During a recent session, an executive director client who was developing a new fundraising income strategy reported she was feeling lightheaded and dizzy. She remarked she had not had a day off for more than 14 days. The stress of how to ensure financial sustainability for her organization was causing her sleepless nights followed by full work days. She was burned out.

I know the feeling. As a leader in the nonprofit sector for over 30 years, I have seen firsthand the effects of giving to the point of burnout in my own career as well as the impact of stress on other women leaders who are leading charitable organizations and ministries.

Seventeen years ago, I founded Alliance for Greater Works, a nonprofit focusing on strengthening leaders–specifically women leaders– and organizations seeking to transform marginalized communities. Since then I have learned the value of leading something greater than yourself. I have also learned it can be emotionally taxing. Two years ago after working 70 hours a week for a few years, I decided to work no more than 40 hours per week for one year. As a result, I was reignited about my company’s mission again.

Some of my female mentors have had to step down from their executive leadership roles due to health issues including mental health concerns. This is not uncommon. Women may be feeling the brunt of stress in nonprofit management as  women make up 75 percent of the nonprofit workforce.

Many “put out fires” during the day and attend receptions and events at night. Many go home and try to catch up on the work they were not able to complete during the day. Many times they work seven days a week.

A new study  from Glamour, Thrive Global and Survey Monkey of 1,300 women found that 58 percent of the women felt stressed more than half the time they were at work. The study reported that 53 percent of the women surveyed said they don’t feel very comfortable talking about a mental health concern with others during tough times. That means we are suffering in silence.

 This is not a new phenomenon, as The American Institute of Stress  showed in a 1999 study that 80 percent of workers said they felt stressed at work and needed help managing the stress. A 2017 Business Pulse Survey by Sun Trust shows that “45 percent of midsize business leaders report feeling somewhat or extremely stressed, compared with 34 percent last year.”

As nonprofit leaders, we understand that long hours, lower wages, fundraising challenges and limited staff serving under-resourced people and communities can contribute to anxiety, depression and other health concerns.

“Those whose vocation is all about giving out are wearing out,” author Wayne Cordeiro writes in his book, Leading On Empty.

To help mitigate the stress, here are five tips on avoiding burnout and maintaining self-care as leaders in demanding non-profit roles.


  • Put yourself first on the to-do list. Our health is our greatest asset, not our nonprofits. Karima Mariama-Arthur, founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport,  writes in Success, that when your body and brain feel well, you perform well. Become intentional about yourself. For me, prayer and exercise in the mornings prepare me to lead with mental clarity.
  • Improve your intrapersonal skills and become sensitive to your own mental and emotional well-being. Wellness Orbit founder, Dr. Helena Lass told Corporate Wellness Magazine, “Our capabilities to direct our inner functions also need regular learning and training, just as our physical muscles do. Sustained practice of wellness activities leads to better mental health, which in turn results in optimum inner functioning and effective use of our innate potentials.” By training our awareness to notice how we think and feel, we decrease the flippant reactions that can cause many challenges in our professional and personal lives.
  • Disconnect from technology often and reconnect to those relationships that matter most in our lives. Social media immersion can be a distraction that diminishes quality of life. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, author and founder of Thrive Global, recently told a Utah summit audience: “When we prioritize our well-being, everything in our lives gets better, including our productivity, including our performance at work, including our success. We need to stop talking about work-life balance, because the two things are not in contradiction; they’re related. When one rises, the other rises, and when one falls, the other falls, and we have data [to prove] that.”
  • Create an organizational culture that encourages and practices work life balance. Give your employees the time and support to focus on their personal lives not only during times of emergencies but as a lifestyle. Cathy Littlefield,chair of the Business Department at Peirce College, told Fierce CEO,  “If an organization shows that it cares about its employees, it will be reciprocated.” She adds, “Flexibility shows employees you care.”
  • Give your team a sense of control by bringing them together to create a team charter. Team agreements provide staff a structured environment to thrive, suggests Andrew D. Wittman, founder of the Mental Toughness Training Center, in Harvard Business Review.


Burnout is real and self-care is a non-negotiable. As women leaders, we cannot apologize or feel guilty for doing as flight attendants demonstrate before every flight– to put our own oxygen mask on first. We become stronger, more powerful leaders when we take responsibility and ownership of our well-being while serving others.

-Sherrye Willis

Sherrye Willis is the founder and president of Alliance for Greater Works, keynote speaker and the author of Launching Greater Works. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.




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  1. Great Article! Very insightful. I served as an executive director for over 16 years in a nonprofit organization that served a distress community. I know firsthand about “putting out fires” during typical work hours and remaining long after hours completing RFPs, research, and organizational reports.
    My saving grace was I had great mentors who encouraged me to incorporate a strategic plan that engaging key stakeholders in the organization’s sustainable strategies. Implementing this strategy reduce a productivity “bottleneck”; reduced my stress greatly; and increased our donor base.

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