Reflections, stories & ideas on non-profit leadership.

Stressed out?

Non-profit executive directors are dealing with a high level of stress, says a 2012 study. Driving Change: A National Study of Canadian Nonprofit Executive Leaders reports that nearly half of executive directors are experiencing levels of day-to-day stress that are excessive or approaching excessive. Are nonprofits unusually stressful places to work?

The impacts of stress on individuals, what causes it and what we can do about it has been the subject of numerous national reports both in Canada and the USA . Working conditions, broadly speaking, are certainly a source of stress for many people. Working conditions principally include the volume of work, the pace of work and one’s degree of control over the tasks involved.

The levels of stress reported in the study are those experienced by people in organizational leadership positions. This is likely not a surprise for the executive directors I know. Many would cite funding uncertainty and the burden of responsibility this carries with it for the welfare of both clients and agency staff as contributing to their stress. It is worth noting that the study was carried out under the auspices of the national HR Council for the Non-profit Sector, a body that had to close its doors last year because of the loss of federal government funding.

Is it likely though that nonprofit workplaces are more stressful than those in the private sector, especially in small businesses, for individuals of similar responsibilities? The Driving Change study does not reveal much about the causes or sources of stress faced by executive directors. Long working hours and unsupportive boards are clearly part of the picture it draws. It suggests that that these are problems that might cause a executive director to leave the sector, say to take a job in government. Volunteer boards would be well advised to be attentive to the quality of the work environment their organization provides for all staff and avoid taking their executive director’s commitment for granted.

The level of compensation paid to non-profit executive directors, as important an issue as it is in attracting and keeping talent, is not really a stress factor. People are attracted to non-profit organizations because of what they can do and the fact that, with small organizations especially, the potential for challenging and engaging roles is immense. The experience of leading a non-profit, some would say, cannot be beat.

It would be a mistake to think that executive directors and boards have their hands tied in addressing the stress associated with the work their organization does. Flexible hours, working from home, planned leaves, job sharing and attention to cultivating staff who can step into other roles can be considered. From a governance perspective, clearer direction through policy can help a lot. Social and emotional support in the workplace is also critical in helping alleviate the symptoms of stress and it would be interesting to know if non-profits in the social services field are any more attentive on this front than organizations in other sectors of the community.

It strikes me that one thing that an organization’s leadership can also do is be way more strategic in what their non-profit does in terms of both programming and revenue generation. Being “all over the map” has got to be stressful too.

Grant MacDonald

Written by Grant MacDonald

Grant MacDonald is a former Associate Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. For more than two decades, Grant has provided workshops, courses and print resources to a variety of small and medium sized non-profit organizations. Helping volunteer boards and executive directors to govern with purpose, passion, intellect and humour continues to engage and challenge him.

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  1. E. Grant MacDonald

    Addendum: A series of U.S. studies, the most recent being CompassPoint’s Daring to Lead 2011, A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership, covers some of the same territory as Driving Change. It too reports that poor board performance was a significant contributor to executive director burnout and attrition. However, it also suggests that executive director stress, where the board is part of the problem, is relieved by many people by their investing more time working with the board to increase its engagement. Executive directors who are skeptical of the board’s ability to add value put forth less effort which does little to address the level of stress they experience.

    Reply
  2. Keith McPhail

    Are there any comments about stress being driven by frozen or plunging funding tied to increased grant work and reporting? My board is incredibly engaged and supportive, but funders are spreading their dollars thinner, and expecting greater levels of reporting and / or grant request writing.

    Reply
  3. Ian Fleming

    A year of so ago,I stumbled across, Governing Good, while I was searching for enlightenment and direction over a major board upheaval, something that had blown-up over what at first seemed like a relatively insignificant procedural upset. Since my experience working on a non-profit board was limited, I was able to find solace and good advice from what I found on your site.
    At present I occupy the positions of VP, Secretary and Personnel Chair, and have found your articles on governance of great value as I make my way through the interesting challenges which face our organization. Just recently I placed before our board, the suggestion that we regularly devote a portion of our monthly board meetings to an exploration of the topics covered by your work. The idea was received positively. I’m looking forward to this process and wish to thank you for your prodigious efforts in assisting people like me. Your work is greatly appreciated.

    Ian Fleming
    Board VP
    Festival of Sound
    Parry Sound, Ontario

    Reply
    1. Grant MacDonald Post author

      Thanks so much, Ian for the the appreciation and encouragement. I have a number of posts in the works including ones on “difficult board conversations” and the role of board ex-officios, guests and advisors. Hope your board makes use of the resources on the site. One of the most useful is the Board Planning Calendar.

      Reply
  4. Cealean G

    Professor Grant,
    Thank you so much. I created small non-profit for HS students and you have saved me so much time from having to recreate the wheel. I have been able to customize the policies and utilize your suggestions from your article. I know I have my work cut out for me, however, reading your work gives me greater insight. Again, I thank you.

    Best Regards,
    Cealean Grinage, Executive Director
    Charlotte Youth Centre
    Charlotte, North Carolina
    USA

    Reply
    1. Grant MacDonald Post author

      Thanks for the acknowledgement. Heartening to know my resources are having a life in a new organization.

      Reply
  5. Meladul Haq Ahmadzai

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am studying nonprofit management at the Mount Royal University in Calgary. We are discussing organization culture so your input was useful to me in my studies.
    I agree with your points.
    Thanks again,

    Meladul Haq Ahmadzai
    Student, Mount Royal University

    Reply

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