Corine Aartman: How to recognize and avoid fundraiser burnout

25 Sep 2017 Expert insight

Corine Aartman looks at how look out for the signals of burnout in order to avoid the negative impact it can have on both the individual and their team.

There is a frantic struggle going on in many organizations to raise more funding from individuals, often with crunched budgets and smaller teams. The tendency is to focus on bottom-line results, and the side effect of this not seldomly is that the people involved in bringing in these results receive less attention. In its slipstream, quite a few fundraisers and NGO workers burn out from prolonged stress.

Burnout can be defined as 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. As stress builds, our motivation wanes. Burnout is more than just feeling tired. Burnout saps our energy, breeds negativity, reduces productivity, and can lead to feeling hopeless and even resentful.

A few years ago, I experienced burnout first hand and can tell you it's no fun. It started with being very tired and irritable, having a short concentration span and loss of memory and confidence. Then it deepened into anxiety, wanting to sleep all day and being panicky and awake all night. I couldn't stand busy places and traffic, couldn't drive a car, and noise made me want to run. It took me 1.5 years to recover. And it taught me to care for myself on a much more profound level than before.

But the effects of burnout go beyond the personal and affect the whole. Organisations that do not take countermeasures to structurally tackle severe stress on their staff may see the endemic effects that burnout can have on entire teams. The toll: lower commitment and esprit, increased long sickness ratios and high circulation of staff. Ergo: We need to work on two levels: on an organisational/team level and on an individual level.

One of the main barriers to a proactive approach – on both levels – is the shame culture that often lingers around sickness related to stress and burnout. People feel they are failing when they become stressed at work. The demand to perform at top notch all the time – top-down but very often internalized as well – is a barrier to healthy work ethics, particularly when combined with a culture of make-no-mistakes. A leader who is role modelling an open mindset to stress and how s/he experiences and deals with it personally, is very helpful to counter this. It contributes to a team culture of openness and mutual support, where tasks can be re-distributed if needed. In their book “The Happy, Healthy Non-Profit”, Beth Kanter and Eliza Sherman show us how to move forward, by adopting a culture of self-care and developing holistic strategies towards healthy working and living.

Listen to 'red flag' signals

What can we do on a personal level? One of the key things I learned is to listen to the “red flag” signals of my body. Not just hear them, but actually adhere to them. Let´s be honest: How often do we choose to just ignore them? I know I did, plenty of times. It´s easy: The more we live in our heads, the less we feel in our bodies. Less pain but also less pleasure. By re-opening the barrier between the head and the rest of the body, we can feel how stress builds and how it unwinds again, how it relaxes. Feeling those nuances, for me, is feeling more present, more alive.

Research shows that one of the key things to prevent structural, unhealthy stress levels leading to burnout is to recharge our energy -- timely and frequently. You know or need to find out what works for you personally. Many people feel invigorated by being in nature, doing physical exercise like sports or dancing, working with their hands while cooking or gardening. Meditating and mindfulness score high points too. And good, restful sleep, not just sometimes but most of the time. So basically, anything that switches our head off helps us to recharge our batteries.

Then there are the energy depleters to tackle. The things that make us fret and mull over things again and again. Frustrations at work, personal conflicts, deadlines we missed or fear we can´t meet. They take up an awful amount of our mental and emotional energy.  This is because negative, limiting thoughts create negative emotions which in turn make us feel powerless.

There are useful techniques that help us counter this process. They steer our thinking into a more constructive direction and, thus, make us feel calmer and in control. We can do this both individually and as a group, using group dynamics as a helpful source of input. These are some of the practices and strategies that can help us work and live in a more healthy, happy and fulfilling way.

Tomorrow’s world is an increasingly complex and challenging one. No individual will have finite solutions. We need to move in troops to share and network our new knowledge. I want to contribute to creating workplaces with humane work ethics that bring out the best talents in people in which personal, value-driven leadership will thrive.

Corine Aartman works with the Wilde Ganzen Foundation, where she develops a hybrid learning programme for community philanthropy. She will present a masterclass with US coach Beth Kanter on fundraiser burnout and a workshop with Dutch psychotherapist Corma Ruijgrok on self-coaching at #IFC2017, happening 17-20 October in the Netherlands. 

Civil Society Media wishes to thank the IFC for its support with this article


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