How Leaders Can Help Fundraisers Avoid Burnout
Fundraisers often don’t realize they’re headed toward burnout until it’s too late. Their commitment to the mission and drive to meet development goals can keep them laser-focused on the work, at the expense of their own wellbeing.
“If you’re a fundraiser and you feel like whether or not kids get fed next week depends on how much money you raise, you’re going to push yourself harder,” says Jessica Word, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas associate professor who studies burnout at nonprofits.
We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fundraisers often don’t realize they’re headed toward burnout until it’s too late. Their commitment to the mission and drive to meet development goals can keep them laser-focused on the work at the expense of their own well-being.
“If you’re a fundraiser and you feel like whether or not kids get fed next week depends on how much money you raise, you’re going to push yourself harder,” says Jessica Word, a University of Nevada at Las Vegas associate professor who studies burnout at nonprofits.
A 2022 Chronicle survey of 685 fundraisers found stress and burnout at the heart of the profession. Ninety-four percent said they strongly or somewhat agreed that there is tremendous pressure to succeed, and 82 percent said fundraising roles are underappreciated. With such high rates of dissatisfaction, it’s no surprise longtime fundraisers are quitting and organizations are struggling to hire the talent they need.
Keeping fundraisers healthy and high-performing requires extra effort from leaders and managers, experts say. They should watch for signs of burnout in their employees, such as changes in mood and productivity or increased bouts of illness. Experts also shared strategies leaders can use to help exhausted employees recover, such as celebrating small wins and leading honest conversations about their day-to-day sources of frustration and inspiration. Leaders set the tone of a workplace and have a high-level view of an organization, and experts say that makes them uniquely positioned to stanch burnout.
“I don’t think you can have employees and not understand the important role you play in their well-being,” says Ian Adair, director of leadership development and credentialing at the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “Leadership today is about taking care of the people doing the work — not just the work itself.”
Check In Early and Often
Even the most capable, productive employees can be at risk of burnout — and they’re often the best at hiding it. Fundraisers are conditioned to put donors first, concealing whatever stress or discomfort they may feel. A major donor may be unpleasant to work with, but fundraisers can’t get exasperated and risk losing a big gift, says Word, the burnout researcher. So they push down their true feelings and put on a happy face. Researchers call this surface acting, and they’ve linked it to increased experiences of stress and burnout.
Fundraisers need opportunities to put their external personas aside and get real about the challenges they face and when they need support. It helps when they can vent with their peers, Word says, but they also need to feel that their manager understands the ins and outs of their work. Check-ins with fundraisers need to be regular and address the fundraisers’ well-being — not just whether they’re hitting their fundraising goals.
Conversations about emotional well-being may be uncomfortable for some managers, says Adair, at AFP. But training such as Mental Health First Aid — a free course offered around the country by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing — can give them tools to broach the subject in a sensitive and competent way.
Managers also need to show their team that they really want to hear the truth of how they’re doing — even if that means they’ll have to take on more work to give an overburdened fundraiser a break.
“I personally try to be very transparent about my experiences with burnout,” says Madison Gonzalez, executive director of Morning Light, an Indianapolis hospice. “Then I feel like the team has the floor to be able to say, ‘Yeah, this really stresses me out’ and ‘This really is exhausting to me.’”
Also crucial is the “preventative work” of getting to know employees as individuals, Gonzalez says, so that managers can spot changes in their energy, mood, and productivity — and address them before they turn into full-blown burnout.
In a previous role at an education and children’s rights nonprofit, Mandy Sharp Eizinger noticed that one member of her team’s health was suffering. Her energy was low and she started getting sick often. Eizinger — now a program manager at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, which produces research and professional development tools for nonprofits — shared her observations during the employee’s performance review and offered to help her focus on her well-being.
In a typical performance review, the manager signs off on an employee’s professional growth goals for the next year, such as improving their public speaking. In this instance, Eizinger encouraged her employee to include a well-being goal as part of her professional goals. The employee set a goal to meditate three times a week and gave Eizinger permission to ask about her meditation practice during their check-ins.
“It wasn’t something that we measured based on her performance on the job, but it’s something that we were both accountable to making sure she was able to focus on when she could,” Eizinger says.
It’s also helpful for managers to ask employees which parts of their roles they find especially stressful and which are meaningful, says Robbie Waters Robichau, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University who studies nonprofit employees’ desire for meaningful work.
Research on for-profit employees found they felt their work had more impact when managers asked them to reflect on where they found meaning in their jobs. Asking questions such as, “What is it about your job that is meaningful to you? And as a leader, how can I help you focus on that?” gives employees the space to reflect and regroup with their boss, Robichau says. They won’t remove every sticking point in a person’s day-to-day work, but Robichau says these questions spark enriching conversations that also help a manager understand their employee better as an individual.
Reflection doesn’t come naturally for many nonprofit employees — who can be so focused on meeting short-term objectives along the way to tackling sprawling long-term goals like ending homelessness or ensuring every child can graduate from college. Fundraisers — whose success is measured by how much money they bring in for the mission — say they feel like they’re treading water, with no chance to catch their breath.
“We don’t celebrate successes very well,” says Adair, at AFP. “You can achieve a major gift, you can hit your goal for an event, you can win a substantial grant award, but then you’re on to the next thing.”
That’s a pattern Carly Euler remembers from her job as special-events fundraiser for a health nonprofit — a job she describes as never-ending. Now a marketing manager for Memory Fox, a technology company that serves nonprofits, Euler says leaders at her former employer rarely stopped to celebrate fundraisers’ achievements.
She remembers the long hours securing corporate sponsors for events. She’d report those sponsorships to the group’s leaders and trustees, but rather than applaud the work she’d already done, they’d rattle off names of other companies she should approach to cover more costs.
“More money brought in is more services and more people helped,” Euler says of nonprofit fundraising. “You can put a real dollar amount on lives that you’re changing.” But that comes at a cost, she says.
As a leader of a hospice, Gonzalez is aware of the emotional toll her employees face as they serve clients who are at the end of their lives. The intensity of that experience makes it all the more important to recognize the impact hospice employees make, she says. These celebrations don’t have to be a big to-do. For Gonzalez, they often look like a collective pause, “This week we helped three people pass away with dignity. Their families will remember that forever, and we left a lasting impact.”
When leaders recognize the work their team is doing to meet their mission, they pour more fuel into everyone’s tanks. “Burnout is, in part, feeling like you’re ineffectual, like your work doesn’t matter,” says Billie Sandberg, an associate professor at Portland State University who studies meaningful work. Celebrating achievements staves off burnout by reminding employees of the difference their work makes.