Fundraisers Are Stressed. Here’s How They’re Coping.
Fundraisers have long been overworked and underpaid, but 2020 brought a whole new set of stressors.
They feel immense pressure to bring in money to support programs and prevent layoffs. Remote work has brought isolation for some, a breakdown of work-life boundaries for others. Widespread financial uncertainty cost some fundraisers their jobs. The challenges are especially tough for Black fundraisers who — in a year when racial injustice came to the fore — were caught at the intersection of multiple crises. The
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Fundraisers have long been overworked and underpaid, but 2020 brought a whole new set of stressors.
They feel immense pressure to bring in money to support programs and prevent layoffs. Remote work has brought isolation for some, a breakdown of work-life boundaries for others. Widespread financial uncertainty cost some fundraisers their jobs. The challenges are especially tough for Black fundraisers who — in a year when racial injustice came to the fore — were caught at the intersection of multiple crises. The Chronicle checked in with fundraisers across the country to ask how they’re keeping it together and finding ways to stay energized about their work.
Dominque Calixte, associate director of annual giving and special events at YW Boston, had to steel herself for the last fundraising push of the year. The health crisis and increased calls for racial justice in 2020 drove home the need for racial and gender equity, which her charity — the country’s first YWCA — has been advancing for more than a century. As a fundraiser, Calixte welcomed the spotlight on YW Boston’s mission. But the uptick in virtual events responding to news developments has left her exhausted.
“I’m just constantly sprinting towards something,” she says. “I sprinted through all the events, and now I have to sprint through year-end giving, while also sprinting through planning for 2021.”
Fundraisers are also emotionally frayed by threats to their health and safety from the pandemic and racial injustice. Calixte has been worried about her family’s health, particularly her brother’s, since he works in health care. As a Black woman, Calixte has also felt drained by the many media depictions of violence against Black people this year.
“Especially very early on with all this, I felt that with everything that’s going on, every one of my intersections as a being was being tested,” Calixte says.
She feels burned out. Even so, it’s hard for her to imagine taking time off work to recharge. Calixte is one of just three fundraisers on staff. If they’re all out, she says, “What does this mean for year-end?”
Some fundraisers are leaning on outside networks during these challenging times. The support of a mentor through the African American Development Officer Network has helped Andre Dowell, an engagement officer for regional programs at the University of Georgia, stay energized about his work.
“Industry leaders have taken me under their wings and have gotten me involved and engaged in the work of philanthropy and fundraising, but also [tended] to my individual cultural needs,” he says.
That support has bolstered him throughout this difficult year, especially as the summer’s protest put racial unrest front and center. Dowell says he was able to keep performing at a high level because he knew he could lean on a community of other African American fundraisers.
Birgit Smith Burton, the founder of AADO, tapped Dowell to chair the philanthropy track for this year’s AADO-CASE Conference on Diverse Philanthropy and Leadership.
“Whenever you’re able to step outside of your current position and do something else with your expertise, that allows you to get a sense of ownership of something else that’s not your work,” Dowell says. “Being able to have those outside of the work — creative and innovative tasks and projects — fills up my cup and prevents burnout.”
Longer Daily Grind
Many fundraisers are working longer hours. “There are some days where I’ll look at the clock and it’s seven o’clock and I’m still working,” says Nikkia Johnson, senior development officer at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which provides legal assistance and social services to Virginians in need. Without the commute home from the office, Johnson says it’s so much harder to unwind from work — or just stop working.
Nonprofit professionals are notorious for having many responsibilities and wearing many hats. Johnson, for example, was signing holiday cards to her charity’s supporters while she spoke with the Chronicle for this story.
“Knowing now that we’re probably working three hours more a day is really troubling,” says Adair. “That could really be not only impacting our physical health, but impacting our mental health as well.”
While many employees are burning the candle at both ends, fundraisers face unique stressors. Tough financial times are especially stressful for them because they may feel the burdens of pulling the organization out of a challenging year.
“You’re friends with your colleagues and the people you work with, and you don’t want to let them down,” Adair says. “If there have to be programs cut, you feel that personally. If positions have to be furloughed or positions have to go from full time to part time, fundraisers take that on, and it can be really, really hurtful to them. They can really feel the blame for that.”
‘My Own Island’
Some fundraisers on small teams are feeling isolated. Because the pandemic hit just as Heather Muir started her job, she didn’t meet her colleagues in person before they began working at home. She returned to the small office for the Gwyneth’s Gift Foundation in June, where she mostly stays to herself. Part of that is her own preference as an introvert. But meetings also tend to be shorter and more efficient when everyone is wearing masks and not chatting over a cup of coffee or lunch, she says. In addition, her colleagues do not have nonprofit backgrounds, and Muir wishes she had a group or peers to commiserate with. She’s tired of meeting donors virtually instead of face to face, she said in an email. “I do feel like I am on my own island.”
She feels burnt out. She says it’s tough to stay focused, despite her passion for the mission of providing CPR and AED training. “I am finding it harder to finalize the 2021 [fundraising] plan,” she says. “Things are still so much up in the air.”
Colleagues can be a wellspring of support for fundraisers, who often toil alone, says Ian Adair,
who raises money in his role as executive director of the Gracepoint Foundation, which provides behavioral health care. “We need to find support communities, whether they’re professional or personal, to share that load and share that burden,” he says. “I think fundraisers sometimes forget that our best resource is each other.”
For Krystle Ellis, 2020 was about setting boundaries.
Now senior director of development and communications at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Rochester, she worked around the clock the first two months of the pandemic. In-person events were a huge part of the organization’s fundraising plan. Without them, it might lose as much as 40 percent of budgeted revenue.
“It was really serious,” Ellis says. “That threat was huge for us. Our team was just go, go, go.”
The charity started a program to support families with medically fragile children online and decided to hold a large virtual gala to continue raising support for ongoing programming. Ellis got into a rhythm of working especially long hours but quickly realized it wasn’t sustainable given the demands of her 8-year-old daughter, who has special needs and is doing remote schooling, and her 3-year-old son. In addition, Ellis’s husband is an essential worker at the local psychiatric center, often working 16 hours a day.
“We sat down and we said, we have to stop,” Ellis says. “We have to stop for the sake of family, because that is all that you have in this season.”
Now, she shuts off her computer around 5 or 5:30 every evening. And her colleagues know to text or call only in the case of an emergency.
It’s not easy to power down from work, especially when the mission feels personal and urgent. That’s the case for Ellis, whose daughter was born prematurely eight years ago and was in the hospital for six months before the family could take her home. During her hospitalization, the family stayed at Ronald McDonald House for two weeks.
But time away from work has been beneficial for Ellis. Her family goes for walks in area parks, and she and her husband have picked up some new hobbies. A colleague turned them on to canning, so the family is now stocked with jars of preserved farm-fresh peaches, beans, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Her husband has taken up baking in the wee hours of the morning with the kids. “Bedtime has gone out the window,” she says.
As she’s found a better balance between remote work and time at home with family, Ellis has also found more success at work. She was promoted to her current role in August and became the first Black woman on the charity’s leadership team. That promotion, however, has not been without stressors. “You have to prove yourself in ways that others don’t in order to build trust,” Ellis says.
Yes, the work is tiring, she says, especially during peak fundraising times like year-end. ”But we have to keep working for them because the lives of children are worth more than anything. It brings me peace and joy to watch our families win.”
Ellis knew that she could set new work-life boundaries thanks to her organization’s strong culture of philanthropy. She says leaders also understand that compassion fatigue — the kind of secondary stress people who are exposed to the traumatic suffering of others face — is real.
“Because we deal with death and pain and all kind of suffering on a weekly basis, self-care is a part of what we do,” Ellis says. “It’s actually a requirement and it’s not a myth. If you’re worried and burned out, you’re no good to our families at all.”
She says her colleagues understand that when someone needs to tap out, another person can step in where you left off. “When you have to take those self-care days, you don’t feel like something is going to go up in flames.”
Finding simple ways to recharge is important, especially at hectic times when fundraisers can’t take a full-fledged vacation, like the year-end fundraising season.
Toni Tringolo runs the Willamette Week’s Give!Guide, a grassroots campaign to raise money for charities in Portland. This year, the drive’s goal is to raise $5 million for 174 local nonprofits in November and December. It’s been a long, hard push.
“Our ‘team’ is me, myself, and I,” Tringolo said in an email. “This campaign is literally a 24/7 situation and without anyone else on staff that means I’ve had one day off since October.”
Tringolo is working remotely from her unfinished basement, where she snuggles into a sleeping bag to stay warm at her desk. In addition to coordinating the fundraising campaign, she is also on call for her daughter, who is attending middle school remotely from home.
“There hasn’t been much time for self-care these days,” Tringolo says. She works out, gardens, and skateboards. Spending time with family is important, too. She and her daughter watch Malcolm in the Middle each night and play round after round of solitaire.
“Pancake Sunday has become a standing event at our house,” she says. “We all live for these giant, fluffy buttermilk pancakes that my husband makes. We’ll spin records and chill with the pets. It’s a good, quiet life.”
Maybe that’s why Tringolo says she’s not feeling burnt out.
“I know this is the hard stretch and this pace will let up in January and I’ll be able to rest and recover,” she says. “I’m energized and encouraged by what I’m seeing from everyday Portlanders who are stepping up and helping out the community with their support. My morale is strong and healthy for now.”
Adair urges harried fundraisers to think about simple activities and time with loved ones as self-care. “There’s a huge misconception of what that word means,” he says. Many people assume self-care requires luxurious treats, like a day at the spa. But he urges people not to overcomplicate the concept.
“For most of us, sometimes it’s just watching a funny movie or spending time in a good book or spending time with your pets or spending time with family,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be something so planned out and elaborate.”