Giving Guide: Are fundraising professionals burnt out or on fire?

Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the Giving Guide. A full copy can be found here


Are you ready for a truth bomb? Fundraising professionals were burnt out before the pandemic.

Roles in many non-profit organizations, unfortunately, are inadvertently set up to fail. Lack of resources, small budgets and minimal support are just the tipping point. Then you add unrealistic expectations, lack of professional development opportunities and 60+ hour work weeks. A disaster starts to brew.

Fundraiser after fundraiser is recruited into these roles and yet, board members and the senior leadership team are left scratching their heads. The turnover for the position is less than two years and they wonder why. If fundraising is really – all about relationships – why are we not putting our efforts into building strong relationships with our fundraising team so they can in turn build long sustaining relationships in the community?

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In every training session I conduct with Boards, I repeat the two same messages to participants. Firstly, fundraising is a team sport. Your philanthropy staff are your quarterbacks, sometimes they are running with the ball. Sometimes they toss the ball to a team member who scores the touchdown. They are always inspiring in the huddle through solid acquisition campaigns, renewal mailings, compelling cases of support and solid database management. Whether it is events, annual giving or major gifts, a solid team is required.

Secondly, I remind Board Members and Executive Directors, that you cannot hire a fundraiser, hand them a computer, show them to a cubicle and hope the money rolls into your organization. You will soon have an empty chair and be on the search for the next fundraiser. And then the next fundraiser.

Let’s skip ahead to mid-March 2020 when many non-profit staff lost countless hours of sleep. In some charities, the demands for their programs doubled overnight and yet their volunteers disappeared due to public health restrictions. On the flip side, in some cases non-profit programs were completely snuffed out altogether and no one was calling them. Neither group was bragging about sleeping like a baby.

Many non-profit professionals, who had been requesting updated database systems and cloud-based solutions were left to load clunky desktop computers, printers, and mailing machines into their vehicles so they could set up shop on their dining room tables or even worse, their ironing boards.

Charity expert and author Dan Pallotta shares in his TED Talk, how we think about charity is dead wrong. Many leaders and board members want to instill a living on a shoestring budget culture into non-profits. Pallotta challenges us to make investments into people working in the sector for the long-term social benefits.

Some fundraisers joke about the workload and the demands COVID-19 has put on non-profit leaders. Then compassion fatigue, impostor syndrome and a national charity scandal are sprinkled into the simmering pot. This crisis is anything but funny.

The good news is there is hope.

In the last number of years, many non-profit professionals are speaking up about these challenges of burn out. Finally, these tough issues are making their way through the sector by way of conferences, articles, and podcasts shedding a light. Afterall burnout is defined as physical or mental collapse by overwork or stress. Collapsing fundraisers mean collapsing non-profits.

The hope comes from making this topic mainstream. The hope is the burnout of not only fundraisers, but everyone experiencing this debilitating condition is taken seriously. In a recent article in Forbes, author Tracy Brower shares that empathy is the most important leadership skill according to research. Fundraisers are looking for empathy in their leaders.

People who enter the charitable sector put their hearts on their sleeves, dedicate themselves to an organization that aligns with their values. From healthcare to social justice to animal welfare to support for Veterans and many more causes, they want to work with others to move the needle.  

Supporting non-profit staff is like securing the foundation of any structure, it is crucial to avoid collapse. When is the last time non-profit staff were asked how they are feeling? The answers may surprise you.


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