September 04, 2008

Advice on finding a low-stress position in fund raising

Q. There was a time I loved what I did; a career in philanthropy was a calling. But now I have a health condition that makes it difficult to handle the stress and long hours expected from development directors. Any advice on a new direction I can take and still stay in the nonprofit field?

A. The first step to recovering your enthusiasm for your work is to identify exactly what's bothering you, says Beverly Potter, a psychologist and the author of Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work.

Beyond the stress and long hours about which you complain, one possible source of your burnout is the pressure of serving as your organization's chief fund raiser.

Such responsibility can seem like a weighty burden at times, says Blase Bova, director of development for the Society of St. Vincent DePaul-Phoenix, a social-services group.

"What might tend to burn people out is knowing that the organization needs funding — and it all kind of falls on you," he says.

If the problem is the nature of the position, you may want to find a new one — perhaps more directly connected to the mission and programs of your organization, Mr. Bova says.

Or simply try to remind yourself why you started working there in the first place.

"My biggest strategy for avoiding burnout is the mission of the organization," he says.

One way to reignite your passion for your organization's mission, he says, is to talk to volunteers, staff members, and clients about your charity's good works and the need for its services. These stories also can help you make your case to prospective donors, he says.

If you want to stick with fund raising, but desire more flexibility, fewer hours, and less stress, consider a job conducting donor research or writing grant proposals, says Randi Yoder, senior vice president for donor relations at Greater Twin Cities United Way, in Minneapolis.

You could still devise strategies and interact with donors, but you could work from home, if your health condition makes telecommuting desirable, and you wouldn't have to ask for donations, she says.

You might also consider a job raising big gifts for a larger institution, suggests Anne McCaw, author of the Vault Career Guide to Fundraising and Philanthropy. That way, you would have a similar level of responsibility, but possibly better benefits and more support from a larger, more sophisticated fund-raising department.

If your organization is simply expecting too much of you and your department, and you have more than five years' experience as a successful fund raiser, you may find yourself in a good position to negotiate for better hours and more flexibility — either as development director, or in another, more specialized role — at another charity, Ms. McCaw says.

"When you interview for a development job, look to see if the staffing seems to meet the expectations around fund raising," she says.

For instance, Ms. McCaw says, if you're looking at a job in foundation and corporate relations, are there enough staff members in place to raise the grant funding the organization expects each year, "or is it just one person who's holding their head above water?"

Ms. McCaw also advises you to look for the following: a strong strategic plan, a board that actively raises money, an executive director who knows how to set priorities, a collaborative approach to fund raising, and a support system — including competitive salaries and benefits, a well-managed fund-raising database, and a budget for training staff members — that allows fund raisers to do their jobs well.

You may also want to get support from outside the office, says Will Wiebe, a life and career coach in Portland, Ore.

Seek out other fund raisers and form networks by joining professional associations, such as the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Your peers, he says, are the best source of information about how to handle the demands of your job.