Non-Profit Leadership: What Happens When Leaders Sacrifice Too Much?

Stressed mature business man rubbing eyes in office. African american businessman in formal feeling tired, fatigued, headache, depressed and anxious in office

I have the unusual privilege of speaking to non-profit leaders all over our country and even in other countries about some of the struggles they face in their organizations. Particularly with the many issues around COVID-19 and its variants there has been an allostatic load of stress and trauma for their staff, their organizations and for them. It has been alarming to hear some of the stories of such devastation to their clients and their communities.

The weight of non-profit management can be very heavy. Most of the non-profit leaders I speak with are very well-meaning, altruistic, willing to sacrifice for their mission and are feeling all the pressures that have been placed on them. The challenges are many! The resources can be very stretched. The staff are often overly stressed and there is a constant set of complex problems that can be overwhelming to resolve.

I certainly have been in these types of crisis management situations! It makes non-profit leaders feel very isolated. It has its own sense of administrative compassion fatigue. Some would call it traumatizing and others have referred to it as sacrifice syndrome. It is that sense of effectual leadership where leaders feel that the greater the crisis the more they must work in order to save the mission and all those served with their programs.

Often leaders find themselves emotionally and relationally compromised after long periods of this type of personal sacrifice. It is isolating, guilt-ridden, life-dominating and full of intense responsibility. In some circumstances we feel powerless and frozen and, in that incapacity, we begin to feel like we are obligated to have impact that is unattainable. That is a toxic level of responsibility that can feel overwhelming. 

It is important to realize that leaders are just as vulnerable as their staff and clients. There is a need for personal renewal in order to overcome this sacrifice syndrome. It means that we have to find and move towards supportive relationships. We must create boundaries to extreme levels of sacrifice and we understand our need for consistent doses of regulation.

Stressed male and female business persons sitting at desk, hard thinking about problem, shocked, bad news, company issues, mistake in work, big reduction in office

When our lives are in this high level of toxic stress, we tend to live in the lower part of our brain. In that brain stem we are living in high threat, hypersensitivity, our functional IQ drops, we have poor conception of time, our heart rate rises, our decision-making is more reflexive and extreme rather than cognitive and our overall sense of well-being is compromised.

It is essential that leaders become aware of their own stress and brain state. When we feel this sense of dysregulation and sacrifice syndrome, we must find ways to find regulation, calm, perspective and rest. Just as we are committed and intentional about our work and mission, we must also realize that it’s imperative to allow time and resources for our own regulation. We need to put strategic breaks in our schedule. We need to talk to other leaders who have good perspective on sacrifice syndrome. We need to build into our lives more normal and healthy activities such as music, a relaxing hobby, sports, hiking, family time, etc. 

Life balance that is not consumed with our work alone will allow a level of renewal that will reduce our stress and dysregulation. In so doing we will be less hypervigilant, more calm and better able to focus on our mission with more clarity and intentionality. From that stance, we are can then focus on creating a strong organization, empowering relationships and better life balance.

Gerry Vassar


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