Billion Photos/shutterstock

Billion Photos/shutterstock

Back in 2017, in a guest opinion for IP, Karen Brooks Hopkins surveyed the fundraising profession, with its grueling hours, high-maintenance donors, and culture of “90% rejection,” and asked, “Why Would Anyone Want to Do This Work?”

In early 2019, Holly Hall, citing an alarming drop in giving from small and mid-level donors, predicted fundraising would become even more difficult in the years ahead. Five months later, a Harris Insights & Analytics survey found that 51% of fundraisers, citing “tremendous pressure to succeed,” planned to leave their jobs by 2021.

And then a global pandemic hit.

What was already a stressful job now has the potential to generate existential levels of anxiety. In many cases, fundraisers are the only thing standing between an organization and what National Council of Nonprofits CEO Rick Cohen called “devastation.” That’s a herculean challenge, compounded by the fact that nearly 80% of nonprofits expect their fundraising returns to decline in 2020, according to a new survey. All the while, fundraisers are tending to family members, homeschooling their children, and guardedly checking the news as the country reels from social unrest.

“This is the moment that defines leadership,” Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music, told me in late April, and it requires development directors and CEOs to support their fundraising staff’s physical and mental well-being at a time when one in three Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression.

I recently asked fundraising experts to discuss how leaders can look after their teams. The following three themes emerged:

Less Sympathy, More Empathy

Brené Brown has held the Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work since 2016. One of her most resonant teachings involves understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy, Brown argues, is a “skill that can bring people together and make people feel included, while sympathy creates an uneven power dynamic and can lead to more isolation and disconnection.”

Development directors will want to keep this distinction in mind when communicating with their overwhelmed staff. “As a leader, I need to show my staff that I struggle and I’m human, and if they struggle, that’s normal,” said Jenn Gibbons, CEO of Recovery on Water, which provides rowing programs to breast cancer survivors. “It would be wildly insensitive and unrealistic to assume that anyone working at any job is working at 100% capacity.”

Leaders should explicitly tell fundraisers things like, “I know that you’re on top of your work,” “I know you’re worried about your family,” and “Just because you’re at home, doesn’t mean you have to work all the time.” Gibbons didn’t check her email for the extended Memorial Day weekend and implored her staff to do the same.

Daniel Moss, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s director of development, picked up on the thread, telling me, “As managers, we need to be supportive of our teams and be flexible. We need to encourage them to take a vacation day (or more), even if it is a stay-at-home ‘clear-your-head’ day. And we need to lead by example and do what we preach.”

Show Them the Impact

The Harris Insights & Analytics survey also found that 93% of survey participants said they “couldn’t work for a charity if they didn’t have a strong connection to the cause.” And yet, because of the nature of the job, fundraisers have less visibility into an organization’s day-to-day programming and may find this connection frayed at a time when the top priority is dialing for dollars. As Gibbons notes, “Fundraisers spend eight hours trying to make the world a better place,” Gibbons said, “but sometimes it doesn’t feel like that.”

This challenge can be particularly acute as it applies to fundraisers who come from the corporate world. Many of these fundraisers “took a pay cut thinking they’d be paid in warm and fuzzy feelings,” Gibbons said, only to find these feelings are in short supply in an industry where, even before COVID-19, a donor says “no” nine out of 10 times.

Gibbons said development directors need to provide fundraisers with “hard data to show they’re making an impact” throughout the crisis. She keeps what she calls a “warm and fuzzy folder” on her desktop, replete with photos and testimonials of breast cancer survivors whose lives have been changed by Recovery on Water’s work. Gibbons’ recommendation corroborates a Harris Insights & Analytics survey finding that 92% of respondents “want more information on their gifts’ impact.”

Say Thank You

Thanking your fundraiser for a job well done sounds intuitive, but pre-COVID-19 research suggests many CEOs and development directors missed the memo. The 2019 Harris Insights & Analytics survey found that 55% of responding fundraisers said they “often feel unappreciated” in their work.

This statistic aligns with fundraising consultant Marjorie Fine’s anecdotal experience. “A lot of the development staff I talk to say they never get a thank you from their superiors,” she told me, “as if it’s not in their DNA.” She encourages directors to give staff “a feeling that they’re doing a good job and that their work really matters. Just because they’re social justice warriors doesn’t mean that your staff’s suffering will make lives better.”

Directors should also use virtual technology to replicate what Maureen O’Brien, senior vice president for institutional advancement at Miami’s New World Symphony, calls the “camaraderie that happens naturally in a physical workplace.” Her organization held an all-staff Zoom happy hour themed around poetry in honor of National Poetry Month.

With or without support from their superiors, fundraisers must be cognizant of “any positive impacts on the level of anxiety you experience and on your general well-being, and focus on activities that engender positive results,” said Alex Counts, an adjunct professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.

Staff must also make an effort to be kind to themselves. “It’s normal to feel exhausted, drained or unproductive,” fundraising expert Rachel Muir told Forbes’ David Hessekiel. “Practice self-forgiveness and accept that these are extraordinary times. You don’t have to come out of this fluent in a new language or having home-schooled super-geniuses.”

Share with cohorts