Foundations Are Concerned About Nonprofit Staff Burnout, Too

Seara Grundhoefer

“We are in what feels like daily crisis mode. Our staff is small and overtaxed. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to run the organization, and we haven’t had the luxury of much down time.”

The sentiment above was shared by a respondent to a CEP survey of nonprofit leaders earlier this year. Leaders of nonprofit organizations across the country are making difficult trade-offs between getting critically important work done and the exhausted staff who are doing that work. A top finding in the recently-released report based on these data — State of Nonprofits 2024: What Funders Need to Know is that there is significant concern, both ongoing and deepening, about staff and leadership burnout among nonprofit organizations.

In light of that, the Research team at CEP wanted to understand how funders are understanding, approaching, and acting on the subject of burnout, and more broadly, nonprofit staff mental health and well-being. In CEP’s newest Research Snapshot — a brief, data informed series designed to answer timely, specific questions relevant to funders — released today, we found that nonprofit leaders’ concern about burnout at their organizations is shared by leaders of foundations. More than a third of the 283 foundation leaders who responded to a CEP survey last fall indicated that they are concerned about staff burnout for most or all of the organizations they fund.

Foundation leaders also appear to see a relationship between burnout among their grantee organizations and their foundation’s ability to achieve its goals — more than 40 percent of foundation leaders said that grantee burnout has a ‘moderate’ to ‘significant’ impact on their foundation’s ability to achieve its own mission.

In addition, and perhaps unsurprisingly, funders having a greater understanding of their grantees’ well-being was related to a higher likelihood of action when it comes to supporting that well-being. While we found that the majority of funders say they have at least some degree of understanding about the current state of staff well-being within the organizations their foundation funds, about half report engaging in practices to support it. However, foundation leaders who report having a ‘deep’ understanding of the state of their grantees’ well-being are almost twice as likely to engage in practices to support well-being.

There are a number of ways funders approach offering that support. The most common practices surveyed foundations report using to support grantee staff well-being include asking about staff well-being during check-ins, providing capacity-building grants to support grantee staff well-being, and providing knowledge to grantees about practices to support staff well-being.

One recent example of a funder practice to support grantee well-being comes from the Allstate Foundation, which in 2023 awarded $400,000 in grants specifically for staff wellness programs to nonprofit organizations serving BIPOC survivors of gender-based violence. These organizations were then able to choose how to best allocate those dollars to their staff, be it equine therapy or wellness bonuses.

With research in the field indicating that there may be declining interest in nonprofit leadership, especially among people of color, it is more relevant than ever for funders to have an awareness of the state of their grantees’ well-being, as well as to consider what role, if any, they want to play in supporting the well-being of those that work at grantee organizations. We hope that this research can help to continue illuminating the challenges experienced by staff and leadership alike at nonprofit organizations, as well as highlight what foundations are thinking and doing about these important issues.

Seara Grundhoefer is an analyst on the Research team at CEP. Find her on LinkedIn.

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burnout, funder effectiveness, funder learning, funder-grantee relationship, research, well-being
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