4 signs you are a burned-out nonprofit fundraiser – and what to do about it

You’ve smiled through back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings with donors all day. You just got an email that your best prospect cancelled on you. It’s late in the day, but you’ve got to finish that grant report before you can leave the office.

After the work day ends, you pack up and decide to go home, eat dinner, and then finish up the grant report from home. Just before midnight, you send an email to your boss, but when you do you find an email requesting that you prepare some donor research for a morning meeting.

It’s totally normal to feel super exhausted after a particularly rough day – but if every day is starting to feel rough and your work day extends into your evenings and weekends, you might be close to burning out.

The clinical definition of burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that occurs when we feel overwhelmed by too many demands, too few resources, and too little recovery time”. The harsh working environment for nonprofits is a perfect recipe for a whole bunch of burnt-out nonprofit fundraising professionals and others.

The good news is that once you know the signs of burnout, you can take steps to stop it. That’s exactly what Corine Aartman and I will be teaching at our IFC masterclass in October. Part of the masterclass is based on my new book, “The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout,” which will help you learn to recognize burnout, along with self-care activities to alleviate your stress.

Here are four warning signs of burnout, coupled with easy ways to feel better.

Warning sign #1: You’re feeling weary and small things are starting to really (really) irritate you.

Burnout can sneak up on you – and the first sign is often a short fuse. Maybe every little thing about a donor, a board member or your executive director is rubbing you the wrong way. Your executive team’s expectations are way out of whack, and you just don’t have the energy to politely set them straight. The wifi is on the fritz again, and it feels like the end of the world.

Every nonprofit fundraiser has to put up with some annoyances, but if you’re feeling like you’re at your wit’s end at the start of the day, you might be burning out. Left unchecked, this can evolve into angry outbursts and serious arguments both at home and at work.

Self-care solution: Get more sleep, even if it means taking a 20-minute nap under your desk.

If you find yourself snapping at the people around you, you need to catch up on your ZZZs. Sleep deprivation messes with your concentration, mood and ability to cope. To get more sleep at home, stop trying to cram in one more email before bed and avoid staring at screens before you hit the hay.

But don’t limit your shut-eye to your bed. Sleep in the workplace may seem like an oxymoron, but napping during the day can improve cognitive functioning, leading to greater productivity at work. Studies show that daytime napping can elevate moods and even improve immune function.

Find a quiet room or place at your office or nearby where you can get some brief shuteye. Yes, some professionals actually curl up under their desk for a cat nap. Better yet, approach your employer about a meditation or nap room and show them data on increased productivity from a well-rested staff.

Warning sign #2: You can’t seem to concentrate on anything and your productivity is suffering.

When you’re overworked and over stressed, it affects your concentration – your mind wanders, you forget things easily, you can’t focus.

Self-care solution: Add more movement into your workday; stand up and walk around to clear your mind.

If you’re having trouble focusing, you may be suffering from ‘foggy brain’ caused by too much sitting at work. One study found that a simple 20-minute walk can significantly improve your ability to concentrate. While another at Stanford University determined people were more creative when they were walking versus sitting.

My advice: Stop using your computer keyboard as a lunch tray. Instead, incorporate a brain-replenishing walk into your lunch hour. Don’t think of taking a walk as taking a break or slacking, but instead consider it a tool that will improve your productivity and bring more innovative ideas to your work.

Warning sign #3: You’re feeling sluggish throughout your day, even when you get plenty of sleep.

Your energy dips at work more often than the post-lunch crash. You feel physically and emotionally exhausted – depleted even. You may go to bed early, only to wake up still feeling tired.

You might find it difficult to get out of bed at all. This sort of fatigue only adds to your anxiety about all the work you need to get done in a given day.

Self-care solution: Stick to healthy foods and beverages – and avoid the temptation of sugary snacks at the office.

What we eat and drink can impact how our bodies and brains work. There’s a reason why healthy food is called “brain food”. Knowing what we put into our bodies can mean the difference between being strong, clear-headed and effective or being sluggish, dull and slow at work.

At home, you may be successful at avoiding sugary snacks because you don’t buy them. But at work, if there are chocolate-covered donuts in the conference room, you might be tempted to indulge. That’s why it’s so important to make a plan for bringing healthy foods and beverages to the office in order to make better nutritional choices.

If you’re not sure where to start, “The Kaiser Permanente Healthy Meetings Guide” includes a list of light meals and snacks that are simple and low cost, and the “American Heart Association’s Healthy Workplace Food and Beverage Toolkit” provides nutritional guidance for food in the workplace with practical action tips.

Warning sign #4: You’re feeling compelled to overwork because you think it’s the only way to get everything done.

Working in fundraising means that you may find yourself working after hours and weekends to research donors, write proposals or plan campaign strategies. And, of course, you may not mind that much if you have a real passion for your work.

However, your passion can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, that fervor helps you keep going in the face of difficult challenges. On the other hand, you can become so driven you don’t stop to refuel or smell the proverbial roses or even notice your work is starting to take a toll on your health and well-being.

Self-care solution: Give yourself a break -when you work too much, you’re not getting much done.

Sometimes our reaction to stress is to work nights and weekends, not taking breaks throughout the day, or sacrificing vacations days.

These habits are not healthy and will definitely make you unhappy, leading you down the slippery slope to burnout. And the kicker? Working longer hours actually decreases your productivity.

If you’re someone who accumulates vacation time without taking it, you are essentially working for free. Use your vacation time, and take real vacations where you completely disconnect from work, emails and the mobile devices that connect you to work.

If you give your brain a chance to reboot, you’ll return to work with more clarity and perspective that will serve both you and your company far better than staying late at the office.

The bottom line: Self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s the key to being productive at work. When you are overworked and super stressed, you will not perform at the top of your game. Take better care of yourself so you can raise more money for your organisation’s mission to save the world.

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