How do we prevent burnout in our philanthropic leaders?

Fri, 14 Apr 2023

The opportunity to create profound social change in the world does not come without significant professional and personal challenges for our philanthropic leaders. For too long, say the panellists in our webinar, the sector has accepted that this often results in burnout for many at the vanguard. 

On 12 April 2023, Philanthropy Australia hosted a timely and reflective webinar called Preventing Burnout: Advice for Leaders in Philanthropy. Panellists, who all shared their own insights and experiences of burnout, included Julia Keady (founding CEO of The Xfactor Collective), Cormach Evans (former CEO/MD of Ngarrimili and current founder/MD of Strong Brother Strong Sister), and Lyndon Galea (founder of Eat Up Australia). The panel was introduced by Philanthropy Australia CEO Jack Heath and convened by long-time sector adviser Nigel Harris AM. 

Julia describes The XFactor Collective’s charity arm as being the “only charity of its kind in Australia that focuses on the mental health and well-being of our sector” and noted that many leaders in philanthropy have great empathy and energy for others, but often struggle to save enough for themselves. She cited her organisation’s Reset 2020 study, which involved 330 organisations. “The results were alarming, but anecdotally we know that the situation is much worse now. 

“The key insights showed that 45% of organisation leaders who responded are ‘exhausted often or always’, 34% did not know where to find resources to support themselves or their teams, and 80% said that the large-scale exhaustion they experienced in 2020 was not about COVID but about the existing ways of working in the sector pre-COVID.” 

Her collective provides resources on its website and has used the Reset data to build a social sector well-being and resilience hub, which goes live in May. Julia spoke of the need for “well-being governance” and suggested that organisations put the issue on their board’s agenda without delay.  

Cormach’s organisations support well-being and mentoring programs for young First Nation people, as well indigenous businesses to be self-sufficient. He spoke about how his drive initially came from seeing too many members of his First Nations communities die from preventable diseases, and that led to his commitment being all-consuming. “After running three organisations in the last seven years, I found out what burn-out was,” he said. 

“In First Nations communities, we know everyone we’re working with. We know their families, their children, and there’s no s witching off at 5pm. You’re always available.” 

He said that it came “crashing down a few years ago”, and he began looking for more sustainable ways to work, which involved finding mentors himself and developing different ways for him to be involved.   

Lyndon told how he had set up Eat Up in 2013 after reading an article in his local Shepparton newspaper about local schoolchildren going hungry. Under his leadership, it grew to a sizeable volunteer organisation supplying scores of schools with free meals, but he reached a point in 2021 where he wanted to step back and left. Only months later though, having started a new job, he realised he wanted to return to Eat Up, after he felt his “fire roar again”. He is there again now in a spokesperson and advocacy role, but with another CEO at the helm.  

“It took a while to find our groove again … and it involved lots of frank and challenging conversations with the board. We’re aware that it doesn’t always work when a founder returns, but thankfully we all just wanted what’s best for the organisation and it’s working well,” he said. 

He highlighted the difficulty of knowing too well what’s at stake for the beneficiaries you serve. “Our organisations are often very stretched. We’re helping people in urgent need, and our work is focused on those outcomes, so the thought of stepping back or taking a moment for yourself is all the more challenging.” 

Other issues discussed included the importance of capacity building, funders providing more core funding, the detrimental influence of the language of scarcity, and the question of handing over power.  

Julia suggested that there are many opportunities for funders to break down barriers around power that will create freedom and space in the sector. 

A shift in power to the communities in need to be self-determining was essential, said Cormach. “Removing colonial shackles of philanthropy and handing over power to allow First Nations people to do what they need to do is really important. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of work with funders about how there’s beauty in handing over power. If we have those shared objectives and values, we don’t need to have the restraints. Do we need to have strenuous reporting when we know that person is doing the work? Look at the ways that funders work with fundees – is it sustainable or is it adding more constraints? There are so many ways to deconstruct it so people can thrive,” he said. 

It’s an important conversation that clearly needs to continue.  

Log into the Better Giving Hub to see the full webinar.