(Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)
Raise your hand if you have ever felt personally victimized by your workload.
Yup, me too. Working for a nonprofit in any capacity seems to be the equivalent of having too much to do and not enough time to do it every single day. This is especially true for fundraisers. Nonprofits don’t run without funds and those of us responsible for raising said funds bear the burden of that responsibility.
Early in my career, I was sure that it would all calm down eventually. I told myself all the time, “Sure, things are super busy this week, but as soon as this campaign/event/end-of-year push is over I’ll have a chance to catch my breath.” I told myself this for years, long after the evidence pointed out just how wrong I was.
And where did that leave me? Stressed, anxious, burned out and on the verge of a breakdown. I was short with people, I made stupid mistakes at work, I complained ALL THE TIME (which was tough on my mom especially, my favorite person and an all-around saint for putting up with me).
Finally, I decided there had to be a better way. I love my job and didn’t want to leave the industry, so I had to figure out how to practice self-care in a high-stress environment. It took some trial and error, but I have (more or less) figured out how to be a fundraiser without feeling stressed 24/7.
The following tips are things that I’ve found that work for me as well as suggestions from friends and fellow nonprofit colleagues. Self-care looks different for everyone, so remember that finding what works for YOU is most important.
Don’t confuse recharging or relaxing with escapism.
This is something I am still learning. When I am feeling stressed at work, all I want to do is go home and binge something on Netflix in my pajamas. While this is an excellent way to practice escapism, it can leave me even more drained and unmotivated the next day.
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My friend Josh Miller-Myers at Clarifi pointed this conundrum out to me. His suggestion? Find things to do on nights and weekends that engage your brain and help you grow as a person, like learning a new language, learning to cook, or experiencing the cultural opportunities Philadelphia offers. It seems counter-intuitive, because if you’re busy at work you don’t want to be busy at home, too, but it works!
Make appointments with yourself.
Even with the best intentions, it can be difficult to juggle the priorities of your coworkers with your own priorities. The best way to ensure that you have time for a project is to schedule it. I regularly block out time on my calendar for specific tasks; the trick is to protect that time as if it were a meeting and commit to actually doing the task during the time you have it scheduled.
Once you hunker down to do the task, remember these productivity tips:
- Don’t check email or texts or take phone calls when you’re working on a project.
- If you have a thought that isn’t related to the project, jot it down and then get back to the task at hand.
- Multi-tasking decreases productivity; focusing on one thing at a time is when you’re the most productive.
This strategy works for the big things (writing a proposal, making thank you calls to donors) and the small things (washing out your coffee cup and Tupperware from lunch, eating a snack, using the restroom). Having a routine and sticking to a schedule, both at work and at home, holds you accountable and helps you to feel productive at the end of the day.
Set clear boundaries.
Decide what your work life boundaries are, and stick to them. Do you check and respond to emails outside of work hours? Do you respond to non-emergency work calls on the weekend? Do you have work emails delivered to your personal cell phone, or do you only check email from a desktop?
Once you set your boundaries and decide what works for you, communicate. Let your coworkers know where you stand up front so there is no confusion or misunderstanding about what will happen outside of the standard 9-to-5 workday.
Then, the hard part: Hold yourself accountable to your own boundaries. Delete your work email from your phone, turn the notifications off or even hide your phone in a sock drawer to remove the temptation completely. It’s hard at first but it gets easier once disconnecting outside of work hours becomes your new normal.
Take care of yourself.
The super obvious self-care things may be over-hyped at this point, but they’re still important:
- Drink enough water.
- Eat well balanced meals.
- Get enough sleep.
- Make time for physical activity.
- Declutter your space and take care of mundane tasks so you have a clear conscience.
- Practice mindfulness, meditation, gratitude, setting daily intentions or whatever helps center you.
- Take 15 minutes at the beginning or end of each workday to review priorities and define the top three tasks to be accomplished.
Find a way to be OK with not being OK.
This was the absolute hardest thing for me to do. I am a Type-A over thinker, which means that any time I feel lack of control over a situation, I feel stress and anxiety. Since fundraisers are frequently at the mercy of someone else — funder’s deadlines, donor’s personal giving timelines not aligning to your nonprofit’s fiscal year end, fundraising goals handed down from the board or executive director — it can be hard to avoid feeling overwhelmed by how little control we have.
So, first things first: Remind yourself of what you DO have control over. Most days, regardless of what I’m working on, I have at least some control: what I wear, how I choose to communicate with my co-workers, how I schedule the hours between meetings, what I eat. Sometimes I have control over more and sometimes I have to get down to the nitty gritty and remind myself that at least I get to choose my nail polish color.
Then (and this is the harder part), make peace with the knowledge that you will ALWAYS have too much to do and NEVER have enough time to do it. Your to-do list will never be completed.
That thing you wanted to do today can be done tomorrow and the world will keep turning. It isn’t worth beating yourself up over. Making my peace with this has not been easy, but it has helped to remove the weight I felt like I was carrying on my shoulders 24/7.
Actively working on all of the above has slowly helped my constantly hunched shoulders to work their way back down to where they should be. There are still the usual ebbs and flows, but I am much more prepared during busy times and I no longer feel like I constantly carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.
I hope these tips can help other frazzled fundraisers find peace.
A very special thank you goes out to everyone who contributed their thoughts on self-care: Josh, Alex, Liz, Kat, Donna, Jessica, Lauren, Andi, Barbara, Claire, Jennifer and Lisa. You are all awesome unicorns!-30-
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