Updated: Oct 27
Here’s what got me: I held that envelope and felt the weight of all it represented. This grant covered a large portion of our service area and funded the salaries of many of the people I was getting to know. I had the brief (and yes, very irrational) thought about what would happen if everything in the world conspired to keep me from getting to that office by 5:00. On a deeper level, though, it reminded me of all I was responsible for now. I thought of all those jobs I had to raise money to fund, and all the kids those people were serving. I was drawn to the profession by what I could do to help, but at that moment, I was overwhelmed at the thought of how I could screw it all up.
I went home that night and told my wife I didn’t know if I could do it. Maybe the responsibility of a job like this was just too much for me. Maybe all of the earnest, hard work I had put into getting into a position like this was misguided, and I’d be better suited looking in another direction. Even though I worked hard and sat through countless nonprofit classes, nothing prepared me for that moment.
Luckily, I have an amazing spouse who is able to talk me down from those heights of anxiety. I collected myself and forged ahead in my new role. I got a feel for the job and grew more confident, but those moments of feeling overwhelmed still found a way of bubbling up from time to time.
The thing that drew me to the fundraising profession was the idea that I could contribute to something bigger than myself. It was a way of turning that youthful dream of saving the world into a tangible, practical action that would both positively impact the lives of others and sustain my family. While the opportunity to have an impact is very real, the thing I didn’t consider at the beginning of this journey was how that reward carried with it considerable risk. Considering failure in this line of work can be absolutely gut-wrenching.
With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that burnout is an epidemic in the non-profit world. We constantly hear about the churn in development officers and front-line staff, and I’m positive every one of us carries similar weight. Whether it’s the grant we need to secure or the client that we’re tasked with supporting, there’s a flip side to saving the world: the fear that we could do it harm. Add the stress of low pay, ever-growing output goals, and a serious lack of nonprofit training resources, and it’s a perfect storm for burnout.
What can we do about it? I confess I’ve had more than my fair share of sleepless nights wondering how to make this work sustainable. My career is still young, and I don’t want to become another statistic on burnout. I’m still figuring out how to balance all that comes with this kind of work, but I’ve found a few things to keep me going.
Put self-care at the top of your list: You know how the pre-flight safety demonstration always says to put on your own oxygen mask first? It’s always hard to imagine that I’d put on my own mask before helping my kids, but then I remember why I’m told to do that: I can’t put on theirs if I’ve passed out from a lack of oxygen. The same principle is at work with our jobs! We can’t help others if we’re out of gas. Take time off, do something fun, spend time with your family — whatever it takes to keep you recharged and replenished.
Find a mentor: Working in the nonprofit field is naturally challenging, but doing it alone is even harder. Find someone you can lean on when things get tough, so you can share in their experience, wisdom, and support. Whether it’s through a nonprofit training program, professional association like AFP, or a professional fundraising consultant, mentorship will give you the confidence to carry on when things get tough. When you run into a problem that stumps you or makes you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, having a trusted mentor could be the difference between feeling empowered and experiencing burnout.
Delete your email app (may not work for everyone): I know, unimaginable, right? I thought so too until I let an impulsive moment change things for the better. One Saturday evening I was sitting on the couch and found myself tapping away on a few emails while I tried to relax. At that moment it hit me that nothing I was doing couldn’t wait until Monday. In fact, those emails were getting in the way of the relaxation I needed if I wanted to start my work week energized and creative. I deleted the Outlook app and didn’t look back. Is that tough sometimes? Sure. There are moments when I want to reach for my phone for that assurance that nothing needs my attention. That’s no way to live, though. When we’re off work we need to truly be off work.
Agitate for change: It’s no secret that our sector has some flaws. Instead of working around them, it’s important that we lean in and insist on improvements. The Community-Centric Fundraising movement is one example of a push to change some of the core dynamics at work in the social impact sector. We need to be honest with our colleagues, leaders, and funders about what it really takes to change the world. That’s especially true for those of us who benefit from white privilege. Institutional biases make it riskier for our BIPOC colleagues to challenge existing structures, and those of us who have benefited from those structures need to be willing to take those risks. The short-term discomfort that comes with challenging the status quo will have a long-lasting impact on our push to make this sector both more equitable and less prone to burnout.
Know when to update your resume: We all have a limit. It’s not a failure to walk away from something that isn’t working; in fact, it’s a sign of strength. If a job becomes too much, it’s better to find something new before it damages other parts of your life. There is no shortage of great causes out there, and don’t be afraid to find your next adventure when the time comes.
Every one of these things is a work in progress for me. As much as I hope I can find a perfect work/life balance, know my own stress level, and be an advocate for change, there are times I struggle with each of these things. I felt compelled to write about it, though, because I know so many of us are working toward the same goals.
Working in a mental health-focused non-profit, I know time importance of this issue all too well. My friends and colleagues across the non-profit sector are truly the most kind-hearted, caring, and mission-driven people imaginable, but we’re all striving to keep our work in the proper context. Next time you’re holding that grant application and overwhelmed by what it could mean, hopefully these tips help you find some relief.
Post by our guest blogger Ben Chambers-
Kat & Mouse guest blogger, Ben Chambers is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) in St. Louis, MO with experience in mental health, social services, public media, and political advocacy. When he isn't raising money for great causes, he enjoys watching baseball and spending time with his wife, Ashley, and sons, Elliot and Carson."