a volunteer group I founded years ago is devouring my life

A reader writes:

Almost five years ago, while I was in college, I founded and incorporated an all-volunteer nonprofit (“AVO”) in my hometown. A group of friends wanted to do it because we liked the field but couldn’t find another organization that provided appropriate opportunities, and I was cajoled into leadership. Now, it’s a drain on my ability to function and I can’t figure out how to leave.

The arrangement worked alright while I was studying in a semi-nearby city and could go home to run AVO’s major activities, but I abdicated real chances at in-college career development. I was so busy running remote AVO meetings, filing paperwork, developing procedures, conducting outreach, etc. that I couldn’t attend career fairs, take internships, or continue in my college honors program.

About a year and a half ago, I moved to a new city several states away for an internship that eventually turned into a job, and when that position became full-time, I nominally handed over the daily leadership to someone else—although I remained on the board to facilitate a transition. Around that time, the treasurer left because her then-new job caused conflicts of interest, and we discovered she hadn’t really been keeping books. Because my job gives me significant exposure to bookkeeping and accounting, and because I felt I couldn’t leave a giant mess for someone else to clean up, I agreed to develop a new accounting system and use my institutional memory to reconstruct years of old financial records.

These projects have gone fine technically, but they’ve unfortunately uncovered the depth of the organization’s financial troubles. Years when the former treasurer had mistakenly reported gains in fact saw massive losses, and I don’t know if AVO can continue operating much longer. Since I left daily leadership, my replacement has not conducted the kinds of positive outreach I did to ensure we had an active supporter base, so new funding has dwindled—and the rest of the board seems blind to the issues and keeps pushing for more expensive projects, citing quality concerns. Now, I’m terrified the organization will go under and I’ll be blamed for not pushing it through to sustainable success before I left—and I’ll get stuck personally paying its unpaid expenses.

In addition, since I left AVO’s daily leadership, responsibilities that I gave up have slowly been pushed back onto me. Paperwork, filings, publicity—I expected all these to transition, but I’m doing them in addition to the finance work I took on. When I say I want to leave at some point, I’m met with, “We need you! Don’t go!” or “You love us; you know you’ll never leave!”

I’m in my mid-20s and completely burned out—I work eight hours at a paid gig, come home and volunteer on my laptop for 4-6 hours, get very little sleep, am unable to do anything in my new city, and never see the impact of volunteering because AVO’s work takes place hours away—but I would appreciate someone telling me whether I should just suck it up and accept my choices thus far. My work at both AVO and my full-time job suffer because I’m stressed and distracted, but evidence says I’m naturally a high enough performer that I haven’t slumped to firing level.

I have a number of old friends in AVO whom I don’t want to lose over a possible exit strategy. I also have a close family member who volunteers with the organization and has repeatedly said he would be “very disappointed” in me if I left it in the lurch.

Suggestions? I feel like I’m drowning over here!

Oh my goodness, resign. Give them a few weeks of notice so that you can help transition your responsibilities to someone else, but let them know that at the end of that period, you will be fully exited from the organization and not available to help out.

You have already made major professional sacrifices for this organization. It’s impacting your paid job, your sleep, and your emotional health. That is not a reasonable price to pay, especially for an organization that you sound more than ready to move on from.

If people greet your announcement with “you won’t really ever leave” or “don’t go,” you need to hold firm. Say this: “I am indeed leaving, and I’m committed to not being involved at all after (date) because it won’t be possible with my schedule after that. I need you to take me seriously about this so that we can get the transition handled before that date.”

And I know it’s a cliche, but friends who will hold this against you are not true friends. Seriously — what kind of friends would cut you off because you moved on from an organization that you’ve already given an enormous amount to?

If someone accuses you of “leaving the organization in the lurch” (!), please respond by saying, “I gave plenty of notice when I decided to move on, and it wasn’t realistic for me to sacrifice my health and career simply because I was a founding member. People leave organizations. I’m sure you’ve left jobs yourself and that you don’t consider that a betrayal.”

If the person pushes, I hope you will say, “Since this is so important to you, I hope you’ll take the reins over there. I’ve given a huge amount of time over the last five years and now need to step aside.”

And really, people do leave organizations, both paid and unpaid. This is a normal thing that happens, and if an organization can’t survive that, it wasn’t going to survive in the long-term anyway. And that can be okay; not every organization needs to survive forever. Some do good work for a period of time and then dissolve. That’s fine. That’s normal. It doesn’t take away from the value of the work the organization did previously.

As for the possibility of being stuck paying the organization’s debts because you’re still on the board, that’s not a given but you need to look at the organization’s bylaws to find out what your legal and financial responsibilities are as a board member. (Hopefully the organization has directors and officers’ insurance, although with an all-volunteer group, it’s possible that you don’t.) And frankly, that’s all the more reason to officially extract yourself from the board now.

And as for your worry that you’ll be blamed if the organization goes under, there’s an entire board full of people who are responsible for governing this organization (and who sound like they’ve been misgoverning it for a while). Anyone who would blame you in particular for this would have to have really disordered vision.

Really, though, you’ve given quite a lot. Everything in your letter is screaming that it’s well past time for you to fully step aside. Do it without guilt.

Read an update to this letter

{ 214 comments… read them below }

  1. seejay*

    I wasn’t the founding member in a volunteer group I was part of, but I had one of the central roles in dealing with 75% of the victims that came to us, plus a bunch of other responsibilities and I hit burnout point after 10 years. I stuck it out for another two years, despite the stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness it was causing me because I felt like if I wasn’t helping those victims, *no one* was going to reach out to them. The day I cracked was when a report came in from a genuine harassment victim (some of the cases were questionable, some were two-way fights that we didn’t get involved in) and I literally read through it and said to my screen out loud “I don’t care about you anymore”. That was a startling awakening point there and that’s when I contacted my supervisor and told her I had to step back and I couldn’t do it anymore. My empathy well had been drained completely.

    Don’t let yourself hit that point. You’re nearly there. There will always be a good cause to chase after but there’s only one of you and you can’t replace yourself. If the organization folds, it folds. You can find another one to join or start another one when you’re in a better place. And if this one is in the mess its in, it might be better to let it fold and disband instead of trying to recover it.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      That’s how they snare you. “If you don’t sacrifice another four hours of your waking life to propping up this collapsing house of cards, no one is going to accomplish this desperately important mission!”

      It’d be a really cool angle for a superhero move to explore, actually – that crushing feeling of perpetual, desperate obligation, and not being able to escape the crushing black hole of need that’s consuming you.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          It’d be fun if it were kind of an ostensibly goofy, campy character, too. Like….Squirrel Girl.

          1. PollyQ*

            Nooooo! I hope from the bottom of my heart that no one ever shows us a “darker, edgier” Squirrel Girl.

            Batman, though. You could totally do it with Batman.

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              He’s already gone all emo and dark and stuff. What I was really hoping is this is where Captain America: Civil War would have gone, with him getting totally disillusioned and heartbroken, but instead we got giant floating drone aircraft carriers with machine guns.

              1. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

                Superman is this character. The movies never play with it, though, because they all want to go grimdark and ask “but what if he’s not perfect” instead of playing up that he is perfect, and he still cant do everything.

                1. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

                  And to make this less of a tangent and to get back to OP, think about this…not even Superman can save the world. Other people have to do their share.

                2. NPDBJ*

                  Absolutely this is a Superman story. Didn’t anyone pay attention to Batman vs. Superman, or were they all too angry because the title fight was only 3 minutes or so?

            2. Judy Johnsen*

              A middle aged out of shape woman in a Wonder Woman Costume? Could she play that part? I fit the description down to a T.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I loved the Newsflesh books, I’ll have to check it out.

          2. Noobtastic*

            It’s been years since I’ve seen Hancock, but I think they sort of kinda touched on it with him.

        2. diaphanous*

          Look up the “Union Dues” series of short stories by Jeffrey R Derego. They’re about super heroes and their governing body/trade organization and are, if memory serves, a pretty dark take on what it’s like to have super powers.

      1. seejay*

        The good organizations don’t expect it out of you though… a lot of volunteers do it to themselves. My supervisor wasn’t expecting herculean tasks out of me, I was killing myself with it because I believed in what we did and I had a passion for it (I was helping victims of the exact type of harassment I’d experienced myself and it was one of the ways I was fighting back against it, plus it was one of the ways I could keep a set of skills I’d developed in practice). When I hit bottom and approached my supervisor about it, she was completely 100% understanding and worked with me to find a way I could stay involved in the organization in a more limited capacity that wasn’t destroying my empathy buckets anymore (in short, I stopped working with victims and only worked as a consultant to junior advocates instead to help guide them through cases, as well as managing other parts of the group).

        Sometimes volunteers do it to themselves instead of the organization being a sucking existential black hole of need. ^_^

        1. Noobtastic*

          Yes, that’s true. Doesn’t sound like the OP’s situation, though, or they wouldn’t be fighting her leaving, and piling stuff back on her.

          A good organization works with you, as your needs and abilities ebb and flow. A good organization will re-assign you, temporarily or permanently, as needed to keep you around and happy and fulfilled, and performing at your peak.

      2. Erin*

        Buffy the Vampire Slayer explores this concept quite a few times over the course of the show. They won’t even let her die in peace!

        1. lowercase holly*

          ha, i also thought of buffy. the episode with the little league kid in a coma. “What, you
          were the only one playing? There wasn’t eight other people on your team?”

      3. Cassandra*

        Not a movie, but an early Astro City (Busiek) addresses this with its Superman expy character Samaritan and Wonder Woman expy character Winged Justice.

        Astro City’s pretty good, though a little of what TVTropes calls “Anvilicious” sometimes. I recommend it.

        1. Kraziekat*

          Don’t bring TV Tropes in here, do you wanna ruin people’s lives!? (I’m joking, for those who don’t get it.

      4. Tax Accountant*

        That whole thing is actually explored somewhat in Buffy. Once she has to start sacrificing everything to “save the world”.

      5. namelrsscommentator*

        Read some of Paul farmer’s books ;)

        Both an inspiration and a cautionary tale imo.

        1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

          Thanks for the tips, but I know Alison wants us to stay on topic, and having derailed it, I feel obligated to end the tangent.

      6. Ted Mosby*

        Great point. If you alone are the difference between success and complete collapse, that in and of itself is a huge issue.

      7. Kalica*

        Ooh, the web serial Worm.
        It’s what happens when the entire system fails a teenager so hard her mental trauma gives her superpowers. And then even more adult figures of responsibility fail her. ALL THE ADULTS FAIL HER.

        Just what do you think a girl with no one to turn to will do when her back’s against a wall? How far will she go? Nope, nope, further than that. She’s known as the Queen of Escalation by the fan base for a reason.

        It’s just a bonus that the entire thing is free to read on the internet right now.

      8. Buu*

        I recommend the Alias:Jessica Jones comic, in the comics she becomes a PI after a super hero. She quits super heroing because of something horrible that happens to her and a lot of other people are pretty mad at her about it.

        ( As in the series some dark themes in there though, so be warned before you read it).

    2. Temperance*

      I have hit a serious compassion fatigue wall lately with my work, and I’m trying to transition to normal corporate stuff because I just can’t anymore. I feel like a bad person, but I am starting to get pissy and eyerolly when certain clients call me 5 times on a weekend day.

      1. seejay*

        I initially got sucked in too much with the cases I worked on and had to figure out how to wall off my emotions and compassion since it was way too emotionally draining to *always* get emotionally vested into each case, then we’d get some that were clearly easy to write off, where there weren’t actual victims involved (without getting into details, sometimes it was two-way fights that blew out of proportion that someone would eventually try to get us involved in because they wanted to try to wield a larger “stick” against someone else, or false reports, or in some cases it would be legitimate harassment scenarios but the victims wouldn’t actually take our advice, which means we’d have to disengage as an organization). Those scenarios I found easier to navigate my head around.

        But there were still serious cases that even 10 years later could suck me in, that I had a hard time not getting my heart into. Some hit too close to home personally, or I could really identify with the people involved or I felt like I could reach through and really help and be supportive, and being that little bit of understanding for someone made it worth the effort. Then the day came when that report came in and I could tell it was a real, valid case with a legitimate case and worth the time and effort and all I could drum up was “I don’t care anymore”. I don’t know if it was too many of the bad cases that broke me, the length of time, the drain, or just anything… but yeah, I hit the bottom and the compassion was gone so I knew I had to stop before it came out towards someone who needed help and didn’t deserve it. ><

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        You’re not a bad person, Temperance. But it sounds like you really need a break, and you also need distance from the clingier clients. I’m super sympathetic—it’s so difficult to balance compassion with boundaries when you’re working with populations that are systematically dehumanized or ignored.

        I think it’s ok to take a big step back. I also think it might help, if you decide you do want to keep more of your pro bono cases/clients down the road, to get additional support about vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and dealing with what I call the “social worker” aspects of representation. But it’s also totally ok to say, “not for me.” Those issues are a big part of why I don’t do criminal defense and why I don’t do DV work anymore.

      3. Detective Amy Santiago*

        It definitely doesn’t make you a bad person to need a break, especially in the current climate if I’m remembering correctly the kind of work you do.

      4. Sylvia*

        Not a bad person. A good person who’s not superhuman. Take care of yourself.

        Giving yourself something of a break will give you a chance to renew whatever made you passionate about your work to begin with, so you improve whatever you do in the future, too.

        I have worked through burnout several times and nothing worthwhile ever came of it. In fact, there were other people who could have taken over my work.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Absolutely. OP, come up with your exit plan and commit to it. You’re not the person leaving anyone in a lurch, and you are not the lynchpin holding the group together. As LQ notes downthread, no organization can survive, let alone thrive, by resting on one person. And please don’t let them con or guilt you into paying off their expenses (!).

      From what I understand, you have a replacement (an ED-type?) who underperforms, and you have an ex-Treasurer who completely failed to do any of the tasks asked of her. In the non-volunteer world, the first would be fired for poor performance, and the latter would be fired and hit with a malpractice lawsuit. And you’ve also incurred direct harms to your health and wellbeing, including having to drop out of your college honors program (!!!). Meanwhile, you have a Board who sounds completely divorced from reality and unwilling to step up or to transition because they know they can guilt you into staying. The Board needs to step up or to dissolve the organization; there’s no other option at this point (and continuing to burden you is not an option).

      It’s time to leave. I know it’s tempting to try to step back slowly, but based on what you’ve described, I think you have to make a full, clean break. If you have any friends who make you feel bad about it, screw them—they’re not your friends. And the close family member is being an unmitigated jerk. They can take their disappointment and smoke it. If those folks want to preserve the organization, they need to put in time and/or recruit other volunteers and enlist help. “Destroying OP’s life” is not a viable alternative.

      If it makes you feel better, most nonprofits fail within the first 5-10 years, and many established nonprofits fail the first time they have to do a major leadership transition. It doesn’t mean that the people working there or on the folks on the Board are failures. It just means there’s not the resources or capacity for it to continue in its present form, and it’s a really normal feature of organizations (the numbers are even more stark for private companies). You can’t do good for the world if you’re not taking care of yourself, and right now, you’re not. It’s ok to refocus your energy, and it’s ok to leave. I’m wishing you support and strength to make it happen.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        +1000, esp. on the close family member. If close family member thinks it’s so important, he can step up and do the work himself. Just because you founded the organization five years ago does NOT mean that you have to be the one to run it until you die.

    4. Noobtastic*

      Mine was when I started accusing the victims of lying. Oh, not to their faces, fortunately, But when I realized that I believed ALL of them were lying, I knew it was time to leave.

      Also, yes, it will be a pain, short-term, if the AVO folds. However, if you get your groove back, and want to start a new one, you will have more experience and know what you’re doing to avoid the pitfalls of this one. You’ll know to keep better tabs on the financials, and to get someone who actually knows what they’re doing to handle the financials. You’ll know to limit everyone’s volunteer time to allow them to maintain work/life/volunteer balance, so that NONE of you get burned out. You’ll know to recognize the signs in yourself and others, and know when to act, if someone is overreaching. You’ll know how to properly delegate and enforce that delegation, and how to properly divide up the work so that it does get done.

      Letting this one fail may be the exact thing that you need, and in fact, may be best long-term for the very people you would serve in the future. Yes, it sucks, short-term, but long-term is a whole different thing.

      1. Casuan*

        Wo, Noobtastic. That was some major volunteer burnout & it’s good you recognised that!
        Excellent point about how the long-term strategy… a well-meaning organisation can potentially fail the very people it was designed to serve because of burnout or mismanagement. AVO LW can avoid this with a good exit strategy &or dissolution of the AVO.

      2. AVO LW*

        This is a great way to look at things–even if this one folds, I’ll have the perspective to be better able to help other orgs out in the future, if the road leads that way. Thank you, Noobtastic.

        1. Chinook*

          The thing to remember is That, if the AVO folds, then it is because no one else though it important enough to step up and take over. That can be a clear indication rhat it is served its purpose and should be allowed to die its natural death. Not every WHO should go on for eternity.

          Is it hard to see something you feel passionately about some to an end. Of course. But that doesn’t mean the OP, or anyone, should lose themselves to it.

          I have spent the last 4 .months watching the AVO I was president of flounder without a new president (I did my stated term and am guiding the council from the position of past president). I know I am moving in the next year (even if no one else does, I am waiting for a firm date) so someone else has to take charge, even if they are doing it wrong (or not my way). I made a choice to leave a hike to be filled by someone rather than just step up because, if there is no void, no one will ever feel the need to fill it.

  2. Pup Seal*

    Alison’s response is spot on.

    I work at a (dysfunctional) non-profit close to bankrupting, and my supervisor and coworkers know I want to leave, though they have said our organization will go further downhill if I leave. Big Boss (who may or may not know I want to leave) once said “I need you” to keep business running. Even so, I’m leaving in July.

    For-profit or non-profit, a business should NEVER rely on just one employee to keep going. That’s not fair to that person, and it’s just bad business practice.

    1. ZenJen*

      Years ago, I worked at a nonprofit business that was on its way to failing, and it was nuts–the ED wanted us to keep working no matter what (whether our checks were about to be frozen because they were still waiting for funds to come in). I spent my time actively jobhunting (which everyone there was trying to guilt-trip me over), and was so glad to finally leave that org, which closed 1 month after I left.

    2. Greg M.*

      if they realize it’s gonna fall apart without you and they make no changes to the organization to fix that then it’s still time to get out.

    3. Amber*

      “For-profit or non-profit, a business should NEVER rely on just one employee to keep going. That’s not fair to that person, and it’s just bad business practice.”

      I completely agree. I’m in a position now where I’m regularly told that the team and project will fall apart without me. And I agree, yes it will. And since I had given ample warning to the company that I was job searching and they choose to not find anyone to replace me or even someone for me to train, if the project falls apart once I leave, that’s on them.

  3. Marcy Marketer*

    Alison, is she worried that because she filed and incorporated the non profit, she’ll get stuck with expenses? Might be worth it to get advice from a lawyer.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The first step is to look at the bylaws. Depending on what’s there, a lawyer may be a good idea (and certainly wouldn’t hurt regardless).

        1. AVO LW*

          Letter writer here. Yes, there are bylaws. I co-wrote them (the co-author has long since left), although we naively did not envision a situation where financial need rather than more positive circumstances would lead to a potential dissolution. They therefore specify how to distribute remaining assets (among similar 501c3 organizations), but not who has to pay if assets won’t cover remaining expenses.

          Thank you, in any case, to Marcy Marketer for pointing out the possible need to seek a lawyer if things don’t go smoothly. To answer Alison’s question in her original response, we do not have D&O insurance, simply because it would more than double our annual insurance premiums.

          1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            Thanks for chiming in! I just mention because I was involved with an org that, believe it or not, had once had bylaws but absolutely nobody had a digital or paper copy of the document anywhere.

            1. AVO LW*

              o.O Yikes! I hope it didn’t end poorly for you.. Ours (along with records of the amendments) are stored online in a place where all of our volunteers can access them.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Thankfully, I was very low on the totem pole there, and just taught seminars as a volunteer – so when it started to implode, I could just step to the side and watch the wreckage settle.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            That sucks, OP—I’m sorry. Generally speaking, the if the liabilities exceed the assets, you end up in a bankruptcy situation. However, if there’s a failure on the Board’s part to fulfill its fiduciary duties (which sounds highly possible), in the absence of D&O insurance, the organization’s liabilities usually transfer equally to the Board members. :(

            But please talk to a lawyer who knows the rules in your state. Each state has very different ways of dealing with underwater nonprofits, and it will help to know if you have any financial risk.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Ideally she should not get stuck with expenses because if the organization is incorporated, it’s a separate legal entity.

      I will say that the Board appears to have completely failed, as well, which is what’s adding to OP’s stress. The Board is required to review financials and look out for the organization’s financial health. It’s ludicrous to discuss quality of services when you’re not balancing your books. Further, forcing a volunteer to pay your bills (when you’re theoretically taking in income) is a massive red flag for most oversight agencies. I don’t say that to stress OP out, but rather, to be clear that there are legal norms/boundaries around what you can make private people pay into a nonprofit. But creditors can come after Board members individually if they can show the Board didn’t exercise proper oversight, particularly with respect to finances.

      Those legal parameters don’t help with the social/peer pressure, but OP should know that they have no individual obligation to bail the nonprofit out when its Treasurer was malfeasant.

      1. JGray*

        I was going to point out the same thing that the board is ultimately responsible here and so is the incompetent treasurer. A board should always ask questions on teh information presented to them- I think that sometimes that doesn’t happen as much as it should in non-profits. I have worked for non-profits and sometimes its good and sometimes its bad. I have been lucky in the places I have worked have been good but at one the actual program was good but the head of the parent organization was a manipulative person who said one thing and did another which made it hard when my boss retired and he manipulated everything. I left about 10 months later.

        1. TootsNYC*

          The board should also have been auditing the books. Even if that was simply a self-audit (you get three people to go through all the financial papers) every other year.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            This. The group I volunteer with has an outside audit of the books done every year. And it’s totally worth it.

  4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    “If the person pushes, I hope you will say, “Since this is so important to you, I hope you’ll take the reins over there. I’ve given a huge amount of time over the last five years and now need to step aside.”

    I’d say this to everyone on the board or in the org who tries to guilt-trip you. “Since you seem so concerned about the financial aspects, why don’t we transition those responsibilities to you?” “Since you’re so worried about outreach and fundraising, I think you’d be a fantastic person to take over those duties!” “Well, sounds like you’re volunteering to take over the filings! Let me teach you how.”

    And you’re not leaving the org in the lurch. If you give a reasonable timeframe for transition – say, three months, four at most – and give those currently involved in the organization’s leadership adequate notice and assist them with getting your replacements up to speed, you’re not leaving them in the lurch. If they decide to stay in the lurch after you leave, that’s on them. Same as if people blame you – you’re not the ED anymore, you’re not on the board anymore, the stick isn’t in your hands anymore. If they chose to overburden a single person with critical tasks with no fallback, once again: that is 100% their responsibility.

    You are not the ED in Absentia, and it’s not all on you to keep this thing afloat.

    1. ZenJen*

      I wouldn’t give them a few months–the letter writer is already so burned out, I think Allison’s timeline of a few weeks is more reasonable. Push EVERYTHING back to the board/staff. They are adults and will figure it out.
      I hope the letter writer learns to set boundaries as they transfer everything over to the current staff, otherwise they will NEVER be free of the stress of the organization, unfortunately. And, LW, once you’re free of the burden of the organization, ENJOY YOUR 20s!!!!

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        You’re right, it’s too late for that. And god, yes, enjoy your 20s! Enjoy being young! Go do stuff and experience things, rather than propping up this madhouse any more than you are.

  5. SaraV*

    Alison basically said everything I was thinking while I was reading your letter. If something, whatever that something may be, is affecting your personal wellness, and there’s no end in sight, then that something needs to be removed from your life.
    And I’m of the opinion that if people will think ill of you if you leave, then they aren’t true friends. I can certainly understand them being disappointed, but to think bad of you for leaving to take care of yourself is not very “friend-like”.
    All the best to you, OP!

  6. paul*

    Are you legally liable for any of its expenses? I’m not qualified to answer, but maybe you know, and if not you should contact an attorney.

    If not…I hate to say this but a *ton* of AVO’s fail; its’ why I’m skeptical as hell any time we partner with one, particularly a newer one.

    Given that they’ve pushed responsibilities back on you before, be prepared to be very firm. Give them 2-4 weeks notice, and hell, maybe let them know you’re going to filter calls and emails from them after that period of time.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      OP probably isn’t, but the Board might be individually liable (unless they carry insurance). But I say don’t cross that bridge at this point. If the organization needs to fold to meet its bills, and there’s no clear “recovery” plan in place, then the best outcome is probably to dissolve.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Do they “fail,” or do they “come to the end of their lifespan”?

      All organisms have a set lifespan. (OK, some trees apparently live for nearly forever, but…)
      Some of them die earlier from damage, but they all die eventually. And some of them are very short-lived (mice) while others live much longer (whales).

      But the organism comes to a natural end.

      And what is an organization but a theoretical organism?

      1. New Window*


        This is a fantastic metaphor, and one that would probably be more constructive when we/people/the world at large talks about subjects like this.

  7. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*


    “d as for your worry that you’ll be blamed if the organization goes under, there’s an entire board full of people who are responsible for governing this organization (and who sound like they’ve been misgoverning it for a while). Anyone who would blame you in particular for this would have to have really disordered vision.”

    The problem is that nonprofits seem to attract large numbers of people who have a great passion for the mission, and who participate enthusiastically in the mission while contributing to the boring nitty-gritty stuff either unenthusiastically or incompetently or both….leading to a small number of highly competent, committed people bearing the crushing weight of both the mission and the nitty-gritty on behalf of all the passionate ones who can’t be arsed to, say, do the books right, or actually call donors and ask for donations.

    Yes, I’ve been involved in badly run nonprofits, why do you ask?

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Oh, and god help you if you actually hold anybody accountable. How DARE you call me to the mat for wasting $100,000? This is about the children/endangered species/land trust/underserved, not about these petty concerns, but if you won’t leave it alone, I’ll be forced to leave in high dudgeon and tell everyone what a group of little fascists run this place!

      1. paul*


        Oh god. Oh god. You’re reminding of the PR backlash we got for withdrawing from a partnership with an agency that was just….it put the Dis in dysfunction. God forbid we ask about measuring *anything* like where the damn money’s going, if what you’re doing is actually working, etc.

        1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

          I hear you. My organization gives funds to several AVOs. One in particular is giving me fits. Trying to get them to correct some significant ethical issues just seems to keep escalating to new and ever more annoying levels of public explanations. It’s not that we don’t care about The Cause (of course we do, we’re giving you money for it), it’s that we also care about the law. In my experience, orgaizations who can’t or won’t administer competently end up undermining service to the people they’re trying to help, by the end. Helping them stay afloat when they aren’t improving is not a community service.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Oh god. You’re actually getting the “it’s not technically embezzlement and in any case we’re losing sight of the bigger picture, which is these poor, poor puppies” defense. Eeeeeek. Run and hiiiiiiide.

  8. Flapjack*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. Nobody else is putting you first, OP. You have to put you first before you burn out.

    1. MoinMoin*

      And if you burn out, you’ll probably end up leaving the AVO anyway but without notice.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This is a great point. Leave now while you still have the energy to transition your work, not in two years when you run screaming from the entire situation.

      2. AVO LW*

        This is, as Alison says, a great point. Thank you for bringing it up. It’s probably also something I can use to initiate a transition. “If I continue to do all of this, I’ll be more likely to leave on bad terms later. Let’s make this happen while I still have the energy for it,” or something like that.

        1. Fluffer Nutter*

          You can’t throw a rock in my city without hitting someone who wants to start their own non profit to supplement the approximately 2,000 we already have. People, merge! join forces! Point being, great minds think alike and if the organization closes, someone else will probably (or already is) pick up the slack and pursue the same mission. Fly, OP be free!

        2. Heavysnaxx*

          OP, I am so impressed by you. I’ve been in non-profits as volunteer, staff, and board for 25+ years and I see you doing what people — particularly founders — have a very hard time doing: leaving in a constructive way. You’ve avoided “founder’s syndrome”! This speaks volumes.

          If you could one thing for yourself and the org, please do this: Frame it as organizational “succession planning,” issue even though, for you, it is a more individual exit strategy. You’re an example of how dealing with succession isn’t just about us Olds retiring or whatever. It’s something many orgs don’t deal with and that ends up creating chaos when someone quite reasonably decides to move on.

          Good luck – you deserve it.

  9. Amber Rose*

    Anyone who wants to blame you if it goes under is out of their gourd. You’ve given more than anyone ever should for longer than you should have.

    You did a good job. I know it’s your baby, but it’s time to let go.

  10. Sigrid*

    OP, do what Alison says. Make a firm date (a couple weeks away — not more than a month at the absolute longest) when you will no longer be part of the organization, inform everyone, and then leave. Draw a hard line and under ABSOLUTELY NO circumstances agree to do something for the organization after you leave, even for something small. People *will* try to get you to do “just this little thing, it would help us out so much” and then that will lead to bigger and bigger things and you will get sucked right back in. You need to draw a firm line and hold to it. These things devour conscientious people.

    Personal story, my wife was on the board of two AVOs for over five years, and like you, she was one of the few (sometimes the only) competent people involved. They gradually consumed more and more of her time and energy, and everything else in her life suffered. She was finally convinced to cut ties last year and she has become almost a new person. She’s so much happier now she has time and energy and mental space for herself and the other things in life she values. Please, follow her example. You don’t deserve to have your soul sucked out by this organization, even if you did found it. No one deserves that.

  11. pgrmmgr*

    You have done what you can and you should feel confident in that. If you have personal liability for any of the organization’s debts or bills, you should find out how to resolve those now to limit your responsibility, but otherwise you should set a deadline and take care of yourself.

    I have had similar (though not as intense) issues working for a mid-sized non-profit – they essentailly stopped offering the service I was responsible for once I left, and have since lost funding, and a non-profit I sat on the board of, which essentially ignored my requests to tranisiton out of a leadership role until there was no option for them to do without me when I went on maternity leave and didn’t come back… In both cases, I did what I could to leave them in a good position, but recognize that I need to take care of myself and not worry about making up for others shortcomings.

  12. Me2*

    I was on the board of a small non-profit arts organization and we were rapidly depleting the abilites and goodwill of our two paid employees. At a board meeting, every single member took turns saying “we need to do this” and “we need to do that” but no one volunteered to do a single thing except make suggestions of what needed to be done. It was my first board responsibility and in my youth and innocence I asked exactly what board members were willing to do to sustain the mission of the organization and said I was willing to solicit new corporate donors. Crickets. No organization is sustainable without the efforts of many. Needless to say, they folded within another two years.

    This past year a friend chaired an auction/fundraiser for another small non-profit. She rapidly found out that no one would help in any way. It became very clear that the support for the fundraiser was not there and she cancelled the event. Sometimes you have to know when to fold your tents.

    Good luck, OP, it might be time to let this one go.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Everybody wants to be a queen bee, nobody wants to be a drone.

      1. Grapey*

        I disagree with this – I know that I am much more a follower than I am a leader at work. I will point out to leadership if I think something is going awry or if there are problems (and leadership is more than happy to listen) but for the most part, I enjoy leaving big decisions up to the queen bees.

        I make enough important decisions in my personal life that I’m happy being mostly a drone at work.

        1. MoinMoin*

          How about, “Everyone wants to cook and eat, no one wants to do the dishes,” then? I think the point is more that people want to do the “fun” jobs that work directly with the mission and it’s much harder to get people passionate enough to volunteer who will happily do the data entry kind of stuff that is just as important but whose value is less visible.

          1. Taylor Swift*

            That’s painting “everybody” with a pretty broad brush and it’s not really true.

            1. Tuxedo Cat*

              In my experiences with multiple groups in different fields, it often comes very close to “everybody.”

          2. Marillenbaum*

            Fair. I would actually really love one of those volunteering gigs right now–I’d like to volunteer more, but as a grad student who is also working, I don’t always have the time to do really hands-on stuff. If it were something like “Please show up and peel and chop 50 pounds of potatoes for the soup kitchen” or “Please just do this data entry” I would be thrilled.

            1. JustaTech*

              “Please show up and peel and chop 50 pounds of potatoes for the soup kitchen” is exactly the volunteer position I have right now, and it’s exactly perfect. It’s after work, I do it one night a week, it’s well run, well staffed and well volunteered, and I get to help people without having to interact with a huge number of people. (I like people, but I’m not good with people, so it’s in everyone’s best interest if I’m not on the client-facing side of any organization.)

        2. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

          I meant more in the context of the sort of board politics Me2 was describing – lots of board members want to toss out visionary ideas, but the actual willingness to take the lead on making it happen is often conspicuously absent.

      2. New Window*

        To be pedantic, I think being a drone is *exactly* what the others want: to wander around the hive doing nothing but eating the honey and pollen the others bring in, relying on the workers to take care of the brood, build the comb, and forage for the food. The drones revel in being special and not having to do any real work. Healthy honey bee hives kick them out or kill them in the fall though because drones only drain their resources and contribute nothing productive for the hive’s survival.

        (There’s probably also a Duck Club in-joke here I’m sure since the drones only exist to mate with queens, but I’ll leave it for someone who’s had coffee.)

      3. MyFakeNameIsLaura*

        I actually tell people that I’m better as a Number Two (think Riker vs Picard) when they gush that I’d be a great leader at XYZ. Unfortunately though, being great at operations and support/drone type roles is frequently utterly thankless and it’s very eas yto get burned out because the appreciation for the expertise, amount of hard work, and sacrifice isn’t there. I finally decided last year that I was done putting way more into organizations than was sustainable. It was hard and lots of people weren’t happy but I feel great.

    2. paul*

      …….I kind of wonder if I know what non-profit that is (nature center in TX?) or if that’s sadly more common than I thought

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This is actually super common across all nonprofits, including established ones, big ones, small ones, etc.

      2. Daffodil*

        It’s really common. My husband’s part of a Facebook support group for non-profit workers, and they get new members describing situations like this every damn day.

    3. Ann Furthermore*

      For 2 years in a row I was the chairperson for the PTO auction at my daughter’s school. OMG, what a ton of work those are to put together. And for those 2 years, it was me and 5 or 6 other people on the committee, and it was left to us to track down donations, find a location, find a caterer, figure out entertainment, find a bartender, do decorations, manage the auction website, oversee the classroom art projects, put together sign-ups for classroom gift baskets and collect everything for them, showcase everything with pretty arrangements that show what’s in each package, do the event set up/clean up, collect the money raised, get the items to the people who bought them and about 12 zillion other things too. It’s freaking exhausting and it takes a huge amount of time. You can lighten the load if you have a good number of volunteers, but despite numerous emails and other communications to parents asking for help, it was still the same small group of people who always volunteer and nobody else responded. And I was really clear that even a couple hours here and there would be a huge help. The event last year was kind of lackluster, and fell well short of the fundraising goal, so we decided to skip it this year and did a smaller one online.

      At one of meetings recently, we decided to mix up our fundraising a little bit for next year and do some different stuff. I did a SurveyMonkey and had it sent to all the parents, asking things like if families were willing/able to participate in fundraising activities, how much they were able to spend each year (so we could be realistic with our goals), what types of drives they liked or didn’t like, and so on. I left space for plenty of comments.

      At least 20 of the replies I got had comments about people being upset or disappointed that there wasn’t going to be an auction this year, that it was a really fun way to raise money for the school, that they liked it much better than ordering crap you don’t need out of a catalog, and so on. I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I wanted to have another email sent out asking people if they love the freaking auction so much, why did no one offer to help with planning the event? ARGH.

      1. A Non E. Mouse*

        At one of meetings recently, we decided to mix up our fundraising a little bit for next year and do some different stuff. I did a SurveyMonkey and had it sent to all the parents, asking things like if families were willing/able to participate in fundraising activities, how much they were able to spend each year (so we could be realistic with our goals), what types of drives they liked or didn’t like, and so on. I left space for plenty of comments.

        Keeping it real here: I’m one of the parents that will never volunteer. I cannot take time off work in a way that allows me to “help for a couple of hours”; I work too far from home/the schools. At a minimum I’d blow a half day of vacation. I don’t even get home until most of the “evening” events are over.

        But I would totally donate a set amount each month – say $20, $25. I’ve even told them this – find a way for it to auto debit and I’m in.

        Can you do something like that? Some sort of auto-contribute? Monthly “friends of the PTA” kinda deal?

        1. Judy*

          The PTA at our school does basically an extortion fundraiser at the beginning of the year. “If we raise our budget, which is $22/student, during this fundraiser, then we won’t sell anything out of catalogs, etc.”

          I usually give quite a bit more than required for my kids. And usually, the kids grandparents give $25 or so also.

          1. A Non E. Mouse*

            The PTA at our school does basically an extortion fundraiser at the beginning of the year. “If we raise our budget, which is $22/student, during this fundraiser, then we won’t sell anything out of catalogs, etc.”

            Now see that I could get behind! I could write a check, I’d probably even through in extra to cover for someone who couldn’t, and be happy to do so.

            I just cannot volunteer – my circumstances do not allow it. And NO ONE should be subjected to a craft project I’ve been near. It would just be cruel.

            1. Artemesia*

              My grandchild’s school does this but they ask several hundred per family; without this kind of money they cannot do much of the basic work of the school — certainly no art, music, special programs etc. This also allows teachers access to funds for classroom supplies which are not provided in public schools and teachers often pay for.

        2. Gadfly*

          SO many schools seem to think that parents can show up during working hours.(Not saying that is true here, just a general thing) and then wonder why only the people who were able to attend their 10 am planning meeting are able to help with other things. And most of them still mostly expect it to be mothers. They REALLY need to accept it isn’t 1950 and try to figure out ways to be accessible for working parents and where dads can do some ongoing involvement things and moms can do some of the one-off jobs often reserved for fathers.

          Early morning Dads and Donuts things are just an issue.

          1. NW Mossy*

            The related problem I have is the associated assumption that it’s OK to ask for parent volunteer help with very little notice. My daughter’s room parents are very fond of “hey, we need volunteers for X activity” emails on Sunday night for volunteers needed Monday.

            Give me three weeks’ notice and I can probably fit you into my work schedule occasionally. Inside that boundary, though, I’m going to book up with meetings and won’t be able to help out with reading group or art literacy or whatever. And even if I didn’t work, I’m surely filling my days with something and it’s not necessarily feasible for me to pitch in last-minute.

          2. paul*

            Ohgod. A nonprofit shooting range I used to be a member of was like that. They held range cleaning sessions at 10am on Wednesdays and the (older, retired) members that came would get vocally snarky about the fact that out of the several hundred members only 15 or 20 older folks came to clean. But god forbid you move it to a weekend or evening.

            I miss the facilities but not the people.

            1. Gazebo Slayer*

              I’m involved with an organization that skews heavily toward affluent retirees. I used to have a more active role, but one of the reasons I quit was that they’d email me while I was at my paid job and insist I do something for them rightnow, or they’d tell me to buy $1000 software for my work for them with my own money like it was nothing. No thanks.

          3. Jaydee*

            Email from school: “Rice sculpture club starts next week. We need parent volunteers every Wednesday and Friday for the next 6 weeks from 11:15 to 11:45 to make sure it runs smoothly! Please sign up to help so we can ensure your kids get the benefit of this wonderful activity.”

            Fergus, brimming with excitement: “Mommy, are you going to come to my school and help out with rice sculpture club?!?!”

            Me, dying a little inside: “No, sweetie, you know I can’t. I’ll be at work during that time.”

            Me, a week later after the follow-up email about OMG URGENT WE WILL CANCEL RICE SCULPTURE CLUB BECAUSE NOT ENOUGH DECENT PARENTS CARE ABOUT THEIR KIDS’ DEVELOPMENT AS BUDDING RICE ARTISTS: “Hey boss, can I take Friday off? For vacation reasons that are legit and totally not 30 minutes of guilt-induced mid-day rice sculpting with elementary schoolchildren.”

          4. mamabear*

            +1 million. This is a huge issue at our elementary school in a relatively affluent neighborhood. My kiddo was at a different school last year, with more working parents, and they did not expect nearly as much of the mid-day nonsense. I would love to be more involved, truly, but if you make it at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday it’s just not going to happen.

        3. Ann Furthermore*

          I get that people work. I do too. And I can flex my hours and do stuff during the day here and there. I get that not everyone is able to do that. But for people to be upset that there’s no auction, and not see the connection between there not being an auction and there not being enough volunteers to pull it together was what about sent me over the edge.

          And by “a couple of hours” what I meant, and what I put in the letters, was something like needing a donation picked up in another part of town. I envisioned having a list of people to email, and (hopefully) one person replying and saying, “Hey, that’s right by where I work. I’ll pick it up on my way home and drop it off at your house over the weekend.” If one person can do that, it saves me (or someone else) an hour or 2 driving across town — more, if it’s rush hour.

          The other example I used was the one Sunday afternoon where we gather at someone’s house where all the items are being kept, and then have a marathon of taking pictures, putting stuff in gift baskets, wrapping them all in that cello paper stuff — even if someone can’t do anything else, if they can pitch in with that for a couple of hours it’s a HUGE help. Or even taking an hour or 2 the day of the event to transport everything to the venue. Again — a one time thing, not a big investment of time, and something immensely helpful that makes everyone’s lives easier.

          I enjoy the volunteering, and being involved with the PTO. I’ve made a lot of really nice friends, and I like helping the school. But there is a subset of parents who will never get involved, but then be all too willing to tell you what they don’t like about what you’re doing. And it’s frustrating.

          1. Gadfly*

            I know a lot of people stop looking when they think they can’t do it or just haven’t been involved. And a lot of people are just, shall we say “frustrating”.

            In my experience though, not being one of the on-call moms meant being very second class and unappreciated and usually guilted for not being more involved (not saying your group was like that, but I know it turned me off). I’d love to see some of the PTO/PTA groups have a serious subgroup devoted to doing things that work for these parents without them being an afterthought. From it could arise things like phone/email lists of people who might be able to do the pick ups and such and see it as being that big help instead of hearing (sometimes?, I’ll even say often, unintentional) subtext in it.

      2. College Career Counselor*

        OMG. I’m having second-hand flashbacks. My spouse was on the PTO that had a fundraising carnival (games, cakewalks, dunking booths, prizes, etc.). Spouse did a ton of set-up work and then was going to help me manage the kids through the hordes of people. Unsurprisingly, people did not show up, so spouse was implored to run games. For an additional four hours. Then do clean-up.

        All of this was after they’d had sign-ups for people to do various shifts. Spouse came home after being gone for 12 hours, and I asked, “So, how much money did you raise with this thing?”

        Come to find out (we were new to the school), this whole operation was intentionally done as a break-even activity “because the children like it” and because some PTO members like to plan events. I thought my head was going to explode. (the next year, spouse ran the thing as true fundraiser and made $8k for the school)

      3. MyTwoCents*

        Do it. Send the email – Survey Monkey – as you did before, and ask that question.
        Make sure to leave space for comments.
        There is no good reason not to do this.

        (for myself.. I lost any enthusiasm to volunteer in any capacity by the time my child was in her last year of elementary school because of those in charge, and those who wanted to act as though they were in charge were very puffed up with their own importance and opinions… endlessly. I was a low income, single parent in a very small town of 2 (high) income/higher powered (or at least wannabe) couples. Also, mostly 10-15 years older than me (I was on my first/they were on their last children). They simply didn’t need me and were obvious in their exclusion. I had other organizations that I volunteered for both in leadership and ‘drone’ and left the PTO to the ‘power parents’)

      4. YawningDodo*

        I keep thinking I should volunteer to help out with a local gaming convention I attend every year. I love that convention and I want to see it continue to flourish, and I know there’s a huge workload on the current ConCom and they’re always hungry for volunteers. Problem is, I’m scared to volunteer, and ESPECIALLY scared to get involved in ConCom, because all I hear from my friend on ConCom is horror stories about getting stuck running way more than she signed on for because they can’t get enough people to stay on ConCom…because people burn out and quit and leave the rest of ConCom to pick up the slack, which makes them burn out….

        I think there is probably a mix of people who have never volunteered and just have unrealistic expectations (I’ve witnessed plenty of people in plenty of situations who have all kinds of suggestions but don’t want to put the work in), but then also people who either have volunteered in the past or know people who did, who know how rough experiences like yours are, and are staying the heck away so they don’t get sucked into the black hole.

        For my own situation, what I should probably do is approach them with specific questions about what I can do to help the con and set boundaries from the start. I totally get why people get sucked into giving more time and energy than they really have to give and I’m afraid it’ll happen to me, too, but I’m hoping that if I phrase it from the beginning as “this is exactly how much I can give you” it’ll be easier to stick to my guns.

    4. Melissa C.*

      I’m a member of a fairly large volunteer organization (with paid staff as well) in my town, and this is why I sometimes keep my “brilliant” ideas to myself – I don’t want to overburden someone else with my idea, but I also don’t have the time/energy/clout/expertise to do it myself.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Around here I have often thought, if a person is not ready/willing/able to do the project themselves then don’t mention it. It’s lack of volunteers, lack of money and lack of time and that is one tough mountain to break down.

  13. Jaydee*

    Sometimes parents have trouble separating their own identity from their children. They see their children’s success (and failure) as a reflection on their parenting. They may try to live vicariously through their children. They see their children as extensions of themselves instead of as separate people with their own path to follow. The same is often true with founders or people who have dedicated years to a business or organization. But children have to be prepared to go out into the world as adults and navigate their own life. And businesses and organizations have to be prepared to continue on after the founders have left and to adapt to change. So use this opportunity to help the organization “grow up” and spread its wings. Push it out of the nest if you have to. Okay, now I’m mixing in some bird metaphors in too, but you get the idea…

    Second, in my experience “don’t go, we need you!” is not about the organization. It is about the individuals saying those words. If Fergus says “don’t go, we need you!” what he means is that you do a lot of work he and others don’t want to do and they need you to keep doing it so they don’t have to. Similarly, if Jane equates leaving the organization to “betrayal” or tells you that you won’t leave because you love them, she’s not worried about the organization. She’s seeing it as a personal betrayal and is worried that your friendship will weaken if you no longer have this common thread holding you together. If you want to maintain those friendships, make a concerted effort to do so in the weeks and months after you’ve left the organization. Usually all talk of “betrayal” will stop quickly once they stop seeing a threat to the friendship.

    1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

      “If Fergus says “don’t go, we need you!” what he means is that you do a lot of work he and others don’t want to do and they need you to keep doing it so they don’t have to”

      Yuuuuuup. That means this: “But you always did all the boring stuff while I got to feed the puppies/hand out the donations/lead the weekly birdwatching group/save the world! I’m not going to have fun anymore!”

  14. LQ*

    This sucks. You are not responsible or at fault. An organization shouldn’t rest on a person.

    To make myself feel better I’d give a deadline and then say beyond that you’ll do 1-2 conference calls. Set up a date. An end date. A 1 hour NO LONGER conference call (that you have to be done with at the end of it) for a week past your last date. And then depending on how you feel another one 3 weeks out past this.
    (My former boss at a nonprofit did this and it was awesome. We weren’t this dysfunctional, but it is SO easy when someone makes themselves available. She did 1 week and 1 month out from her final date. The first call I had a dozen questions on where things were and a few other things. The 1 month out was like 2 weird questions that didn’t come up often. But that wasn’t all volunteers, so it might be worth pushing things out farther or giving less time based on what your normal schedule looks like.)

    1. Em too*

      This is such a good idea! Considering implementing it for departing team members (internal moves only, don’t worry, don’t think I’m about to inspire a future AAM letter).

  15. MuseumChick*

    “I felt I couldn’t leave a giant mess for someone else to clean up, I agreed to develop a new accounting system and use my institutional memory to reconstruct years of old financial records.”

    This line stuck out to me in your letter. You CAN leave a giant mess for someone else! In this case you should! (I mean, don’t actively create on, just whatever is left).

    I would say this to them “Things at my job are really ramping up so I will not be able to dedicated time to non-profit anymore. The longest I can continue is three weeks. Let’s discuss how to handle to the transition.” And then stick to your’re guns!

    “Don’t go!” “As I’ve explained I can no longer dedicate time to the non-profit.”

    “We need you!” “I’m happy to train you in this role.”

    “Your so selfish.” “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

    Then at the end of the three weeks say something like “Good luck guys. It’s been wonderful working with you all over the years. I know you guys will do wonderful.” Then don’t let yourself be sucked in!

    “Oh, could you handle this ONE really tiny thing for us?” “Sorry, I can’t. I would ask Jane since she took over most of my responsibilities.”

    “But we neeeeeed yooooou.” “As I said, I can’t do that. I would ask Jane.”

    1. A Signer*

      If they email, call or text you to ask these things, do not respond in a time frame that could ever be considered responsive. Let those messages hang out for a week or two, and then use MuseumChick’s scripts. Only respond once to each person who contacts you, then ignore any further communication that is about the AVO.

      1. A. Non*

        If I were the LW, I’d probably direct any emails to go into a folder and check it maybe once a week, with a plan to leave the house in, say, 30 minutes. Do not reply in depth.

  16. Chickaletta*

    You know what, I’ve left volunteer roles and watched my successor botch it all. It can be really, really frustrating. But, part of stepping down isn’t just handing things over, it was also making mental peace with letting whatever happen, happen. Que sera sera. And you know what, even though my predecessors didn’t do things as well as I had hoped, the organizations still survived. There were bumps, there were lessons learned for the people who had to clean up the messes, but they survived. And here’s the thing: if they hadn’t, then they weren’t meant to be because if only one person is holding everything together, then it wasn’t meant to be an organization. An organization like yours take the skill and commitment of several people, not just one. If you’re the only one who can hold it together then it’s probably not meant to be.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Everything is temporary. I watched a 250 year old house fall apart from lack of repair. Granted 250 years is a long time, but the house was still temporary. Nothing lasts forever. And sometimes that is a good thing.

      OP, sometimes it helps me to realize that everything is temporary. It’s a big picture focus. If we stand too close to something we lose the surrounding context and with that out the door goes our objectivity and even our logic.

      You have had an experience that will forever enlighten you. A decade from now you will still be drawing on your experiences that you have had here. Nothing is ever wasted, OP, nothing. It may take time for you to find out the purpose of all this but you will find out the purpose at some point.

    2. NW Mossy*

      One of the coaching mantras I’ve used with one of my directs that has a hard time letting others take the reins is “It’s OK to let others be wrong.” We don’t have to carry the weight of others’ projected mistakes.

  17. Prairie Gal*

    What would happen if you got abducted by aliens tomorrow? The organization would either sink or swim on its own merits. People might grumble that it was easier when you were in control, but the onus would be on them.

    Think of your exit that way, OP. They have the extra benefit of you warning them you’ll be abducted by aliens in a month. The organization will either succeed without you or fail without you — but neither is your responsibility once you’re no longer in their orbit.

    I think you’ll also be surprised by the relief you’ll feel on exiting their universe, and how quickly you’ll stop worrying about how they’re doing.

    1. TheLazyB*

      “abducted by aliens” is going to be my new go-to phrase instead of “knocked over by a bus”. Thank you.

      1. HisGirlFriday*

        I was thinking the same thing! It’s much cheerier, in an other-worldly kind of way.

      2. Prairie Gal*

        ha! I also used to use “knocked over by a bus” but just as I was typing that comment thought I’d switch to something less… grim.

  18. Becca*

    This could have been me 1.5 years ago. I co-founded an AVO and for 3 years I devoted most of my time to it, living on savings and small side jobs so I could work on the nonprofit during business hours. We never got formal funding. But somehow I had superhuman drive and energy, although I would have stress induced panic attacks that left me frozen in fear, staring at the ceiling and wondering how I could get both myself and the nonprofit in a financially stable place. I came to realize that my top priority was taking care of myself and meeting my needs. I got a boring 9 to 5 office job, resigned from the AVO, and I’m amazed at how relaxed and happy I am now. The Board at the AVO were shocked that I left because it was my whole life, but they understood. They are doing just fine without me.

  19. Falling Diphthong*

    My work at both AVO and my full-time job suffer because I’m stressed and distracted, but evidence says I’m naturally a high enough performer that I haven’t slumped to firing level.

    OP, be very, very careful about this assumption. More than once a follow-up has indicated that what the letter writer thought was thoroughly compartmented and not affecting their work was in fact a huge concern to their manager, which they learned when some sort of hammer came down. (It’s the flip side of an OP thinking that their manager must surely know that they are only holding things together by one frayed thread, and when they finally talk to the manager the manager expresses astonishment because things all seemed fine.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      Important point!

      Just because nobody’s openly criticizing you doesn’t mean they aren’t seeing problems.

      Also: think how much you could rise at your full-time job if you weren’t stressed and distracted!!

    2. KellyK*

      Very true. If your manager is understanding, you might want to let them know that this is going on and that you’re under some major stress, but that you’re wrapping it up within X timeframe. And if they aren’t regularly telling you how they think you’re doing, it might be a good time to ask.

  20. MoinMoin*

    OP, you’re young, you’re in a new city with a new job, you’re obviously bright and driven and committed to have gotten the AVO as far as you did. Please step back for your sake and enjoy being you in your new city. June 2nd- that’s six weeks, more than enough time to hand over the reigns and really pull yourself back- go find a First Friday and celebrate the beginning of a less stressful summer. Good luck!

  21. Slytherin HR*

    Echoing to say resign! You’ll be so relieved when you done; think of how lovely it’ll be do sit down on your couch after work and read a book, watch a movie, get much needed real sleep. When you regain your energy, you can start to be engaged with your new city. OMG, do it now!
    I was a part of a volunteer run organization for years, taking on more administrative tasks and roles until I burnt out. I stepped down from the admin tasks but stayed on the board for another year out of fear I’d regret quitting. I have never regretted walking away. (The organization is still running, they don’t always fold.)
    One piece of advice if you are giving a few weeks notice – work on getting your name off as much official documentation as possible (leases, insurance, named in by-laws, etc.). It may be tricky if no one else wants to step up but it will give you a little more peace of mind if, for example, your name is not a lease.

  22. KR*

    While I wasn’t a founding member, I was a member of a charity for 10 years – nearly my entire adolescence. I had gotten to a point where I agreed with the mission of the charity but I didn’t like how it was managed and the larger political attitudes of the leadership, both national and with our local chapter. It was also hard for me to attend events and outreach on a personal level because so much of the work is social in nature and I have social anxiety.
    It was hard for me to withdraw from the organization because I was proud of my membership, I felt I owed them and the mission something, and many of the people had been my friends and support system through a turbulent adolescence. It’s hard to leave something that you have such an emotional attachment to, OP, but now that I have officially handed in my patches and resigned I feel so much relief. I no longer feel guilty for not doing more for the organization and I’m free to support other endeavors that I feel strongly about but never had the energy for when I was a member of the old group.
    The organization will go on without you, and if it doesn’t it’s through no fault of your own. I definitely would check the bylaws to make sure you won’t suffer any financial repercussions but I feel strongly that since you weren’t the person who actually mismanaged the finances, the brunt of the burden should not and will not fall to you. You did your best and now you owe yourself something.

  23. hbc*

    “I would appreciate someone telling me whether I should just suck it up and accept my choices thus far.”

    I think you should suck it up and accept your choices. As I see it, your choices are: 1) Continue to invest ~25 hours a week struggling to delay the demise of the organization because of past ties and a love of the stated mission at the expense of your social life, health, and career trajectory, and 2) Take the pain of watching it die and the social hit of (former?) friends ditching you for not continuing to do more than they are willing and able to do themselves.

    Either choice will hurt, I know, and it’s easier to slide into option 1 because the pain is more incremental. But I think you will be amazed by how good you feel after you rip the bandaid on option 2. Rehearse a couple of responses to the most likely objections and repeat them as needed.

  24. Bea*

    As someone in finance my heart sank when I read the part of the failures of your original Treasurer that has more bounced. If anyone is to blame, it’s that and not you. They may try to lay it at your feet but in the end, everyone could have done better if they wanted it to survive. It feels like you’re the only one who really have a rats behind about it in the end. Let them cry about it and please move on for you’re own sanity and health! This is not your fault, they clearly want you to do all the work so they can claim some kind of hand in it when it’s going well but hands off any real work involved.

  25. Chriama*

    > I also have a close family member who volunteers with the organization and has repeatedly said he would be “very disappointed” in me if I left it in the lurch.

    This provoked a visceral angry reaction in me. F*** you for the emotional manipulation and blackmail. Why is it my responsibility to carry the weight of this organization by myself. If you care so much about the mission why not take these responsibilities on yourself? It’s so convenient to make demands and judgements and set expectations that you would never have to carry out yourself. The hypocrisy of this astounds me.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Me, too. All my reactions to this line were a seething rage accompanied with lots of expletives.

    2. Artemesia*

      If the organization has the commitment of its board and volunteers it will go on; if not it won’t. All your work does is ruin your life and delay the inevitable. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture when mired in something lie this. And those who are enthusiastic but lazy are always happy to let the person who will do the work, do the work. You see this in churches all the time where the same 6 women are the endless kitchen drudges while everyone else sits in the parlor and enjoys the socializing.

      Time to reclaim your life and not look back. Sounds like a complete break is what you need. And find an organization in a year or so, you can volunteer for but not run if you want to continue to contribute on a personal level like this.

      1. Chriama*

        > those who are enthusiastic but lazy are always happy to let the person who will do the work, do the work

        This is what bugs me the most. They’re happy to have their name on something that’s succeeding without (or maybe even in spite of!) their contributions. So that pressure on OP is as much for their own vanity as it is for the cause they claim to support. And I totally get feeling like you don’t want to let them down. But honestly, by giving you that pressure without doing anything to help carry your burden, they’re already letting *you* down, OP.

    3. paul*


      I’ve literally lost friendships over crap like that at this point. No, I don’t donate my whole paycheck to our clients and yes our agency values *our* safety as well as our clients safety. No, that doesn’t make us cruel or heartless.

      I’m going to shut down now before I go off an expletive laden tangent

    4. NoMoreMrFixit*

      Suffered through that myself at a similar age. I wasn’t in charge, but did hold a position of responsibility. Reasons for leaving were different but end result was the same – it was way past time to bail out. In my case I was essentially forced out for reasons best left in the past where they belong. Pretty much was the breaking point for a lot of folks involved when I left and they quickly bailed out too. Except my family member who blamed me for the strife. Our relationship stayed strained until the end of their life. But new people came in. And they eventually found a replacement for me. Who did the job far better than I ever could have as they came in as an outsider with no strings attached. So they had the freedom to force needed changes. And the person in charge who drove me to quit is still running the show and the people presently involved love them.

      Walk away. You got it started and did something wonderful. Now leave it behind and enjoy the freedom to pursue new passions. I did and still look back fondly at the good times. The bad times I couldn’t care less about. And my family member ended up getting shoved out not long after I left. They were bitter to the end.

    5. Tuxedo Cat*

      It did for me too, but I think it’s a touchy point for me. People have pulled this multiple times on me for volunteer work and optional work at my paid job (that put me well over my time for multiple months).

      These relationships have been very one-sided, and the people who pulled this emotional manipulation have done very little to help me.

    6. TootsNYC*

      yeah, this made me really pissed off on your behalf.

      What a shitty thing to say to someone you’re -related- to!

      And this: “in the lurch”

      Remember that if you say, “I’m going to resign in 4 weeks / 2 weeks / whatever,” you are not leaving them in the lurch.

      They’ve all had plenty of time to recognize that this load is too high for you, and THEY DIDN’T do anything about it. They didn’t relieve you of some of the burden, they didn’t start gradually learning stuff or taking on tasks.

      They blew it, frankly.

  26. TootsNYC*

    If they want this organization to continue, they will step up.

    if nobody steps up, that means nobody **really** wants it to continue all that badly. They just think they do.

    If no one will tackle a project, it deserves to fail.
    And then, if people realize they want it, they can start over. Or redefine it to become something actually manageable.

    Also–if you keep doing stuff, no vacuum will ever develop, and nobody will be pulled into greater participation. In a way, they may need you to put these balls down completely before they even consider picking them up.

    I’m sorry this has become such a time sink!

    1. Chriama*

      That’s another thing. Either they don’t really care, in which case why force yourself to do something no one else cares about, or they do care and seeing you leave will force them to step up. In the second case, leaving is actually a very good thing for the organization as it forces them to address succession plans and long term sustainability.

      OP, let’s say you keep working at this organization for another 70 years. What happens when you die? Can you imagine being 90+ years on your deathbed with these chuckleheads around you reassuring you that you love them so much you’d never abandon the organization to go to your grave? Sound ridiculous? So is this situation. People leave very good organizations all the time for very good reasons. You don’t want them to be unable to function without you.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Actually, I think every volunteer organization should have mandatory rotating of duties, etc.
      Partly to spread the knowledge around, and partly to spread the workload around.

      And to test, every now and then, whether the energy still exists to keep the organization alive.

      I love Alison’s point that it’s OK if the organization fades (all organisms will die at the end of their natural lifespan, except for those that die earlier from damage). And that this doesn’t mean the work it DID accomplish was worthless, etc.

      If the only way this organization can survive is for you–and only you–to sacrifice your life, then it deserves to die. Those are called “parasites,” and we eradicate them.

      1. paul*

        Having seen plenty of small to mid sized non-profits wither on the vine due to stagnation, I totally agree. I’d also argue that it’s probably helpful to have staggered board terms with term limits. Having a board with 0 turnover for 10 years is *so* unhealthy and it finally killed a major coalition program in our area.

  27. Casuan*

    OP, you began this non-profit because “a group of friends wanted to do it” so you created the opportunity for you & others to serve others. Even then you were “cajoled into leadership.”

    Take Alison’s advice & know you have our support. You deserve to have your personal life back & to take advantage of professional opportunities which come your way. And you can & should do so guilt-free.

    Instead of the guilt, be proud of all you’ve accomplished!!
    …& give yourself some time to adjust to your new life

  28. bopper*

    It’s good that you at least are recognizing what is going on…my DH was on the board of a small non-profit and he just watched it go further and further into the ground, despite giving advice on how to turn it around…he had to resign at some point.

  29. Artemesia*

    When I was young I used to end up doing the heavy lifting in many situations because people asked me too and I would do it — people who do the work, get tasked with more of it. I often did things I ‘should’ do rather than things I wanted to do or things I was asked to do because ‘you are so good and reliable’ rather than things I wanted to do. As a young professional, I like many women, got sucked into high work/low payoff situations while my male colleagues blithely went about doing the things that got them promoted and honored. It is part of maturity to own yourself and learn to say no to people who want to eat up your life. I look back at wasted time I could have been doing things that would have made my own life better but was lost in service of other people’s demands. I hope you grow up faster than I did.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      How true.

      OP, one thing I have learned is that most people are pretty amazing/accepting if given the opportunity. A friend of mine has a problem with a family member. We sat and talked about the particulars of the problem and what the future might hold and so on. I had some time to think things over myself. Then I said, “I will help with A, B and C on this. However, with D and E, I cannot help you.”
      I told my friend up front where things were for me. My friend responded simply. He said, “Thank you.”

      About 2-3 years into this story my friend concluded that he could not do D and E either. It was just asking too much. He came to this conclusion, quietly on his own without involving me any further.

      And this is what adults do for each other, they help each other and they also recognize each other’s limits.

  30. Sara*

    I think one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as an adult is that sometimes you have to let things go, even if that means they’ll fail. It’s absolutely possible to keep telling yourself, “But if I just work a little harder,” or “Just a little longer and it’ll be in a better place” and never actually get out from under all the BS. And it’s really, really easy to feel guilty for even thinking about a change when you’re the person on whom people depend.

    But you can do it. You absolutely deserve to have your own life, and it’s okay to step away from things when you need to, and it’s okay to set boundaries on what you can or will do for the sake of your health, career, and personal life. It might bring on feelings of guilt in the short-term, but you’ll definitely, absolutely feel better in the long run. Good luck to you!

    1. Cassandra*

      I think of this as “jam tomorrow” work. You’ll have more resources tomorrow. We’ll address the issues you brought up tomorrow. You’ll get that raise tomorrow. We’ll help you implement your idea tomorrow.

      Never today. Never, ever, ever today.

      The big boss at Toxic Ex-Job, which was utterly a jam-tomorrow environment for me, once sent me an email that was, in its entirety, “We’ll get there.”

      When? Before the earth is consumed by the sun would sure be nice.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        And if that happens first, I’ll put on an airport firefighter suit just so I can watch this place burn for a second before I’m consumed too.

      2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        Yes, Cassandra, the magic words from Toxic Boss = “ummm, yeah, that’s something we can work toward.”

        1. Cassandra*

          Aaaaaaaaagh, yes, that’s horribly familiar. “Who’s we exactly?” was my mental response.

  31. Siberian*

    OP, I know how hard it is to make those steps to disengage, but what I learned after 30 years of employment, either at nonprofits or consulting to nonprofits, is that once I have disengaged…I move on real quick. I’ve gone from horrible enmeshment and working until 1 a.m. and tears and my friends and family being fed to the teeth with my complaints to practically forgetting I ever worked with HorribleClient/HorribleJob.

    One place was so bad that I considered filing a whistleblower complaint, and was encouraged to do so by the whistleblower staff. But I didn’t find out about this option until my final week. I quit on a Friday and by Monday I just couldn’t even be bothered. I went from obsession to utterly not caring. I made myself take my replacement to lunch so I could warn her, and that was that. I look back and wonder what took so long?

    You too might find that if you give two weeks’ notice, you may find that in two weeks and one day you have moved on. It’s like the spell is broken.

    Good luck, and yeah, get out!

  32. LBK*

    The way I see it, this will go one of three ways:

    1) OP stays with the org as it slow dies, going through hell every day until she eventually has to bury it.

    2) OP gets out and moves on with her life. Org dies, OP sends sympathetic email to successor but it is not her problem anymore.

    3) OP gets out and moves on with her life. Org miraculously recovers, OP sends congratulatory email to successor but it is not her problem anymore.

    I think the OP’s hesitance to quit is because she’s still hanging onto option #4, which is she stays with the org, it miraculously recovers, and she continues to get to have her name on something she founded that’s doing good work and makes her happy. I hate to say it, but I think this is fantasy. The writing seems to be on the wall, so now you just have to choose which of the options above is the best for you, personally, because I don’t think you can help the org.

      1. RVA Cat*

        I’m thinking #2 also. I feel like the OP’s heroic efforts are essentially giving CPR to a corpse.

  33. MuseumChick*

    “I have a number of old friends in AVO whom I don’t want to lose over a possible exit strategy. I also have a close family member who volunteers with the organization and has repeatedly said he would be “very disappointed” in me if I left it in the lurch.”

    I know you don’t want to burn bridges but you need to put up reasonable boundaries in your life. I suggested up thread you give them three weeks notices since it’s longer than standard. You could even write out a manual for who ever takes over your position. But you should NOT be emotional blackmailed into staying with this group.

    When you do leave, they will probably call/email you questions. For the first two weeks respond every three days. For the next four weeks after that respond once a week. After that don’t respond for a solid two weeks. As time goes on reduce the details of your response. So, at first you can say “Check file X for that.” or “Call Jane Smith at Teapots Inc.” After a few weeks start saying “Hm, I don’t know. Check the manual I left.” Then after a few more weeks, “It’s been so long I don’t remember. Sorry!”

    Basically develop of a pattern where your response time gets slower, and slower, over time and your answer become more and more vague/lacking in detail.

  34. Van Wilder*

    I’m super impressed with your technical knowledge and ability as a college student / recent grad. I’m a CPA, over ten years out of school, and I would have no idea how to set up an organization, write bylaws, keep books (ok maybe that one but it’s not my area), secure funding, market to supporters, etc., etc., etc., let alone the actual mission.

    Even if the organization crumbles in the near future, I hope you will look back at some point and be proud of all you accomplished personally.

    1. AVO LW*

      Thank you. I will say that the technical knowledge I picked up, along with the demonstrated ability to pick up such new skills, is a huge part of what landed me my current paid job at the end of my internship about a year ago. I’ll be thankful for that for a long time, of course!

  35. Jerry Vandesic*

    If the board, including the LW, isn’t able to provide sufficient oversight of the financial dealings of the AVO, it might make sense to shut it down. “the treasurer left … and we discovered she hadn’t really been keeping books.” This shouldn’t have been allowed to happen, and the blame goes to the board.

    At a minimum, the board needs to be replaced. Whether that will force the closure of the AVO would need to determined, but if there is no board to provide proper oversight, the AVO doesn’t have a chance.

  36. sophiabrooks*

    Many years ago, when I was in college, I was the founding member of a non-profit community theatre group. I reached a similar situation, and I left. It is 20 years later, and guess what– the organization is still there. It doesn’t do as many productions, but people wanted it to happen and even though all but one founding and second generation member has left– the people who wanted it to happen picked up the slack! So ultimately, I think it was good that us founding members stopped helping after we left the community. It means that the non profit is really serving the community’s needs.

    1. TootsNYC*


      I made a similar point upstream, but your real-world example is so powerful!

      Similarly, I live on a block w/ a community garden/block association. Someone in my building said, snarkily and shocked-ly, “They’ve stopped planning events for adults!” I thought, “You never go to them anyway, what do you care? And if some grownup wants their to be a wine & cheese party, that grownup can organize it. Nobody was interested in organizing those events, but the parents -were- interested. The community is speaking about what it wants.”

      You have to create the vacuum, though.

    2. AVO LW*

      This is certainly encouraging for my sanity and my sense of responsibility: that someone in a similar position left the organization and it has endured. Thank you for sharing.

  37. mamabear*

    OP, I see a lot of myself in your message. You sound like a caring, conscientious person with a terrific work ethic. You probably ARE a big reason why this nonprofit is still semi-functioning. But — it really, truly is OK to walk away. You have given more than enough of your time and resources, at great personal cost. No matter how much you love a cause, giving up your own health and sanity is just.not.worth.it. Learning this lesson was one of the toughest experiences of my mid-20s but I am SO GLAD that I learned it early. Now, I have a fine-tuned radar for this kind of nonsense. The only downside of that is that I burned out so hard, so early that I almost have to force myself into any kind of volunteer work. When I give my time and talents, I am OK with setting my boundaries early and often. A lot of conscientious adults never get there and then wonder why they’re frustrated/burned out/depressed all the time. Don’t let this be you; it’s not pretty.

  38. MommyMD*

    You put your life’s blood into that Volunteer group. You did more than most. Resign without guilt and be proud of your achievement. It’s become a burden and an obstacle now and you must move on.

  39. Bookworm*

    I have not been in this position exactly but agree with the general sentiment: find a way to extract yourself and leave. You’re burned out and you sound unhappy. It does sound like it’s best to let it fall as it may and to escape. The others are guilt-tripping you and it does sound like you might be the only thing holding it together.

    I wish you well! It sounds like you accomplished something really awesome but it has run its course. I hope you find a way to extract yourself very soon!

      1. Tangerina Warbleworth*

        And this is part of the lesson! “and the Wild Things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed the terrible claws! But Max said GOODBYE and sailed back over the years, and in and out of weeks and through day… and into the night of his very own room, where he found his supper waiting for him.”

        LW, go sail away and into the night of your very own room, where you will find your supper waiting for you — because it’s still hot.

  40. AnonEMoose*

    I’ve volunteered for a local science fiction convention (which is a nonprofit, all volunteer run) for more than 15 years now, in various capacities. Let’s just say that the organization has been through a lot over the course of its life so far. Many of the volunteers are very dedicated and passionate. Mostly that’s good. Sometimes, though, passionate people disagree, and don’t always handle it in healthy ways. Sometimes that manifests in blaming those of us in leadership positions for…well…pretty much anything, really.

    And there’s the frustration of people saying they want X, Y, and Z – but no one (or not enough people) want to volunteer to make it happen. But…you guessed it…those in leadership positions get blamed. It can be incredibly draining. Why do I still do it? Because, for me, the good still outweighs the bad and the frustration, and I have people I can rely on to be my support structure.

    For you, it sounds like you need to be done with this, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s hard to let go of something you created and nurtured – and you did create and nurture this organization. But it sounds like it’s time to let go of this and move on to the next thing. And the experience you gained will likely help you in unexpected ways as you do.

    Take Alison’s advice. Review those bylaws, maybe talk to a lawyer if you’re unsure of anything. Then set a transition date, and stick to it. And take a nice long break and take care of yourself for a change when you’re done. You’ve more than earned it. In a way, organizations like this can be black holes – they’ll take everything you throw into them, and still try to get more, and it’s up to you to set healthy boundaries. People will make that hard for you. Not because they’re being malicious, mostly, but they’re not thinking of you…you need to do that, and there’s no shame in it.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I have a 23-y-o post-college kid who is very slow to launch. And a 19-y-o college kid with motivational problems.

      This really resonated with me:

      “It’s hard to let go of something you created and nurtured – and you did create and nurture this organization. But it sounds like it’s time to let go…”

      OP, you’re like the parent of a “launching” young adult: It’s time for you to let go, and for your “child” to see if they can make it without you.

  41. Kiwi*

    I’ve just pulled out of volunteer work for a group that I’d put a huge amount of effort into. I’ve been asking for more help for years and getting hardly any. It finally got too much and I gave up on getting help and gave them a month’s notice instead.

    And amazingly, now that people have realised I’m actually pulling out, other people have stepped up to take over my stuff.

    There’s a good chance you’ll find that happens too.

  42. Not So NewReader*

    Two stories of letting go of a volunteer organization.

    Bad organization. I met so many wonderful people and I learned so much. There was one toxic person with a hidden agenda. Additionally, this person like to talk about things from a philosophical plane and did not want to talk about plans for this month. She wasted people’s time. I have never seen anyone waste so much of people’s time. They became restless. They dropped in and dropped out and dropped in… no one knew how many members we had. The worst thing she did was belittled others. She would plan an event, plan on speaking and then at the last minute decide that she did not feel like showing up. She said we were stupid for not being able to address a group of 40 people off the cuff. And the insults went on and on.

    This came at a bad time in my personal life. I ended up crying myself to sleep at night. I thought I had friends here. (My thinking was muddied because of life events.)

    That was probably 5 years ago or so. I still am licking my wounds a little bit over that one. And what happened next wasn’t better.

    Good group. This will probably be the BEST org I joined in my life. I had the best time, made some good long term friends. We dissolved because of lack of support and lack of energy on our parts to keep lifting such a load. I met so many people. Oh my. This one really got me crying when we dissolved.

    Years passed, fast forward to now. I got asked to be on a board by one of the members of the good group who was already on that board. I’m back on that horse, OP. I am with a bright, interesting group of people who I care about. We are having fun, we are doing new stuff. I draw on the experiences from the good group and the bad group to find ways for me to fit in with this current group.

    Nothing is ever wasted.
    Time changes perspective. Time is kind like that.

    Always, always invest in YOU and take care of your needs FIRST. Do not allow yourself to deteriorate to the point where you need to be the recipient of care from a different NPO. Seriously. This means health, financial or emotional care. You start sliding in any one of those three areas, change what you are doing.

    I hope you let us know how it goes for you.

  43. Tabby Baltimore*

    I don’t know if anyone above has already mentioned this, but OP, when you resign, please be sure to put your resignation in writing in an email to your entire board, and if your email system allows for it, instruct the system to provide you with both a delivery receipt and a read receipt for each person on the TO: line. (Addressees can certainly decline to provide a receipt, I think, but you’ll likely get a system message indicating that choice.) Also, if I were you, I would additionally send a paper resignation to the board’s now-president/ED via registered mail (because registered mail HAS to be signed for). I’m not saying you should do this to rub their face in it, but to make it crystal clear that they need to acknowledge your departure from the AVO, and that your departure is permanent.

  44. ArtsNerd*

    Some do good work for a period of time and then dissolve. That’s fine. That’s normal.


    OP, please move on without a single ounce of guilt! You’ve done more than enough already.

  45. Tuxedo Cat*

    If you’re burnt out, you should leave. You’re not doing anyone any favors by staying, especially yourself. If it helps you, it’s really important for orgs to get new leadership. I’m sure you did and are doing a fantastic job, but this org is running the way you envision it. Someone else might have different but great ideas that could further org.

    I’ve walked away from volunteer things where others have made similar comments to the ones you received. It’s rough and I have lost friends, but the honest truth is really weren’t friends. They wanted what they could get out of me and it didn’t feel like they valued the work because the org died. It also sucks to see the orgs die out, but I personally was sick of people wanting to reap the benefits and no one wanted to do the non-glamorous work that kept things going. For several of these cases, I was willing to stay on if people were willing to do their share.

    That was more rambling than I planned, but put yourself first.

  46. Noobtastic*

    At my last job, I witnessed two co-workers (one in my department and one in the next department over – we sat nearby and lunched together a lot), who both wound up taking short-term disability for psychiatric care.

    Now, I am not armchair diagnosing, or saying OP needs psychiatric care. I am saying that OP’s situation really calls to mind these two co-workers. Both of them snapped, not because of a major traumatic event, but because of long term minor issues piling up and piling up and piling up, and not being able to deal with them all. OP’s working too hard at two jobs, losing sleep, and is showing warning signs of possible snappage.

    OP, if people try to pressure you to stay, remember that your mental health and physical health are BOTH suffering. Seriously, your mental health is at stake. I mean, are you happy? Are you feeling fulfilled, or just put upon? Do you still love the AVO? Do you see yourself there in ten years? Do you see yourself ANYWHERE in ten years? Or do you not even see a future for yourself, because you feel that burnt out that you’re thinking you might not last, at all?

    When they put that pressure on you, tell yourself that they can keep you as a friend, or as a co-volunteer, but not as both. And tell them that if they really care about you, they will help you take care of yourself, so that you CAN remain a friend.

    Even Mother Theresa had to take care of herself, so she could do her work. No one can keep giving forever, without filling their own needs along the way.

    Good luck, OP, and get out of there ASAP.

  47. Noobtastic*

    Another thing to consider: Those co-volunteer “friends” who so much want you to stay… Are they doing anything to make you want to stay? Are they doing anything to enable you to stay? Are they picking up the slack so that you don’t feel so burdened and burned out?

    Nope. They are piling back onto you the very work they said they would take.

    I’ll bet they are maintaining a work/life balance, as well.

    The point is, if they REALLY want you to stay, they will do more to help you, so that you CAN stay. They’re not. So don’t miss them when you leave, and don’t feel guilty about ‘leaving them in the lurch.’ You’ve already given them a chance to get out of the lurch, and they haven’t taken it. They just put it all back on you.

    Filing? Seriously?!

  48. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    OP –

    I founded a professional group many years ago and served as its first president/chair. Loved it, love the org.

    But – when you’re the leader – people depend on you. So whenever anyone starts an organization – they should plan an exit strategy. Someone sent me a set of steps to plan and build an organization and the last step was =

    “Fire the Founder”.

    That’s right – after so long the leader gets burned out or loses interest in the leadership. If you build such a group or organization – make your resignation plans when you start. When the time comes reasonably close for you to step aside – MAKE IT KNOWN you’re going to leave in six/nine/twelve months – whatever.

    The organization should be able to go forward without you. If it can’t, so be it.

  49. Nolan*

    Oof this letter resonates with me hard. I’ve fallen into a volunteer management position I never really wanted and am not well suited for. It requires so much time and energy, and a lot of the work of it requires me to really push outside my comfort zone, so it’s tremendously taxing emotionally as well. I at least don’t have the additional emotional baggage of “the Cause”, this is something I do out of love, but it’s not going to save the world. But I feel for you OP, I really do.

    I get angry at my phone when certain notifications come in because I know they’re for this event. I’ve been depressed and anxiety ridden since August, and a lot of that is from this work. I’m sticking it out for a few more months, and then handing the reins over to my successor pretty much immediately after this next event ends. “Just a few more months” is how I get through my days.

    Anyone who tries to guilt you into staying doesn’t deserve your friendship. One of my assistant managers recently resigned, he was my boss at one point, we’ve been doing this together for several years, his job is incredibly important to my department. But he was burnt out and I knew it and I saw his resignation coming, and accepted it gracefully. He offered to come back in a lesser role if we ended up short staffed, and I told him to enjoy his time off. He forwarded all his work to his successor, and I will ask no more of him, because he has resigned and that should be respected.

    Sadly, it sounds like your org may not be so understanding. Set your boundaries and stick to them, no exceptions. You need this for your wellbeing, tell them that. Emotional stress can and will manifest physically, an exit from this org will improve both your emotional and physical health. If you’re comfortable telling them it’s for your health, do so, they might back off a bit. Best of luck.

    1. AVO LW*

      Letter-writer here (in case you didn’t see my screen name upstream). “I get angry at my phone when certain notifications come in…” Me to a T, some days, and I’m glad to know I’m not alone in the feeling that phones consume us. Certainly, some days are better than others–but I’ll never forget the time I got out of a 20-minute haircut to discover over 30 texts about an already large bill that had unexpectedly doubled and how we were going to pay it. Good times, indeed!

  50. Fish*

    I had to check the details to make sure you weren’t part of my non-profit group. (Our issues are workforce-related, rather than financial.)

    First: nothing about this mission is worth setting your life on fire for. Even if the group folds without you, in the larger picture if there is a need for what your group is doing, another group will move into that space or spring up to meet that need.

    Secondly: there will always, ALWAYS be more people willing to bitch about the problem than volunteers to actually fix it. You cannot run this group in order to please people who sit on their asses on the sidelines, because those people will NEVER be happy with the amount of effort you put in. There will always be complaints – I’m sorry.

    Thirdly: people walk away from groups all the time. My group has a bad habit of burning people out, and it’s something we’re trying to fix. But we don’t hate people who leave for their own sanity. Neither does the group fall in a heap when someone leaves. We give a nice gift, thank them for their service, and rearrange the workload. If you do decide to scale down or terminate your work here, most people will understand. You have other commitments.

    Fourthly: did I mention that there will always be whiners? If you do decide to fold the group entirely, it is likely that someone will criticise you for that decision. You have the choice about how polite to be to someone who chooses to criticise you for something they are unwilling to do themselves. Polite: “Yes, it’s a shame that [group] had to shut down.” Not so polite: “Yes, it’s a shame that we couldn’t get more volunteers to keep the group going [steely stare].”
    Do not attempt to justify your decision to these people. Walking away is a simple fact to be stated factually, like the weather. It is not an opinion that is open to debate from anyone, regardless of how close they are.

    Fifthly: please look into who is responsible for the financial shortfall if the group is wound up before making that decision. I don’t want to give legal advice here, but there are circumstances where the directors / leaders / founders of a group may be responsible for unpaid liabilities.

  51. Sybil Fawlty*

    I was in a very similar situation not long ago. What helped me to quit was knowing that there was no good way to do it. There was no way to quit without making people unhappy, hurt, and angry. But it had to be done.

    I focused for too long on finding a good way to quit, and since I couldn’t, I didn’t quit. But once I realized that I wasn’t going to find a good way, it allowed me to quit badly. And I did.

    I finally got control of my life again. I didn’t even realize how bad off I was. Good luck to you!

  52. Fushi*

    OP, I’ve definitely struggled with letting go of control when it comes to work I care about too. But I’ve learned that, when it’s physically impossible to prop things up forever by oneself (which, if you think about it, is pretty much all of the time if the responsibility is making you feel burned out or resentful, because you’re just going to incapacitate yourself eventually and then the job/organization will fold anyway), it’s better to remind yourself of what you do and don’t have control over.

    If you look at the situation with your org: you don’t have control of other people, and thus you don’t have control of the overall situation, because no matter what you do the org will not continue to function if it has incompetent financial management and an incompetent board. You do have control of how it impacts you (yay!). And since you DON’T have control of the situation in this case, whichever choice you make regarding yourself will not affect the eventual outcome significantly.

    A mantra that helps me remember that I have control of my life in this sort of situation (whether using it out loud or internally), is “I think you’ll find that I can.”

    Someone: “But you cAAAAaaaaAAAan’t leave us!”
    Me: “I think you’ll find that I can.”

    It also works internally:
    Me: “Sure you’re not responsible for it, but you can’t just leave a mess that you could theoretically fix!”
    Also me: “Oh, I think you’ll find that I can.”
    *walks away, puts on sunglasses, explosions light up the background*

  53. Happy volunteer*

    OP, that sucks. It really sucks. But a good organization does not depend on one person and the best ones never do.
    I’ve seen both, one was a community service club where I did everything for one year and it fell apart the next year when I left. Luckily, all my friends from the club remained friends with me. My dad’s pep-talk was you should benefit from everything. If it has no benefit (money, fun, etc), stop doing it.

    I also volunteer at a community radio station with only 3 paid staff members, one full-time station manager and two part time managers. Recently, one part-time manager had to quit. Last year, while it was going from concept to actual stations, one of the part-time managers had a baby and had to be less involved for a few months. The station kept going. Other volunteers stepped in un-paid. The managers communicated well and picked up the slack for each other and were able to plan events accordingly. It has been amazing to see the community rally around the station and the community it created. I hope you can eventually find a better situation like this one. It’s pretty incredible to be part of.

  54. Chaordic One*

    It’s sad when there isn’t enough community interest to keep a nonprofit going, but you’ve done a lot for a long time and sometimes organizations (even worthwhile ones) just have to die.

    At the library where I volunteer, they used to have a literacy program that was run by retired school teachers. It taught the illiterate how to read and English as a Second Language and it really helped a lot of people. Funding was always precarious. Sometimes they’d a get a grant and the program would run for a year or two, then the grant would run out and the program would die, only to get revived a year or two later. What finally killed the program was when the retired school teachers all passed away and no one could (or would) step up to replace them.

    You gave it a good shot and now it’s time to let go.

  55. Katie*

    It’s so hard to leave an organisation like this when you’ve become the keystone holding up the bridge. You’re emotional, you feel responsible all the rest of it.
    Do you have any allies at all who would take you at your word and support your transition out? Even if they’re not going to take on any volunteering role or your responsibility, this is so much easier if there’s someone who can fight your corner while you’re not in the room.
    I’m in the process of leaving a very intense volunteer role myself. Our organisation has enough structure and rules that we can calculate there are NINE vacancies being shored up by two of the three of us who’re doing most of the on-the-ground work. Plus the board, whose job it is to fill those vacancies, have been burying their heads. The thing that helped the most was having someone who I could count on to move the conversation from “oh she’s leaving, well that ruins everything” to “how can we make the most of the transition period”.

  56. Kaitlyn*

    Oh man, it’s so frustrating to watch this kind of thing unfold. Leaving the organization is the right move, and its survival or demise says nothing about you as a person, a leader, or a professional – it says something about the people who choose not to carry the same amount of responsibility and accountability as you.

    Make a list of all the things you want to accomplish before you feel like it’s safe to walk away. Big projects like “ensuring financial stability” can go on there, as well as tiny items like, “email the guy about the thing.” Identify which ones you can do in the next month, and start doing them – wrap them up! Email the rest to the board and say, “I am leaving on DATE, and here is a list of problem areas I’ve identified that will likely need to be resolved in the next year. Person X and Y are probably the best people to take on Portfolio A, Person Z should handle Project B,” and so forth. Make it clear these are suggestions, but based on the skills you’ve observed and the compentencies you’ve admired, these transitions make sense. Then say, “Because of my previous volunteer recidivism, I’m removing myself entirely from AVO. After DATE, I will no longer be available for questions, work, or wrapping up project.”

    And also, allow yourself to grieve a little bit. This has been a big part of your life for a long time, and it’s going to take you some time to transition out of caring and feeling things about the AVO. Set up a plan to make connections that have nothing to do with it, and figure out how you’re going to fill those 4-6 hours every day. Otherwise, 15 minutes here and there will feel like time well spent, and it’ll be easy to go back.

    1. AVO LW*

      This is extremely helpful. “Set up a plan to make connections that have nothing to do with it, and figure out how you’re going to fill to 4-6 hours every day.” I know that I’m likely to spend those 4-6 hours thinking about Big Project X that I never finished, so having it in the back of my head that I should be filling that time with something else will be crucial.

  57. Hope*

    Get out of there–and if they protest because they “can’t do it without you”, point out that they need to build some redundancy in and learn how to do it without you, because if–god forbid–a bus hit you tomorrow, they’d be even more screwed because you wouldn’t be available to train someone else in what to do.

    I know it’s a bit morbid to put it that way, but I once had a supervisor that *did* get hit by a car (she survived, but was out for months), and we were all thankful that she’d done some cross-training with us so we were able to get by while she was out. It also made it easier on her, because even though she lived for her job, she knew she could trust us to handle things without her.

  58. Aloot*

    “I’m in my mid-20s and completely burned out”

    And that is *exactly* why you should follow Alison’s advice and give your resignation post-haste. It’s not you abandoning them, it’s you giving them a fair chance and a good opportunity to phase you out as smoothly as possible.

    Because: your condition is *not* going to get any better. You are going to get so burned out that it’s no longer going to be you wanting to leave, you’ll drop out with very little notice and there is going to be absolutely nothing to be done about it – you’ll be far, FAR too burned out to be of any help to anyone.

    Please realize that if this group is so dependent on you that it will fall apart without you, it’s already dead. It’s a foregone conclusion, and it’s just a question of time of when it’ll go under. Just DON’T let it drag you down with it. You are not the captain of the Titanic, you don’t have to go down with the ship; there is no moral or ethical or legal obligation for you to do so.

    Please take care of yourself before you lose your job because of it. Before you end up in such a burned out state that you’ll lose literally YEARS of your life before you manage to get back to where you were.

    “Don’t leave, we need you!”

    That is not really *your* problem, though. It’s theirs. They can work it out if they want to, it’s just that continuing to lean on you is waaaay easier. For them, that is.

    “You won’t leave, you love us!”

    Yeah, you do. That’s why you haven’t left already. But it’s time you spend some of that love on yourself and start putting yourself first. Even if the group totally falls apart without you it is still not as serious as *you* falling apart. LOVE YOURSELF. You’re worth it. You deserve it. You’re allowed to put yourself first, second, and third.

  59. SarcasticFringehead*

    You’ve been with this organization for years, and it’s done good work, right? If you leave, even if the organization dissolves into a trash fire of infighting and ineffectiveness, that good work won’t disappear. Programs might get cut, but they wouldn’t even have been there in the first place without you.

    And now you have very valuable experience, and once you’ve taken a break and gotten to know your new city and your new job and made friends who won’t guilt you over not working yourself sick, you can take that valuable experience to other volunteer organizations. Maybe someday you’ll be able to take over from someone just like you who’s about to burn out.

  60. Just Answering*

    Okay, this is me in spades. I founded and became the coordinator of a non-profit at my church for youth (part of a bigger organization, so the financials, thankfully, had rules), and I also became the coordinator of another drama group for youth.

    The first group that I founded sucked my entire life. I’m serious. I had a hand in everything, and I was well over 70% of why that group was organized and ran well. But, I never *loved* it. I founded it for my daughter. I ran it for my daughter. And, there was SO MUCH nonsense amongst the adults. Mind you, I discovered that I had a wonderful ability to “smooth ruffled feathers” and to calm tense situations. The girls were never affected at all by the adult nonsense. But, it takes SO much out of you. I spent many sleepless nights, and probably developed a few health problems over the 8 years I coordinated, and the 2 more I stayed trying to “help out” in the transition.

    Moreover, so much of what I did to make things run smoothly was behind the scenes. I was not the main face to the girls, or even to parents, although they all knew I was the head coordinator. Yet, many people were not aware of all that I was doing, well into the night, to make the group function well. (Much of this didn’t get done after I left and continues to cause a lot of problems.)

    I got VERY burned out. I tried to step back, but that wasn’t working either. At the same time, my daughter started to feel ready to move on (she and I had been doing this for 10 years), and that finally gave me “permission” to just quit.

    I’ve never been happier. I do not miss the group at all. And, no, they don’t run very well anymore. They have all sorts of issues. But, they’ve survived a year so far without me, and they’ll either continue to function or they won’t. I’m SO happy to have left. In fact, if there are any regrets, it is that I didn’t quit sooner.

    With the second group, I still do it, because I’ve always loved it better (even though mostly done for my kids). I’ve been coordinating this group for 13 years and in it for 14 years. But, my daughter is a senior next year, and she will be done with the drama group after she graduates. So, I need to find a replacement for me if I can. So far, there is no one with the word “sucker” ;-) written plainly across their forehead. I really don’t want to see it die, but I’ve also seen signs of me getting burnt out, since I have a tendency to also do WAY too much for this group. And, of course, when you’re willing and able, people will LET you. After next year, though, I will need to find a replacement, or the group will die. And, if it does, I’m trying to learn to be okay with that. As someone else said, the good done may have just been for that period of time. If it dies, it doesn’t negate all the good that was done.

    You (and I’m talking to me too) need to let it go. I truly have never been happier to have let the first group go. Yet, I cried and agonized and twisted myself into knots about it. I was sure that I was being mean and awful and rotten and disloyal. Nope. They’re okay, and I’m great! You will be too. Next year, you’ll write an update saying, “Why didn’t I leave sooner?”

    As for the second group, I’m trying to learn lessons from the first. This has also been a helpful thread for me. :-)

    1. AVO LW*

      I’m glad to have been part of some help to you, Just Answering, even if only by submitting the letter. Have you sent in official written notice to group two that you will be leaving in a year’s time? That will definitely give you recourse if anyone tries to push back later: “I gave over a year’s notice and asked for you (the collective ‘you’) to find a replacement before I left. I am leaving now.”

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