Nonprofit survey reveals burnout, DEI struggles and triumphs

Burnout is real.

And nonprofits are feeling the pain like every other sector, according to a new report from the Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance.

The Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance’s “Nonprofit Community Assessment” launched in 2019 as a first-of-its-kind data collection project to help measure the overall health of the local nonprofit community. The results (collected every three years) track several important outcomes for Ottawa County-area nonprofits including demographic data, retention and talent level of staff, board practices, compensation data, the degree to which organizations are following best financial and operational practices, and the overall strategic nature of nonprofits.

No applicants

The second such survey — conducted this year — shows a high level of burnout among both employees and those at the executive level.

“We want nonprofit careers to be highly attractive,” says Patrick Cisler, executive director of Community SPOKE and the Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance.

Anecdotally, executive directors have told Cisler they have posted jobs and received zero applicants — something that hasn’t happened in 15 years.

There’s an old adage that nonprofit employers don’t need to pay their employees well, because those working in the sector are passionate about the work and will do it regardless.

“(LNA) has taken a stance that we can’t get by on that anymore. We have to evolve as a sector,” Cisler says. “Clearly the level of burnout that is happening among the staff is really concerning. A lot of these organizations, their mission is trying to alleviate poverty. We, as nonprofits, cannot be part of the problem we are trying to solve.”


The situation is improving, according to the report, though Cisler says more needs to be done to improve salary and benefits if nonprofits expect to be desirable places to work.

More nonprofits are offering cash bonus to staff for goal achievement (33% in 2021, compared with 18% in 2019), have a professional development budget for employees (81%, compared to 68%), offer health insurance to full-time employees and their families (49%, compared to 38%), and offer employee assistance programs to full-time staff (35%, compared to 26%).

The Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance will have a strategic focus on talent for the next few years, Cissler says.

The talent will be needed if trends continue on their current trajectory. Two-thirds of nonprofits reported increases to demand for their programs or services, compared to the previous year. Of the organizations reporting, 65% said they felt they were able to meet the demand. Most (77%) plan to scale up their existing offerings to meet the need.

Executive burnout

Employees aren’t the only ones feeling burned out. A third of nonprofit executive directors reported feeling exhausted in relations to their jobs and almost half believe their employees are feeling burned out.

The mass Boomer retirement was foreseen, but many executive directors have moved up retirement plans with about half “extremely satisfied” with their job and a third planning on leaving their position within the next three years, Cisler says. 

“I think the pandemic has had a role to play,” he says.

Good stuff

There are also some shining examples of what’s good in the West Michigan nonprofit sector. Area nonprofits tend to be financially much healthier than in other parts of the country.  Nearly every single nonprofit (96%) reported they have either collaborated with another nonprofit or plan to do so in the next six months.

Collaboration is something, Cisler says, that differentiates West Michigan from other areas.

“That is a key part of our collective success,” he says.


Area nonprofits have also been working hard over the past couple of years on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training and initiatives. 

“We’ve not seen the fruit yet,” Cisler says.

Much more needs to be done, he says. While 53% of area nonprofits have conducted DEI training with their staff, that number is 27% for board members (84% of whom are white, compared to 70% of nonprofit employees; almost no executive directors are people of color).

The survey, itself, is unique. Although similar surveys query nonprofits at a state- or nationwide level, few if any focus on a hyper-local level of detail. While the LNA uses the survey results to focus on areas that need improvement, Individual nonprofits use it for benchmarking what other area nonprofits are doing, paying their employees, etc.
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