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