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How to Protect Yourself from Fundraising Emotional Burnout

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I was meeting with some experts in global relief work, working on a flexible fundraising plan that would allow their organization to mobilize donors and respond quickly to be as effective as possible.

I asked the “disaster expert” how many major disasters that threaten the lives of a lot of people there are in a year.

I was expecting the answer to be around two or three.

There are about 100 major disasters a year, the expert said. 

That’s two a week! I gasped. How can that be?

She quickly named a handful of the most recent disasters, that is, disasters that had happened in the last couple of weeks. I’m a pretty dedicated reader of international news, but I’d only heard about one of them.

The magnitude of human suffering was overwhelming. I knew that each of those 100 disasters meant homes destroyed. Livelihoods wiped out. Loved ones killed.

I felt like I was looking down into the depths of a black hole of pain and despair.

I went from feeling we were working on a competent, workable plan that would make a meaningful difference, to feeling that no matter what we could do it would barely scratch the surface of this ongoing human tragedy.

I wanted to hide from the problem. It was too deep. Too wide. Too much to comprehend.

You probably know exactly what I’m talking about. Because one of the main reasons you are in fundraising is because you care.

And caring makes you vulnerable to compassion fatigue, a condition experienced by helpers when they encounter a lot of people in distress. 

As fundraisers, we aren’t on the front lines of caring, but we’re close enough to feel the stress.

There are two common ways fundraisers respond to compassion fatigue, and neither of them is very good:

  1. Grit your teeth and work through it. This may seem like a good strategy, but it’s not sustainable, and it’s not healthy. The stress will build up and cause you problems!
  1. Shut down. Try not to be emotionally involved. This is even worse, mainly because you can’t actually shut down your emotional response. It happens even when you work to suppress it.  Anyway, not caring is not you. You’re here because you care. And you’re good at your work because you care. Going numb will only make you less effective, and feel less fulfilled.

These are both lose/lose approaches. They don’t solve the stress problem, and they both make you less effective at the work you love to do.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. It’s not easy, but it can keep you on a sustainable path in your work. You must do the following three things in a mindful and disciplined way:

Define your part of the problem

You are not alone. It might seem that way sometimes, but the burden is not all on you!

No matter what your cause is, no matter how huge it is, no matter how important … it’s not all up to you to solve it! You are part of a community, each member doing their part. And that community is probably itself part of a larger community. Many people working hard to make a difference.

Every cause, every need that’s important is like that. It’s easy to forget that, but so important to remember it!

Remind yourself: My part in this work is limited. My job is to do my part. We will make the most difference if each person does their part. It’s not all up to me!

Put in writing what your part in the work is. When you feel the stress rising, read your list and remind yourself that you are responsible for those things. Not everything!

Focus on the good you can do

We know that in fundraising, donors are less responsive when we focus on how huge and difficult the problem we’re working on is. Doing that actively reduces compassion and generosity. The human brain is hard-wired to pay attention to problems it can solve, while ignoring problems it can’t solve.

It works this way for donors, and it works this way for you.

Just as we empower donors to do their part by telling them stories about small, solvable parts of the bigger problem, we need to do that for ourselves.

So this week, your task is not to save the planet from greenhouse gasses. It’s to do your part by getting next month’s fundraising appeal out the door. That’s how you help save the planet right now. And it’s no small thing!

You can’t un-know the scope and the seriousness of the problem your organization is tackling, but you can choose to dwell on your part of the solution. You’ll feel a lot better when you think about tasks you can complete and not ones you can’t.

Take care of yourself

You aren’t any good to those you want to help if you burn out. That’s why you need to pay close attention to your needs. Mother Teresa understood the danger of compassion fatigue. She made it a rule that her nuns were to take a full year off every four to five years. She knew these were people vulnerable to owning too much of the problem and liable to burn out.

Here are some of the things you can do to take care of yourself:

  • Reduce stressful workloads.
  • Take regular vacations.
  • Meditate or pray.
  • Keep a journal where you record your thoughts.
  • Talk about it. With people in your life, or maybe with a therapist.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat well.

These are all good and healthy practices, but they are especially important if you are facing stress.

Some things not to do

  • Don’t blame others for your pain.
  • Don’t do anything impulsive that might feel good in the moment but will be hard to undo, like have an emotional confrontation – or quit your job. 
  • Don’t fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.
  • Don’t work harder and longer.
  • Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
  • Don’t neglect your own needs and interests.

Want some instant insight into the challenges you face? Schedule a free 25-minute call with one of our Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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