How Some People Face Tragedy Every Day and Don't Burn Out

Those who work for nonprofits and NGOs can avoid mental exhaustion by realizing they're not Superman.

Jenny Santi: There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get an email or phone call from a random person who wants advice on how to enter the nonprofit sector, to have a career in the nonprofit sector because they think it’s where they can find the most fulfillment. And this is really inspiring to see so many people, from young people to mid-career professionals, even retired professionals wanting to go into the social impact space because they are convinced that this is where they will find the most fulfillment. But, you know, the reverse can be true as well because burnout in the nonprofit sector is a very real thing. In fact, I once had a conversation with a group of monastics from the group of Thich Nhat Hanh that said that the people who visit their monastery in France to take some time off on a retreat are mostly coming from the nonprofit sector because they become so burned out; they become so disillusioned; they become just so fatigued by the causes, the nonstop activity that is required of them.

But I have also encountered so many people who — I mean they barely make a living and the way they make their living exposes them to the most miserable conditions on the planet where there’s abuse. There’s war; there is hunger; there is poverty. And there’s not even a comfortable place to sleep. And what is it? What is it about these people that keeps them happy regardless? And there are a few things that I learned. This is among the people who actually choose to be in the nonprofit sector. One is that they have a life outside of their work, you know. They do not associate themselves with the cause. They are not the cause. So they actually have an identity outside of their work and they treat it as a job like any other. The other thing I saw in these people is that they think win-win. You know when you’re in a situation where you’re constantly asking people for help, you’re constantly fundraising, you’re constantly asking for support, you know, to sign this petition, to donate to this cause then you start to feel that you’re in a position of need all the time. And that’s wrong because that can make you feel really depleted. What I saw in these people is that they see themselves as having something to offer all the time. So they don’t see themselves as a needy one in every situation. They actually see themselves as able to give something in return and that empowers them in a conversation. The other thing I noticed about people who are working in very, very miserable situations but nevertheless find so much fulfillment is that they are — they find strength in a group. They never do it alone and they don’t have what I call the founder syndrome. Sometimes when you’re too close to say the nonprofit that you started or the cause that your name stands for, then it becomes your identity and it becomes too closely entangled with every single thing about your life. The people I learned who maintain a healthy balance are those who are able to take a step back and still enjoy things outside their work.

Working for a nonprofit or NGO can be incredibly rewarding. It can also lead to debilitating mental exhaustion, especially for folks on the ground in areas where strife is the status quo.

How can the most driven, mission-oriented people keep their heads above water? According to philanthropy advisor Jenny Santi, the first step is realizing they're not Superman — one person cannot do it all. Then comes the understanding that placing oneself in a position of constant need results in burnout. Instead, those who professionally seek support for causes make sure to always give support to others in turn. The energy behind this reciprocation keeps the mental exhaustion at bay.

Santi's new book is titled The Giving Way to Happiness.


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