Urban Wire Addressing Burnout Is Critical to the Social Sector’s Success
Benjamin Soskis, Laura Tomasko
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A group of co-workers talking in an office.

The Great Resignation, the term used to describe the highest rate of workers quitting their jobs in more than two decades, has brought renewed attention to an old phenomenon: burnout.

Just as in many sectors, workers in the social sector have long experienced workforce challenges. But the turbulence of the past few years, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning, economic precarity, climate change, and polarization in American society, exacerbated pressures on the social sector. And these pressures are layered on top of a decades-long investment deficit in nonprofits stemming from narratives that vilify overhead and keep nonprofits in an infamous starvation cycle.

In January, the Urban Institute and George Mason University released a series of publications focused on defining the social sector’s support system—the social sector infrastructure—which offers services focused on sustainability, learning, relationships, and influence to the social sector. In a second set of publications released this week, we presented findings on infrastructure growth, financial insecurity, equity, and well-being. On this last point, we found that the social sector infrastructure has an important role in addressing the damaging effects of burnout so the social sector can thrive.

The toll of burnout

Our new reports found people in the social sector are exhausted, suffer from low morale, and are overworked—and this extends to the those who work within the social sector infrastructure.

It was equally clear how burnout constrains the means and resources—time and emotional and staff capacity—with which social sector entities can engage infrastructure supports and services. Many social sector staff and leadership simply don’t have time to invest in their own development because they’re overworked, a point especially true in underresourced organizations and those led by women of color, who face the double challenge of taking on more emotional labor at work while dealing with their own pandemic-related challenges and systemic racism.

And yet, we heard that even as those who work within the social sector experience burnout and are asked to assist in mitigating and overcoming it, there’s long been persistent narratives (coming from both inside and outside the sector) that seek to normalize or excuse burnout, to explain it in terms of a sacrificial ethos, that those who work within social sector entities are sometimes assumed to have subscribed to. As one research participant explained, there’s an expectation that those who work in the social sector will “bleed for the cause.”

A focus on well-being

One promising finding from our research suggests there’s a growing recognition of the unsustainability of this mindset and of the damage it’s caused, as well as a corresponding conviction that well-being must be more of a core focus and responsibility of social sector infrastructure.

We can see this in the emergence of social sector infrastructure providers like Fund the People, which seeks “to maximize investment in America’s nonprofit workforce,” and the Funders & Wellbeing Group, which aims to address the well-being of social sector workers. It’s also reflected in the increase in unionization efforts within nonprofits, often stemming from the search for better pay and benefits, increased diversity and equity, and flexible work arrangements.

Our study affirms how critical it is that all parts of the social sector infrastructure ecosystem—including those who provide infrastructure services, the social sector organizations that use them, and funders who support the social sector and its infrastructure—take steps to minimize burnout and support the well-being of staff and leadership. Our research participants suggested several ways of addressing burnout, including:

  • Social sector organizations and infrastructure providers can establish an organizational culture devoted to well-being by paying living wages and offering staff affordable and high-quality health insurance; flexible work environments; paid time off to encourage rest, reflection, and rejuvenation; and opportunities to participate in retreats and sabbaticals.
  • Funders can influence the well-being of the nonprofits they fund through multiyear, general operating support with minimal reporting requirements to relieve the burden of fundraising, contribute to equity within organizations, and allow organizations to hire sufficient staff, pay living wages, and offer good benefits packages and training opportunities.

Finally, those we spoke with also discussed the challenge of balancing a commitment to addressing the well-being of those who work within the social sector with realistic expectations about the amount of discomfort people might reasonably experience at their workplace from time to time and the level of healing that workplaces can offer. Managing this balance will likely be one of the key challenges facing the social sector infrastructure in its drive to promote well-being.


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Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Charitable giving Foundations and philanthropy Data and technology capacity of nonprofits Nonprofit sector trends Social sector infrastructure
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
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