A case for self-support: serving ourselves in a time of stress

A case for self-support: serving ourselves in a time of stress

"How are you doing?" I asked a donor on a phone call last summer. Her response stayed with me. "I'm doing pandemic fine," she said, before explaining that that was the kind of response one gives during a public health emergency instead of something like, "I'm doing okay. I have my job, and it's stressful, but at least I have work. And the family is fine. No one is sick. Virtual homeschooling is a struggle, but we're fine."

Her response was both amusing and perplexing, because when I ask someone how they're doing, I'm the type of person who wants and expects to hear all the details. In fact, I believe it helps explain why I enjoy working in philanthropy as much as I do, and is one of the main reasons so many of my meetings run longer than scheduled!

Organizational experts Paul Davis and Larry Spears would call my exchange with the donor a "fortuitous encounter — "[t]hose moments where a person, place, or thing causes our lives to change in a more positive direction." While I did not feel all that positive after the exchange, in the months since it has contributed to a transformation in the way I think about taking care of myself, my colleagues, and our philanthropic partners.

Of course, the donor's reply was informed by the unprecedented events of the past year — events for which our sector as a whole was largely unprepared. I live in Houston, where hurricanes and flooding events are commonplace, but once the water — or snow, as the case may be — recedes, we jump back in our cars and check on our friends, neighbors, and even our donors. The coronavirus pandemic, by contrast, has been a "silent" storm during which we've been encouraged to care for others by literally keeping our distance from them.

What fundraising professionals are doing well…and not so well

From a fundraiser's perspective, the sector's collective response to the pandemic has been something of a mishmash. With respect to day-to-day operations, we're seeing good content related to engaging our supporters, innovating in our programming, and staying the course. I can't say enough about the creativity and resilience of the sector and the people who work in it. And without their advice and knowledge, I know I would have been less effective over the last twelve months in mapping out my own organization's fundraising strategies.

That said, nearly everything I've read over the last year has been focused on practical problems and challenges, things like how to strengthen a pandemic case for support, when to schedule a Zoom meeting with a new prospect, and retaining your supporters after you've made the decision to move your next fundraising event online. Yes, it's important to develop and strengthen our practice in normal times, and even more so during times of uncertainty. But what I'm not seeing are stories about self-care during one of the most challenging periods in recent memory, stories that remind us that if we want to do our best work, we need to make sure we’re well enough to fire on all cylinders. "[J]ust as they tell you on airplanes when the oxygen masks come down,” says Chris Mosunic, chief clinical officer at Vida Health, "we can't help others if we don’t take care of ourselves first."

I’m a realist who knows that a big part of my role as a fundraiser is to deliver maximum net revenue for my organization. I also know that many of us worry about cultivating donor relationships and meeting ambitious goals, but that we are not always honest about how we ourselves are holding up. Sure, I've found a reasonable groove during the pandemic and I'm doing the best I can. But let's face it, the current fundraising environment is different than the one many of us are used to. And, truth be told, it's different for our donors as well.

A practical reason for self-care

You may not know this, but the work of fundraisers is never "done." Between programs, events, and annual reports, the effort to steward and engage donors and prospects is a year-round affair, and at times it can feel like we’re laboring on our own little island, disconnected from the day-to-day work of the organization and with no sign of help on the horizon.

From a purely practical perspective, this has an impact on our work. Leadership guru Kevin Krause suggests that "[e]ngaged employees lead to better business outcomes." And a survey of more than five hundred business leaders by the Harvard Business Review found that 71 percent "rank employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success."

Also relevant in this context is what Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has to say about an employee-first mentality: "If the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the job they're doing…they're gonna be happy and therefore the customer will have a nice experience."

But how can we expect our donors and supporters to have a "nice experience" if those tasked with engaging them in the work of the organization are struggling?

Doing the work of self-care

The events of the past year are likely to resonate for years to come, and work will continue to be challenging for many frontline and back-end fundraising staff. But there are things we can do for ourselves, and our team members, that will result in a happier, healthier workplace.

First, be mindful of your time. For many, working from home has morphed into living at work. Don't be that person. Instead, set real start and finish times for your workday — and stick to them. It'll be easier to do that if you make the effort to wear work clothes during the work day. And because your day-to-day tasks aren’t going anywhere, unless there's an emergency, don't check your email before 9:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. (Managers, you can help by refraining from the super early/late email messages.) In addition, try to create a schedule for your meals and stick to it. Limiting food consumption to mealtimes can be great for your well-being, and equally beneficial to your waistline.

Second, be mindful of technology. These days, our big, medium, and little screens are where we spend a big chunk of our time. Indeed, Americans spend an average of 2.3 hours a day on social media — the equivalent of roughly thirty-one days a year. To combat screen-induced burnout, try to establish "no glow breaks" throughout the day — on a run, in the bathroom, while out doing errands — where you put the technology in your life on pause. Also, make an effort to incorporate some analog technology like paper into your life. For what it’s worth, Scientific American suggests that our screens "[p]revent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension."

Finally, be mindful of your state of mind. One in six Americans sought counseling in 2020, joining the one-third of Americans who were already receiving some kind of counseling. Perhaps more than at any other time in recent history, we are willing to acknowledge the need for self-care. For those who are feeling stressed, reducing some of the distractions in your life, like  notifications on your phone/tablet, will go a long way to calming an overly busy mind. Similarly, when lodged in your home "spaceship," try to organize your space into discrete areas — a corner of one room for exercise, a certain chair for reading or chatting on the phone — and don’t use your sleep space for other tasks like work or social media.

The last year has been difficult for many. If you find yourself struggling with something more serious than time management or the distractions that come with being plugged in all the time, give yourself permission to talk to a professional or, at the least, a friend. And remember, you may have challenges; but you are not your challenges.

Our colleagues and donors rely on us, but more than anything we are responsible for ourselves. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to take the leading role in your own self-care.

Evan Wildstein has served on the fundraising team at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University since 2017.