Biz Journal: Philadelphia’s nonprofit leaders feel 'stressed,' 'exhausted,' says study - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 23, 2015 1:30 pm

Biz Journal: Philadelphia’s nonprofit leaders feel ‘stressed,’ ‘exhausted,’ says study

Are you a worried executive director at a nonprofit organization? You're not alone.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Business Journal here

Nonprofit leaders in the Philadelphia region aren’t feeling too positive about their current positions due to the lagging engagement from their boards, according to a new study.

Nearly 59 percent of respondents said they’re feeling “stressed,” “exhausted,” and “anxious and worried,” according to The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business that surveyed 231 executive directors.

Leaders are feeling negative emotions because these positions are becoming more stressful, especially after the Great Recession, which resulted in foundations making cutbacks on their grant giving.

One of the major responsibilities an organization’s board of directors has is to raise funds, and they’re not doing that, contributing to the overall stress put on executive directors, said Laura Otten, director of The Nonprofit Center and author of the survey.

“Those of us inside the sector get that. People outside the sector don’t think that. An executive director works harder and harder and their boards aren’t working as hard,” Otten said.

Otten recalled a conversation with a number of executive directors who said their boards would not do their responsibilities unless they were prodded to do them.

“The pressure that it’s not happening and the anxiety of the fact that it’s not happening falls on the executive director’s shoulders,” she said. “It’s this vicious cycle.”

One respondent said the executive director title is the “most overrated title in the world.”

“I know that what I do is important but I don’t find it personally rewarding most days. It’s fatiguing. I used to love my job when I was just the program director,” the respondent said. “I love my agency and what we do, but I put in a lot of hours and I would like to have more of a personal life.”

About 29 percent of those who said they would leave their positions within two years said they wanted to get away from the pressures of the job, 25 percent said they would retire and 25 percent said they are looking for new challenges and opportunities.

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Stressed but optimistic about the future

Although a majority of respondents felt negative emotions about their current positions, 70 percent said they feel optimistic about the future of their organizations. The contrasting results can be associated with cognitive dissonance.

“It’s how they justify all the work they did day in and day out,” she said. “You’ve got to believe that there is value in why you’re doing it. … If you don’t believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t know how you’d do it.”

About 65 percent said they would be staying with their organizations for at least two more years, leaving enough time for their board of directors to plan for their replacement. Nearly half of the respondents said they would focus on all aspects of the organization during their tenure.

Finding that replacement

Although leaders would be giving enough time for their boards to plan ahead, 63 percent said their organizations have no succession plan if they decide to resign. More than 10 percent of executive directors said they either asked or begged their boards to address the issue with no results, while only 3 percent said their board has acted quickly to create plans.

An organization’s board of directors must think about what it wants as it goes forward, but too few boards are thinking like that, Otten said. Instead, they go into “panic mode” when an executive leader leaves.

“When they’re in panic mode, they’re reactive and hire what they had … instead of seeing the transition to think strategically,” Otten said. “What they really need may not be what they had.”

Otten said executive directors in the Boomer generation had to do “the job of three for the salary of less than one,” but boards must now realize that the younger generation is looking to be properly compensated for the work they do and to have work-life balance.

Creating a position that takes some duties away from the executive director is one solution, said Otten, who created a financial manager position when she became leader of The Nonprofit Center in 2001.

“It’s an important wake-up call for boards to say, ‘How are we contributing to the stress, angst and frustration of our executive director?,'” Otten said. “They are because they’re not fully participating in their end of the bargain.”

Recovering after the recession

The study also found that 51 percent of the executive directors said they’ve experienced little to no economic recovery.

About 17.3 percent of respondents said they experienced no recovery at all, while only 5.2 percent of respondents reported a “great degree” of economic recovering. About 54 percent of the organizations said their recovery was slight or more than slight.

The arts-and-culture organizations are doing slightly better than the rest of the nonprofit sector, despite less grant-giving from traditional foundations, the study found.

During the recession, foundation funding fell 30 percent for the arts-and-culture sector, according to a report by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Nonprofits have started to recognize the need of attracting individual donors as opposed to depending on single sources like government or foundation grants, Otten said.

“Individuals make up the bulk. It is the board’s job to help cultivate individual donors,” she said. “When they’re not doing that, the need of that falls on executive director, but it’s a joint job.”

Image via Flickr User The Crystal Fairy

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