just mean "Oh, fuck, are you kidding me with all this bullshit?!?" It can also mean a very reasonable pointing out that you have too many balls in the air and need him to re-prioritize for you.

So go into his office first thing Monday morning, close the door, and say, "This video is a great idea. But I also have to deal with the website redo, the press conferences for the legislative session, the next fundraiser, and redesigning the email newsletter. That's five major things plus the day-to-day stuff. I think I can handle three of the five myself. Which three do you think would be the best use of my time and skills, and can I hand off the bulk of the other two to my coworkers with your blessing?"

Don't talk about how you're burned out. He'll understand from what you're saying that you're getting too many balls to juggle.

Once the two of you have hacked out the priorities, say, "By the way, remember when we talked about getting me a job description last month? We should really work on that. How's Friday morning**?"

** -- Or some other good time that you can have a sit-down with him for about an hour, because you're going to come into that meeting with your job description already written out so all he needs to do is look at it and make a couple of small changes.

And for the long term, does your organization have an evaluation system? If not, work on that.
posted by Etrigan at 4:17 PM on February 8, 2015 [17 favorites]

1. Delegate. Find items that you are comfortable having staff complete and farm our some of the work. Things like press conferences involve "big picture" stuff that you can cover, but also a lot of small pieces of busy work that others can take care of.

2. Sit down with you ED and discuss timelines. You don't even need to frame it as you feeling burned out or not able to handle the work. I would simply layout all the projects and assignments you currently have and state that you would like to discuss priorities. Have rough timelines for each project ready. If your ED comes back with some version of "they are all priorities," then you can show the timelines and how they all can't get completed at the same time. Some projects can have start dates that are weeks/months ahead, thereby giving you some breathing room without ignoring the desires of your boss.
posted by Nightman at 4:32 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I work in a nonprofit of 23 staff and 7 of us work on the tasks you've mentioned here. I don't think it's unreasonable at all to ask for prioritization or to feel like this is too much for one staffperson to handle. As an Associate Director, who can you delegate to? This does mean letting go of some of the detailed control.

I sent out a newsletter to our largest donors last week, thought it looked great and my boss (ED) came in and said to me "You know, I think our enewsletters could use a bit more pizzaz. Is there some way you could jazz them up? The format is so 2012."

I would dig a bit more here first. Did he see another newsletter he likes better? What does "more pizzaz" mean to him? Maybe it's not a total redesign. Or maybe it's something that should be timed with something else (eg rebranding of another publication, a new logo, etc). I have a coworker who is great at managing up and part of what he does is to link certain projects together so that he can enthusiastically say "yes!" while slotting the work into a future quarter.
posted by heatherann at 4:47 PM on February 8, 2015

Is there room in the budget to hire an assistant?
posted by Dashy at 4:54 PM on February 8, 2015

You have a fairly heavy and diverse workload. You need to create systems for setting limits and prioritizing in a deliberate way.

Rather than saying "Sure, I'll find someone that can help out with that. I'm confident we can get it figured out," you'll say "that would be great. When we create our annual workplan and budget, let's see if we have the time and money for a graphic designer to give the newsletter a facelift."

For now, sit down and estimate how much of your time each year goes to events, campaigns, social media, the newsletter, website updates, etc. It sounds to me like you have enough work for 1.5-2 people. That can be the start of a conversation about prioritizing, delegating, and/or hiring. On a day to day level, try "that's s great idea. Let's talk about what we can take off my plate* so I can have time for this video project." (* I love office cliches. They smooth over so many conversations like this.)

Also, stop perceiving unvoiced disapproval. He's a professional, and if he wants you to be able to make snazzy graphics, he can say, "I'd really like to bring this function in-house. Could you take that on if we got you a little training?"
posted by slidell at 5:05 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Volunteers can do some of these tasks. You'd still have to provide oversight and training but if you can find the right fit for the right volunteer, they can eventually own it. Is your Board actively involved?

Contact local colleges and see if there are any programs that will supply you with students.

Leverage your donors to find connections to print houses, media firms, etc and find some experts who are willing to donate pro bono work (like a new template for the newsletter).

Burntout is a huge problem for nonprofits and it's really good you're thinking about this now before you can't cope.
posted by betsybetsy at 5:09 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Five big events per year? Will the budget extend to hiring either an event planning company, or an in-house planner?

"Boss, I have XYZ on my plate, stuff that's really core to my job description. The event planning takes up a lot of time, and I think it would be a better use of our donors' money if we were to hire a professional event planner at $Y per year/hour/whatever, which would free up my time to focus more effectively on our social media strategy and the video project."

Or something like that--Etrigan's script is probably better.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:18 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am just out of fifteen years in the nonprofit sector. That kind of stuff you are talking about is endemic in that size of organization unless it is swimming in money.

Above posters have really good ideas, but I would strongly suggest implementing them while you shop for a job with an org with a pile of $$$ and, FFS, a HR department, even if the total size of the department is 1.

Feel free to memail me if you want to chat about a career in the sector. I'd like to believe that I know something about surviving it.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 6:36 PM on February 8, 2015

Let me amplify a bit here: if you get a job description it'll basically amount to admin assist generalist, other duties as assigned. I have no idea what it is that your org does, but since you didn't mention Raiser's Edge in your post of woes, I would guess that your two coworkers are Assoc. Director of Development, and The One Person Who Actually Does That Thing We Do.

Your job seems to be Manage All Non-Development Infrastructure. You will most likely (85% chance) be used up and cast aside when burnt out.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to argue with other comments, but I don't think 5-person organizations are necessarily doomed (/awful), nor that your job is that of a glorified admin assistant. It sounds like you're basically the communications and major events director, with a side of operations (HR).

I personally do think a job description would help you, but not as much as an annual workplan. The job description will point out that you're in charge of coordinating the design of the e-news etc. But it's not a tool for making good decisions about whether or not you can redo the website and e-news, and create a special video, all at once without losing your mind. You need a system that makes clear you only have 40 hours each week and helps in allocating that time wisely, rather than at the whim of your director.
posted by slidell at 7:19 PM on February 8, 2015

You need to make a list. List all of the work projects that you do. Then list all the parts you have to do for each of the projects, and how long each takes, and how often. Then throw in recurring things like email snd office meetings.

You now have a job description based on what you actually do. Add a section for the boss' ad hoc projects. Set up a meeting with your boss and ask him to help you prioritize. Let him know that you would need more hands to accomplish everything. Some things may need to be backburnered.
posted by zennie at 7:29 PM on February 8, 2015

(In addition to what others have said)

The Associate Director should not have to be doing social media and graphic design. Social Media Manager and Graphic Designer are skilled professions in and of themselves. And the former if not the latter can be a full-time job.

You not only need a job description for yourself, your organization needs a strategic plan that takes you from where you are now to where you have the resources to hire the additional staff your organization needs. The question is not how do you make snappy newsletter and manage the social accounts and plan the events, it's how do you get the money to hire the staff. Otherwise, you will never address the other problems. Because when you have the job description that strips out all those things you don't have time for, who is going to do them?

For taking care of certain tasks in the meantime, the Taproot Foundation can provide skilled volunteers. The trade-off is that they can take a while to complete projects. But that could be a temporary fix for your graphic design needs. They could provide someone to design templates for you, for example. For that matter, there are a lot of free newsletter templates (mostly in InDesign format) if you search online or you could find some great-looking templates on Etsy or other sites for, like, $15 or so. For social media in the meantime, do you have an editorial calendar? Are you scheduling posts in batches, or are you interrupting other tasks to monitor & post on your social channels? Scheduling could save you time if you're not doing it already.

But to really address the underlying problem I think you're going to need to first either obtain additional funding or find some savings somewhere to invest in tools that will help you raise more money, that you invest in raising more money, and so on. Maybe that starts with a board member kicking in a chunk of cash for a part-time person or a consultant to do online fundraising and list-building so you can keep building your donor base. Maybe it's using an online peer-to-peer platform (which you might as well do anyway because it can be done for free).

But really the problem is not your job description alone, it's lack of (or misallocation of) resources and the lack of an organizational strategy.
posted by univac at 9:11 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another option might be to think about the percent of time or hrs/wk that each responsibility is expected to require. Definitely include ongoing daily obligations like email and routine responsibilities.

I think your boss is perhaps being unrealistic and you need to clearly communicate the time you're putting into things - the two of you need to "right size" your job. Also, you might need to be ready to take his disappointment that all his ideas can't be implemented because there simply isn't the staffing for them. It's ok for him to be disappointed, and remember it may not mean he's disappointed in you.
posted by quinoa at 9:15 PM on February 8, 2015

Yes, you need to manage up. Your boss sounds like an enthusiastic guy who's not paying attention to your capacity, and if you let him accidentally burn you out, you're not actually helping him, the org, or yourself. You need to talk to him. That is not a weird thing to do and it doesn't need to be a super-big deal -- just have a conversation.

I'd say something like this: "Hey boss, we've got a ton of stuff we want to do. It's all awesome and I want to do it too. But realistically, I'm stretched pretty thin, and I want to make sure we're not biting off more than we can chew. I think we should sit down and prioritize what's most important." And then just go through stuff with him. Like, can the number of events be cut in half. Can you dump the email newsletter. Can the organization hire you an assistant. Etc.

In that conversation, he may not agree to actually cut back anything, or to get you any help. But it's still worth doing, because it puts him on notice that you're at capacity, which gives him the opportunity to pull back. If he continues to assign you lots of random new tasks, practice saying stuff like "Hm, to make this work we might need to push back [X other thing] -- is that okay?" or "Hm, this week I'm super-busy with [Y]. I'm so sorry, but I don't think we can manage this right now, unless there's something else we can drop."

And yes, calmly job-hunt to move to a bigger organization. Because really, an underfunded, very small, nonprofit -- this is just what they're like. It can be fun, but it can also use you up :/
posted by Susan PG at 2:27 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Watch SpaceX launch with explanations   |   Westside LA and tax advice Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.