In a time when finding our footing is most challenging, nonprofit staff burnout is real. Social change organizations are not immune from “the great resignation.” And Gallup cites that levels of stress are higher than ever reported. With high demands on the nonprofit workforce’s people-power, donors and funders need to pay attention. 

Decreasing Stress by Decreasing the Grant Cycle Burden

In the early moments of the pandemic, the Council on Foundations urged foundations to provide flexibility to grantee partners. More than 800 funders followed this call to action to reduce stressors on grantees by simplifying applications, evaluation, and reporting amid the crisis.

And the nonprofits rejoiced. This call to action centered communication – and largely listening – in the full grantmaking cycle.  

Some funders took another step to allocate funds for grantee wellbeing and workforce support. One large funder shared candidly with this article’s author how they signaled their intentional support for wellbeing by offering an additional $5,000 to grantees to use without restriction on team wellbeing – funds that were put toward healthcare premiums, mental health support for individuals, and to offset other financial burdens. 

However, that initial tide of support for raising grant dollars and lowering grants administration is already receding. Data from the Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that:

  • 55% of foundations say their grantmaking changed somewhat in 2020 in response to the pandemic, and 42% reported their practices were “very different.” 
  • Only 21% of foundations said they had sustained all of those changes in 2021. 
  • 41% said they had sustained most changes, and 35% just some changes.

And the nonprofits despairingly returned to their keyboards to crank out another grant report. 

Nonprofits have for years called upon foundations to lower the administrative burden of fundraising so that staff and communities can be freed up to do programmatic work. The pandemic looked like a moment of true change at first. But that moment - optimistic in its responsiveness to the field - could be slipping away if grantmakers aren’t careful to institutionalize a new way of doing things.

Furthermore, there is indeed an impact in lightening the load for grantees and funding one-time wellbeing grants to support professional development and team-building funds, but the bigger call to action is for embedding funding for workforce well-being, mental health, and healing justice into regular grantmaking streams. 

A System We Can Change? Funding for Staff

Nonprofit leaders are used to the challenge, “how much goes to the mission?” when the people are delivering the mission. Ultimately, donors and funders have the power to directly and intentionally fund the people-power behind nonprofit programs. Funders have the ability to remove restrictions and reverse long-standing stagnation on funding equitable wages and providing multi-year support for core funding. 

Donors and funders can tackle inequity by ensuring that everyone who is fighting inequity at the community level has the chance to properly support their families and is set up for financial well-being -- with access to safe housing, education, healthcare, and retirement. 

In the Johnson Center’s 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2022 report, my colleagues and I specifically looked into the innovations in talent investment that are cropping up across the sector. These efforts are still nascent, but growing in popularity. This is one system we have the power to change all on our own. 

Funding Sabbaticals and Opportunities for Renewal

The costs of turnover, especially at the leadership level, comes at a cost –  up to 213% of an annual salary – but also with the loss of team morale, brain drain, and relationships with stakeholders. Turnover among fundraising professionals is notoriously endemic to the sector and itself comes with a high financial burden for organizations.

Several funders like the Virginia G. Piper Trust have long-standing and deeply meaningful sabbatical programs for community leaders that provide a stipend for a leader to take an intentional pause. Mary Jane Rynd, president and CEO of the Trust, notes that the diverse set of nonprofit leaders, now in their 21st cohort, have something in common ahead of their sabbatical – they are exhausted – and the community has both great respect and a great need for each leader’s renewal and reflection. 

What Rynd says makes the Piper Fellows program so unique, is the full support of the grantmaker’s Trustees. The support from the Trust for program alumni continues post-sabbatical, as Fellows are often funded in their renewed vision work, and even decades after their individual sabbatical, alumni are ingrained in ongoing programming, mentorship, and shared camaraderie.

With rest and renewal at the core, well-planned sabbatical programs are beneficial for the entire leadership of an organization. One study recommends funding sabbaticals as “a best practice in philanthropy for leadership development, succession planning, and organizational capacity building” and that ultimately sabbaticals are an investment in the long-term health of nonprofit organizations and the communities they serve.

Co-creators and Collective Impact

The cohort of organizations and funders who are committing to support nonprofit leaders in their well-being needs is fortunately growing.

Ashoka, Impact Hub, Porticus, the Skoll Foundation, and Synergos have co-created a project that has now emerged as The Wellbeing Project. This collective identified a need for personal support for social changemakers. The four pillars of the project include model programming; research and evaluation; learning, convening, and enabling; and storytelling and connecting. More than 200 global social change organizations and higher educational institutions have joined the growing coalition with the belief that “well-being inspires well-doing” in social change. 

The sector has an opportunity to normalize well-being support in the long term. The good news is that the first step is fairly clear. Shifting organizational infrastructure is an undertaking, but the first step is to ask, “What do you need?” and fund social impact organizations according to how they respond.

Original contribution by Mandy Sharp Eizinger, program manager, Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.