I kept count. In 11 years, as CEO of a mid-sized sustainability nonprofit, I planned and attended 55 consecutive board meetings. I planned or attended another 243 myriad committee meetings (Finance and Administration, Development, Programs, Executive Committee, Governance Committee, and Councilor’s meetings). Is there such a thing as being too well governed? I once calculated that staff time devoted to just one board meeting cost $17,688.48 (in 2019 dollars). Was my job to figure out how to solve the global sustainability challenge or only to keep 20 board members happy and engaged?

At age 63, I quit my reasonably well-paying, “important” nonprofit leadership job. Because I cared deeply about the organization and its mission, I gave the board enough lead time to find and hire a qualified CEO, a critical position in any nonprofit.

Why would I quit when I could have ridden off into the sunset on my own timetable?

Like a lot of my peers in the nonprofit sector, I was burned out. This is not a COVID-19 story; my decision came a year before COVID. COVID became a pandemic on top of an existing epidemic of burnout. The question for me was: Are those of us in the social sector using our accumulated skills and intellect wisely, or are we caught up in an inefficient nonprofit industrial complex that seems more about keeping donors happy than solving problems? Time is just too short.

First, quitting is not quite the right word. It sounds defeatist. I did what author and behavioral economist John List calls optimal quitting in his new book The Voltage Effect. Optimal quitting is a kind of quitting when you realize there is an opportunity cost to continuing to do what you are doing. A term invented by economists, opportunity cost is the difference between what you will accomplish if you keep doing what you are doing vs. what you might accomplish in an alternative future. Of course, we can’t know the future. But we can imagine a different future, if we make time to imagine it.

Second, I know what many nonprofit staff are thinking: “I’m burned out too, but I need the paycheck. I have to play the game.” Most articles on nonprofit burnout offer advice to the nonprofit employee, as if it’s somehow their fault. It’s not. This article is directed to funders, boards, and other CEOs. It’s your responsibility to redirect what you’re asking of your staff. They are in the trenches every day trying to make the world a better place. It’s up to you to create a nonprofit workplace where staff have time to think about the problems they are trying so hard to solve.

Since I quit two years ago, I’ve had the two most productive years of my career. I’ve formed a new organization (I’m the sole employee right now) with a mission that aligns with what I think needs to be done to solve the climate problem—building broad relationships of trust across our political and cultural divides. I published a report with a lobsterman on the feasibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying Maine’s 4,600-lobster-boat fleet. I launched a new project with the timber industry to understand how forestry can help counter climate impacts on bird populations. I formed the Intergen Climate Group comprised of younger and older generations to learn how to work together, rather than separately or at odds, on the climate crisis. I even co-authored an article for SSIR with my 15-year-old colleague about what we learned from working together. I’ve raised over $500K in support from foundations for my new work. This was the “opportunity cost” John List was talking about.

Especially for people in the last third of their career, say age 50 or older, it is often too easy to just keep doing what you are doing. We get comfortable. Our job title becomes our identity. We become conservative—risk-averse. We lose sight of the question ‘What is it that am really good at? What am I still capable of?’ An economist might say ‘what’s my competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas?’ But a more honest question would be ‘what makes my heart sing?’ Likely, the two are the same.

By age 50 you know this about yourself. We rarely consider opportunity cost, and even less so as the years tick by. But as List explains in The Voltage Effect, the more time you sink into what you’re doing now, the more time you are missing out on life’s most precious resource—your inspiration and your gift, whatever that might be. It is never too late to take the fork in the road. But you can’t take the fork if you can’t see the fork.

Traveling too fast for too long leads to burnout. Driven by well-educated, well-meaning boards that do not ask hard questions (of themselves) about the root cause of the problems their organization is tackling, nonprofit staff are drowning in servicing the board, balancing budgets, growing revenue, doing financial gymnastics to deal with misguided funder overhead caps, and looking “good” externally so even more revenue can be raised to … continue not solving the biggest challenges of our time.

Early in my tenure as CEO I felt challenged. I was learning new things about running an organization. I was learning how boards functioned. I was learning how to be a leader, often through mistakes made and lessons learned. I was growing. But there is a difference between being challenged and being stressed. Being challenged is a positive experience. Being stressed is a counterproductive one. What can start out as good (a challenge) can transmogrify into bad (a stress). Knowing when the line is crossed from good to bad can be hard to see in the moment. For me, it was the recognition that “this is not challenging anymore. This is a waste of my particular talent.” The opportunity cost became clear as day.

Some stress is just a part of life. But when we are chronically stressed, we lose our problem-solving ability. In addition to the physiological toll on our bodies, we have no time to think. As Johann Hari writes in his new book Stolen Focus, “As a species, we are facing a slew of unprecedented tripwires and trapdoors—like the climate crisis—and, unlike previous generations, we are mostly not rising to solve our biggest challenges.” Here we are, facing the most complex problem in human history—how to “fix” the one atmosphere 7.9 billion people depend on—and we are too stressed to figure it out?

We’ve gotten to the point that if we don’t feel stressed we assume we’re not working hard enough. But only when we force ourselves to slow down can we see what we are distracting ourselves from—what really matters. Think of the hours we lose each day to what Hari calls “cognitive switching,” when we have to move from brush fire to brush fire, from email to email—all of which robs us of the unfragmented time required to really understand an issue. We’re awfully busy, but are we making a difference?

From an ROI (return on investment) point of view, this makes no sense. Donors and funders and boards, ask yourselves why are our problems not really getting solved? Hold yourselves accountable. Don’t make the staff run even faster on a rat wheel going nowhere. Yes, we win some battles, and our communications departments are masterful at marketing them, but we’re losing the war. Nonprofit staff, from the CEO on down, need time to understand and solve the problem their organization exists to solve. Instead of setting goals around growing revenue, how about a new idea to solve a big problem? We have a distorted sense of what matters in nonprofits. We need a cultural change that starts with nonprofit boards, and anyone or any organization that funds the nonprofit sector. I know foundation staff who are just as stressed. It makes me wonder where the ultimate origin of this insanity is coming from.

Andrew Barnes, CEO of a thriving trustee company in New Zealand had an outrageous idea on his flight from New Zealand to Qatar—cut his staff’s work hours from five days to four days a week, but with the same pay. He followed through. After the change, weekly productivity stayed the same as a five-day workweek. A staunch capitalist might conclude, “if you can produce as much in four days as you can in five then you are under-delivering in five days!” Of course, such logic is flawed. It’s the amount of downtime that causes the increase in productivity. As Barnes says in his 2020 book The 4 Day Week, “… as the global population grows, the middle-class swells and pressure on resources intensifies, there is an urgent need to change—in quite an extreme way—how we work, if we are to get the best out of people and commerce, and begin to relieve the strain on ourselves and our planet.”

More recently, Anna Coote, Aidan Harper, and Alfie Stirling, in their book The Case for a Four Day Week, make another data-driven case that a four-day workweek would deliver a range of social, environmental, and economic benefits. In February, 2022, California legislators even introduced a bill to redefine the workweek from 40 hours to 32.

The 20th-century mantra was “time is money.” Coote and her coauthors argue that time is more precious than money. Many of us in the nonprofit sector could make more money if we really wanted to, but we can’t make more time. Perhaps our 21st-century mantra should be “time to think is more precious than money.” Give people time to develop a real solution to a problem, and revenue will follow. Too many nonprofits have this backward—grow revenue first, then we’ll solve the problem. It’s too easy to create an illusion of success with successful fundraising.

This article is not advocating for a four-day workweek. That is not the point. The point is, we do not have time to truly think about the problems we are working so hard to solve. We should take one day a week, say our fifth day, just to think, to read, to talk to someone we wouldn’t ordinarily have time to talk to so we can get a different or fresh perspective on the problem we’re trying to solve. Boards and funders, ask nonprofit staff if they have the time they need to truly understand the problems they are tackling. And recognize they may be reluctant to tell you the truth. You enjoy a power differential that you may or may not be aware of. If you create the “space” for them, they will see solutions they could have never seen otherwise. You can create that culture.

For me, writing foundation proposals is now a joy because I see it as an opportunity to test new and exciting ideas for solving some of the most complex problems of the 21st century. For the first time in my 30-plus years in the nonprofit sector, I submit proposals early because, by design, I allocate plenty of time to think through the ideas and present them in writing. I have no pressure from a board to “grow revenue” at the expense of thinking just one coherent thought about how to make the world a better place.

Remember Aesop’s tortoise-and-hare fable? If we want to win the race, the first thing we’ll need to do is slow down.

Read more stories by John Hagan.