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on Mar 28, 2016

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The appeal of fundraising to me is that there is a clearly identifiable, positive social impact from my hard work. I can earn enough to raise a family, there’s a supportive network of peers, as well as room to grow professionally and intellectually.

What looms over us though is the reality of occupational and emotional burnout. Not unlike social workers, teachers and other public-facing professions there is an expectation to be “on” more than not, if not all the time. We can fall into a trap of developing a façade, a brave face, which can only accelerate a downward spiral to burnout.

There is no single identifiable cause of burnout, to my knowledge. It’s a cluster of issues, some within your control, some less so. I’ve included some other great articles on the topic below.

There is one source of burnout that is within our control: our understanding of fundraiser-donor relationship dynamics.

A spectrum exists with service on one end, and servitude on the other. It is ever-present for each of us, which is why it is critical that we all etch out our own understandings of service and servitude. My advice to you is, the greater the distance you can create between the two, the better.

You need to take ownership of this. You spend every day drifting between service and servitude – whether you realize it or not – and these definitions are waypoints that can steer you away from burnout.

Great fundraisers are at the service of donors, but never in servitude of them. My experience has been that the best donors expect – and value – service, never servitude. A small number of donors expect servitude, but by and large I don’t think it’s the norm. I also haven’t noticed any correlation between gift size and this expectation of servitude, which might be contrary to popular assumptions about major donors.

Personally, I feel most fulfilled and energized on the ‘service’ end of the spectrum, and most frustrated, resentful and ‘burnt out’ when I suspect I’m sliding down to the ‘servitude’ end.

Largely, it’s our perspective on the relationship that colours how we feel about our work day to day. Every interaction with a donor can be interpreted as service or servitude depending on our mood, and how you feel on a given day is not the donor’s problem.

“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” David Foster Wallace, This is Water

This excerpt, and the essay in it’s entirety, hits upon the idea that there is freedom and satisfaction in a life of service. And, that it’s not our “default setting” to find satisfaction in service.

There’s no shortage of opportunity to slide into rhythms of frustration and dissatisfaction. There is however a surplus of opportunity to impart value and meaning into the most minute tasks and daily interactions.

Further reading and resources on burnout:

Burnout Self-Test
When Fundraising Hurts: Vicarious Trauma, Burnout, and Compassion Fatigue
The cost of caring: stresses of working in the charitable sector
How to Overcome Burnout and Stay Motivated

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