How to Avoid Burnout

Avoid BurnoutDear Fellow Fundraisers,

Let’s talk about stress. And how to manage it.

Because goodness knows, fundraising as a profession can be very stressful.

We need to figure out how to let the stress go before it kills us. We’re doing a lot of harm to ourselves by putting our jobs before our own wellbeing.

But it’s not the job’s fault. It’s ours.

Joan frequently tells the story of how she nearly killed her Development Director. The short version is that while at GLAAD, Joan once stressed out her Development Director Julie so badly that Julie actually showed up to a board meeting wearing a heart monitor. And Joan didn’t tell her to go home.

Nuts.

But we all let this sort of thing happen all the time. I’m just as guilty.

Last year, the stress of work literally put me in the emergency room.

Here’s what happened.

MY OWN TRIP TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM

Almost exactly one year ago I was the Managing Director of Development and Communications at GMHC (an organization I love and continue to support.)

And I felt tremendous pressure, like I’m sure many of you do right now.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • There was an upcoming gala and enormous pressure to sell sponsorships and tables.
  • With only a little over three months left in our fiscal year, I wasn’t entirely sure we’d meet our goals.
  • A new CEO search was going on, and my team was nervous about the future. I was too.

Or how about this? (These were the real thoughts going through my head constantly.)

  • How am I going to get out the door and make asks when there’s so much to take care of in-house?
  • If I don’t reach my revenue goal we’ll have to lay people off, cut a program, and our clients will suffer.
  • The Board will think I’m doing a bad job and I’ll be fired if we don’t make these numbers.

So what did I do? Same thing most of you do.

I worked even harder.

And then one afternoon I got an angry email from a colleague at another organization. Apparently our gala was within a few days of their event.

That was my breaking point. For a few seconds, I felt pain in the upper left part of my chest.

I took a deep breath, clenched my fists… and went back to my to-do list.

A short while later, there it was again. The pain was back.

We’re talking chest pain here. Go to the ER, dumb ass!

But I had critically important work to do.

I texted my husband who just happens to be a doctor and asked him what he thought I should do. I’m sure the text was something like, “Haha having some chest pain, should I go to the hospital? Better lay off the cake tonight lol!”

Just so we are clear, only a moron sends a jokey text when having chest pain.

When the pain came back for the third time, I finally got it. I grabbed my bag, walked out of the office, hailed a cab, and went to the NYU Emergency Room.

But even then, on the way to the hospital I continued my moronic streak and emailed my staff that while I was leaving early, I could of course still be reached on my cell or email.

THE STRESS OF WORK

The hospital admitted me with crazy high blood pressure. I later found out that over the prior year my elevated cholesterol had moved up to the stratosphere.

Perhaps not consciously, but I made the choice to let the stress of fundraising overwhelm me. Getting sick like that wasn’t a problem with the job; it was a problem with how I handled the job.

By nature most Directors of Development are passionate overachievers that strive for excellence. But we are also only human. We may want to believe we are superhuman, but we aren’t.

HOW TO AVOID BURNOUT

Between now and June 30th, the end of the fiscal year for so many of us, I want you to keep in mind the following:

  1. You are more important than your job. No matter where you work, no matter how desperate your clients are, you are more important than your job.
  2. You must take time off and unplug from work. Over time, remaining in constant contact with work will destroy your health. When you are away, put someone else in charge, and walk away for real.
  3. If this job is not a good fit, you will find another one. Fundraisers are always in demand.

I’m happy to say that a year later I’m much better than I was. Do I still feel stressed by work? Of course.

Do I allow work to make me sick? No.

I’ve learned that I have to choose how I’m going to react to work, and that my health is my responsibility. No boss, funder, or board has the right or the power to make me ill. Only I can do that to myself.

And of course, it helps to work with somebody as great as Joan Garry.

So I’ve shared my story. In the comments below I’d love to hear what you have learned about stress as a fundraiser. How do you control it? Did you have an “aha” moment? What advice do you have for others?

We all have a lot to learn from each other and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Wishes,

Seth Rosen

Seth Rosen
Follow me

Seth Rosen

Senior Associate at Joan Garry Consulting
With more than a decade of experience raising funds for major nonprofits, Seth now shares his fundraising expertise with readers and clients of Joan Garry Consulting. Seth lives in New York City with his husband, daughter, and two increasingly fat cats.
Seth Rosen
Follow me
  • Jessica Bearak

    I love that you and Joan are bold enough to share your stores and encourage this kind of dialogue. As fundraisers, we care so passionately about what we do, and it drives us to drive ourselves crazy sometimes. For me, having a child really helped to put things in perspective. Or more realistically, I think I only have so much stress in me and I am now just applying it to issues related to my son rather than work. Of course i still stress about work, but those stresses seem to be so much more manageable relative to what I feel in terms of the responsibility of raising a child. I don’t think I’ve solved the problem since I’m stressing just as much – just about a different thing – but it feels much “better” to stress about my child than about work. My $0.02 for what it’s worth!

    • SethMRosen

      Jessica, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! I also could not agree more. My daughter was born in July and it has completely changed my relationship with work in so many ways.

  • Jan

    My story? I ended up in the emergency room with a pinched nerve in my neck. The tension final got to me. I ended up with sky rocketing blood pressure too, all related to the nerve thing. After relaxers, bp med (temporary thankfully!) deep tissue massage and finally acupuncture, the pain went away and I was able to go back to work. My lesson? I cut back my schedule, let go of some stressers, mostly relational and of all things said no when before I would have said yes. Now 6 months later, I am making a major life change, moving to a foreign country and slowing down, and still working with non profits.

    • Jan. Thanks for sharing your frightening story. This is what happens when you work in an environment in which it feels like every decision matters. ALOT. Like really ALOT. Nonprofit folks have to let go a little and have to prioritize. Not ever decision is of the life or death variety. And to think this way is at your own peril. I am GLAD you are in a better (and really different) place. AND I’m glad you did not leave the field.

  • Alplily

    Good grief… after a month including three huge events, including one last night with major VIPs (it went perfectly), I am completely fried. Heart palpitations, insomnia, achy, the works. I’ve been clenching my teeth so hard at night that part of my molar fell off yesterday. I feel like I need a month off (preferably at a spa), but have a grant proposal due Tuesday. I will probably not even get to take the Labor Day holiday off… and I desperately need a day off. I do have a little vacation coming up. Thank goodness. (Oh, and the real kicker is that I make less than the proposed minimum salary rate–this is also stressful).

  • Concepcion Gaxiola

    Thank you for sharing your story. There are times I feel alone in this crazy world of fundraising. My work is rewarding and I go home every night thankful for being part of a mission that is near and dear to my heart. Although this work has not come without a significant toll on my well being. In the last year I’ve gained over 30 lbs, saw a spike in my blood pressure and most recently I lost a huge patch of hair from stress. The latter is what finally made me stop and rethink the amount of stress I place on myself. I recently started working at a new non profit (actually returning to the non profit that launched my fundraising career) and am taking steps to taking better care of myself. I wake up at 4:30 AM and meditate for 30 min, journal and write down ten things I am grateful. In the evenings I am incorporating yoga in my life and am finding that I am able to handle the stress of my job with ease. It’s still a lot of work but I am creating healthy boundaries. Next step is to shut out my email on the evenings and weekends. I’ll let you all know how that turns out. Again, thank you for the wonderful advice I greatly appreciate it.

  • Marcy Stengel

    I agree about all of this. I think there is SO much (too much) pressure on the fundraisers to be the heroes of the day. I think it’s why many of us are drawn to the profession, and why we thrive. But we need to remember (and thankfully, we have Joan and Seth!) that we can’t and shouldn’t do it all. We need to work with our EDs and boards to set manageable goals and workloads. We need to feel OK saying no to additional work before we land in the ER.
    Sure, we believe that we can do it better/faster/smarter ourselves, but our nonprofits and the people/policies/animals we serve are better if we ask for help and bring others into the fold. And we are better off when we realize that asking for help won’t hurt us–it just might make us stronger. I’m not suggesting that we hand our jobs over to others, but set realistic boundaries, enlist board members or others with certain tasks.