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Emma Russ: What it’s like being a furloughed fundraiser 

12 May 2020 Voices

Emma Russ is one of many fundraisers who have been furloughed, here she explains how it feels and how she’s coping

I've only worked for the Alzheimer’s Society since January. I manage a brilliant team of community fundraisers who cover the north west of England. I'd just started to build really meaningful and trusting relationships with my team. We had some brilliant and exciting plans for this financial year and I was starting to understand just how amazing the organisation truly was.

Then coronavirus happened.

I had a couple of weeks of getting used to working from home, managing my team remotely and adjusting to the fast paced fundraising that was happening around us.

And then I was furloughed.

I am absolutely no expert in this. I'm just going to be really honest, about my own journey and I appreciate that this won’t be the same for everybody, but hopefully some of you will be able to relate and find some useful information.

‘Absolutely gutted’

When I was told that myself and my peer group were being furloughed, I was absolutely gutted. Looking back, I think I probably felt unimportant, I probably felt a bit of embarrassment about it. I felt guilt, I felt lacking purpose and I was left wondering how on earth I'd fill my days without feeling completely redundant in the middle of a national crisis.

I'm also a mum to two complete legends. But anybody that knows me will also know I'm not particularly a mumsy mum. I have the utmost respect for any parent who can fill a day with crafts, baking, making rainbows for the windows, walks in meadows and not have a breakdown by the end of it. You are all heroes. But that's just not me. 

I've always worked full-time, I love my job. It's such a huge part of who I am.  My children are my world, but I've learnt over the years that they get the best from me when I feel like I'm making a difference and feel like I have another purpose. 

I was also in quite a unique position that my team (apart from our community fundraising executive) were not furloughed. So as a manager and particularly as a new manager for them, I was leaving my team to work through probably the most strange and difficult time ever, without being able to support, help and be there for them. I couldn't stand by their side and be part of the fight. And that probably hurt more than anything else.

It was decision taken out of my hands but one that I absolutely understand. The priority has to be protecting the organisation, staff and most importantly, the people that we exist to help. Furloughing helps us to do all of those things. As hard as it is, no matter which side you find yourself on, it’s either right thing for the role or the right thing to protect the organisation.

It was my team who would be keeping the Alzheimer's Society at the heart of our communities. It made sense, I understood it and I respected it. But it still felt like crap.

So I spent a few days crying. A few days being told, "I don't understand why you're so upset". And then a few days being angry about being told I shouldn't be so upset.

And then I found some amazing groups on Facebook for furloughed fundraisers which offered support, advice and opportunities to still make a difference and put my experience to good use.

It felt like Christmas. All the difference I could make with my experience whilst fulfilling my need for purpose! I had big plans!

And then reality kicked in and I spent 10 days on the sofa in my pyjamas not doing anything I'd planned. I had too much time to think about the enormity of everything that was going on and it was getting to me. I didn’t want to clean out my spice rack like the rest of Twitter seemed to be doing (and in case you're wondering, I still haven't).

I sat and wallowed for a good few days and looking back, I genuinely think it did me the world of good. I had the time to digest how I was feeling, about all sorts of things. 

Coming to terms with things

I started to come to terms with the fact I'm not a mumsy mum, and I worked around it. In my own spontaneous way, I started to make memories with my children that I would never normally have done. One day, I woke them up at 4am and dragged them up a massive hill where we live so we could watch the sunrise together. It was liberating.

I've also slowly started to use my skills and experience to help others. I helped to test a spoof of the game show  Only Connect which was specific to fundraisers called "Donorly Connect", put together by David Burgess, and it was one of the best hours I've had.

I joined IWITOT, a half day conference where fundraisers present the idea they wish they'd have thought of. It's an event I've never found time to attend in the past because of work, but it was a brilliant and inspiring afternoon.

I've been reading more blogs and listening to more podcasts than I normally find the time to. I've done some free training and reading thanks to the Institute of Fundraising and Fundraising Everywhere.

I've been joining my team for virtual coffee breaks, and whilst we don’t talk about work, it's so good to see them and know they're doing okay.

I really hope when all this is over, I'll be going back to my job and normality as a better fundraiser, a better manager and a better mum.

Tips for others 

So my advice to anybody who is furloughed is...

It feels rubbish and I completely get it. I feel it too. Take all the time you need. Do not feel pressured to put your skills and experience to use for others if you aren't ready or you don’t want to. You don't need to read every single blog and attend every free training course.

You need to take the time to understand how you feel and understand what you need. And that takes as long as it takes. For me, it was about 10 days in pyjamas with limited shampoo use. For others, it might be much longer or it might be much less. We're all different.

You might want to use the time to have a complete break from work and fundraising. That's completely okay too. You (hopefully) won't get this opportunity again.

But, if like me, you do get to the point where you feel ready to carry on, even though you temporarily can't do the job you love, there are so many resources that can help you learn, be better, help others and still feel like you have that fundraising purpose.

I wanted to share a few things that I have learnt and resources that I have found helpful.

The most important thing I have to say is, don't take it personally. That's really hard at first. But this isn't a reflection on you as a fundraiser or your ability to do your job. This is your organisation just trying to survive and to do that, they had to make some really tough decisions and they can't wait for you to come back just as much, if not more, than you can't wait to go back. You are playing a really important part in helping your organisation get through this.

Join the Facebook groups that are there for furloughed fundraisers. I'm part of three and they're all brilliant. They offer skill swaps, advice, support in a safe environment.

Find yourself a fundraising tribe on social and engage. You'll get so much support from it. There was a brilliant blog for furloughed fundraisers recently on LinkedIn.

Read all the blogs and listen to all the podcasts that your pyjama days allow. There are so many. You'd be surprised at how much you learn from understanding other people’s opinions and viewpoints.

Take part in opportunities like virtual events. 

Don't forget about work and your colleagues. I personally get a lot from keeping in touch with my organisation and having the time to speak with my team, even if it isn't to talk about work. One of my brilliant community fundraisers organises a "chat in a hat" for the whole regional team once a week and it's fantastic. I'm also part of a WhatsApp group with everyone who has been furloughed from the Alzheimer’s Society which I've found a lot of comfort from.

Use the time to put yourself out of your comfort zone. 

Understand it's just as hard and difficult for people who aren't furloughed but just in very different ways. They miss you. They're doing things they haven't had to do before. They want to do you proud. That brings a set of completely different challenges to the ones you have. It's tough whichever side of the fence you're on right now.

Acknowledge you will still have bad days and don’t feel bad about it, it's perfectly okay and normal. I walked up a massive hill at 4.30am on Monday and didn’t get dressed yesterday. It will be a rollercoaster for a while and that's totally okay!

So, that's my experience, feelings and thoughts on being furloughed. I hope you all find your own peace and happiness in these scary and strange times (I'm trying so hard not to use the word unprecedented!) and that whatever you do whilst furloughed, is right for you and makes you happy. 

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