During the 24 years I have been in fundraising, I have observed that the greatest factor causing people to leave fundraising, or to “burn out,” is not the work itself, or even the challenge of having to ask for money. It is the constant, gnawing anxiety that the money won’t come in, and the knowledge that, once you have raised money for one month or one quarter, you must simply turn around and begin raising it for the next period of time. There is never a rest, success is short-lived, and lack of success shows up immediately. Fundraising can also be an isolating job, with the burden of producing money too often placed on one or two people.
Many paid fundraising staff have told me that they wake up in the middle of the night worrying that they never feel really free to take a weekend off, let alone a vacation. Fundraising staff often have their self-esteem eaten away by the constant pressure of a job that, by its nature, can never be finished.
There are five ways to deal with this anxiety, besides psychotherapy or quitting one’s job.
1. Recruit volunteers and delegate. Saul Alinsky, one of the most important figures in community organizing, had an iron rule for organizing that also applies to fundraising: “Never do for someone what they can do for themselves.” When you are doing something that a reasonable, intelligent person could do with minimal training, find such a person and get them involved. This will decrease your isolation and increase your productivity. Having volunteers help you will not save time, as the time you save by having them do the task is used in recruiting, training, supervising and then thanking them, but the goal of having the work spread over a wide variety of people is accomplished, and the feeling that it is all up to you is diminished.
2. Remember that, if you do your job, the money will come in. Of course some mail appeals will fail, some donors won’t give and some grant proposals will be turned down. But your job is to generate enough requests for money that, even when only a small portion is successful, you will have the money you need. Fundraising is basically a numbers game – get the word out in as many ways and to as many people as you can. If you ask enough people for money, you will raise the money you need.
3. If your primary responsibility is to raise money, then every day that you come to work set your priorities around that goal. Ask yourself, “Of all the tasks that I have to do today, which one will raise the most money over the longest period of time?” Do that task first, then do the task that will raise the next most money, and so on. This will call for some judgment on your part. For example, if you have the choice of writing a grant proposal for $10,000 or approaching a major donor for an additional gift of $1,000, you may decide to go to the donor because she is more likely to give year after year than the foundation. Or, if you follow the advice in #1, you will try to get a board member to go to the prospective donor, freeing yourself up to write the grant proposal. Just remember that no one ever gets the whole job done. Make sure that the things you don’t get done are things not related to fundraising.
4. Detach from the results of your work. A request turned down or an unsuccessful mailing does not mean that you are a failure as a person or as a fundraiser. Not being able to do everything is not a condemnation of your worth as a person. If you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean you are a mistake. Ask yourself whether it will be important in 10 years whether you got the newsletter out today or next week. One person can only do so much. Do what you can do in the time allotted, and let the rest go. Too often, groups have fundraising goals that no one could reach. Instead of trying to live up to impossible expectations, evaluate your goal setting.
Some people have found it helpful to form support groups with others doing similar types of work – either informal gatherings over happy hour or more formal, structured meetings at a specific time and place. If you do use a support group, make sure it supports your work and helps with strategies. Do not use it as a gripe session to compare notes on how awful everyone’s job is. That will only make you more dejected.
5. Take care of yourself. Don’t always work overtime. Take vacations. Ask for help. Delegate tasks. The overall work of social justice is the creation of a humane and just society, where, among other things, work and leisure are balanced. If the culture of your workplace does not encourage balance, it is unlikely that your organization can have a positive role in creating social change.
Consider these words from the great religious thinker and activist, Thomas Merton:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.