11 April 2023

Healthy atmosphere: how to maintain the morale of non-profit sector employees

Burnout of employees within the non-profit sector is, ironically, a burning topic: recently, I’ve been noticing more and more discussions about burnout among charity workers and volunteers who spend a lot of time helping others. Although this issue is on the radar, it has not received sufficient attention and dissemination in practice.

Nevertheless, our research has shown that the exhaustion of charitable organisations’ staff is an urgent problem, as only 29% of charitable foundation employees in Ukraine show no signs of burnout. Spoiler alert: the war is not the only reason.

Causes and consequences of burnout in the charitable sector

The study confirms that charity workers often face exhaustion and burnout. This is a state in which a person feels tired, unwilling to work, irritated, and on the other hand, cannot stop and rest or give themselves time to breathe because of the feeling of duty and the need to help others 24/7. And the reason for this poisonous altruism is not only external pressure and expectations but also one’s own beliefs — because the main motivation for working in charity is the desire to do good and help others.

However, the impossibility of solving all the issues, the toxic attitude of colleagues or beneficiaries, and the lack of visible results from their work lead to a sense of helplessness. For example, an employee of a charitable foundation helping IDPs may face a situation where the number of requests for assistance far exceeds their capacity, or where recipients of assistance, instead of saying a simple “thank you,” accuse the benefactor of embezzlement, profiteering, and other mortal sins.

An additional factor in mental health deterioration is the lack of support and recognition from colleagues and management, which can make an employee feel insignificant and unappreciated. Although the study shows that the main causes of burnout are internal factors, such as personal qualities and emotionality, the most common triggers are organisational ones, including the climate in the team and the smoothness of all the processes. That is, chaos, lack of understanding of one’s responsibilities, pressure from management, and the inability to share experiences with colleagues all fuel professional burnout.

It probably goes without saying that staff fatigue in charitable foundations is a severe problem for the non-profit sector, as it can lead to a decrease in efficiency and negatively affect the sustainability of processes. In addition, exhaustion can affect the relationship between the foundation and its beneficiaries, as employees suffering from exhaustion may feel unable to help and lose motivation.

It is common practice in the charitable sector to work with limited resources, both financial and human, which can lead to overwork. The lack of sufficient funding for the organisation’s programs and assistance to beneficiaries is always at the forefront, and the establishment of work with the staff receives insufficient attention.

Instead, non-profits should commit to giving employees the tools to monitor their health and prevent and combat exhaustion. Group work with a psychologist or trainings have an educational function, provide practical tools for work and debunk myths about the weakness of those who seek professional help from a psychologist.

According to the test, burnout was recorded in 5 out of 20 respondents; another 12 are on the way. However, only 1 out of 5 noticed the presence of burnout through self-diagnosis, and 2 out of 12 noticed its approach. This shows that non-profit workers often do not admit to their condition and confuse burnout with daily fatigue.

What should we do to prevent burnout?

Organisations should be interested in preventing burnout because the consequences of the treatment are much more costly: at the first signs, a person will need 1-7 days to recover, and in later phases, this period increases to several weeks or even months. It is always easier to prevent than to deal with the consequences, but it is also easier said than done. Nevertheless, I am sharing ideas and effective methods that can help avoid exhaustion in charitable organisations:

Ensure reasonable planning of working hours. The distribution of tasks and rest should ensure employees have enough time to recover. Smart scheduling of work hours can help avoid overload and increase productivity.

Provide opportunities for training and development. Such opportunities can take the form of internal trainings, webinars, courses and may also include external trainings and conferences. This allows employees to shift their focus and share their experiences with others.

Open and effective communication. It is vital to maintain open communication within the team and with management. Employees should feel free to express their thoughts and ideas and to ask for help when needed.

Streamline processes within the organisation. Clear job descriptions, a workplace, decent financial rewards, and teamwork are great way to prevent burnout and increase appreciation for colleagues’ efforts.

Creating a positive working environment. The work climate should be comfortable and supportive. This can include creating special spaces for relaxation and development, the opportunity to attend courses and seminars to improve skills, and investing in technology to facilitate work. It’s also important to build strong teams by supporting collaboration, empathy, and mutual trust.

Control over the workload. Care should be taken not to overload employees with tasks that may lead to burnout. Management should regularly monitor work assignments and their distribution to employees and optimise the workload if necessary.

Maintaining a work-life balance. This is not only the responsibility of the organisation but also of the individual. Remember that weekends are for resting and recharging, vacations shouldn’t be jarring from work chat notifications, and evenings should be spent with family and friends, not planning your next work achievements.

The primary function of a leader is to choose the vector of development and make decisions, so make a choice in favour of the health and cohesion of your team. I am sure that this is one of the steps to building an effective and robust organisation.


Liubov Rainchuk
Deputy Director, Zagoriy Foundation