Best Wellness Practices for Nonprofit Fundraisers (#4 Might Surprise You)
Recently, we posted a blog article on how to improve a fundraising team’s morale. One of our suggestions was for nonprofit leadership to invest in employee wellness programs.
We recognize that many fundraisers work for nonprofits that do not have any type of formal employee wellness strategy. In that case, let’s review six practices you can adopt on your own to ensure you have the energy and positive outlook needed to be your best and help advance your nonprofit’s mission.
1. Ask for Help (i.e. Lean on Your Team)
Fundraising is based on the idea that individuals can do more good together than they can alone. For example, while the average donor can afford to provide a meal to a family in need, many donors pooling their resources can build a soup kitchen that feeds hundreds of people each day. This principle is just as true within your nonprofit, especially when it comes to employee wellness: You can do more to advance your cause without risk of burning out when you are supported by a strong team.
Even when fundraisers are comfortable leaning on their teammates, they often only think of their department — their fellow fundraisers — as their team. For better results, try expanding your idea of “team” to include other departments, leadership, and even board members. To start, remember that collaboration is a two-way street. Even before you yourself need help, you can begin building stronger relationships with your team by offering your help to them. If you see someone struggling (or even if you don’t), get in the habit of letting others in your organization know that you are available and happy to support them when they need it.
In some toxic work environments, this type of collaboration is difficult or even discouraged. It just takes being thrown under the bus once for a fundraiser to learn, “Hey, maybe it isn’t safe to admit I need help.” If this describes your situation (and you’re not in a leadership position or have some influence in changing the culture), your best option for self-care could be to start looking for another organization to work for.
2. Take Breaks
Your ability to concentrate and focus productively on a task has limits. The more tired you get, the less productive you are. Many studies have shown the value of taking short breaks: Breaks prevent decision fatigue, restore motivation, increase creativity, and help with learning.
Throughout the day, even just a five-minute reset can help you get back on track and avoid burning out. Move your body, drink some water, maybe have a small snack. And don’t skip lunch! Longer breaks are important too. Try not to work too many long days in a row. Go home at a reasonable time, disconnect from work, and be with your family and friends. Use your vacation time.
Yes, for some fundraisers, part of the job is being available during off-hours. But work with your boss to try and find times when you can turn your phone off and truly disconnect. Find someone on your team (see #1 above) to back you up (and you them) to create space in your schedule for rest and rejuvenation.
[Additional information: How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? from Psychology Today]
3. Prioritize Your Mental Health
Caring for one’s own mental health is probably the single most important practice on this list. And we don’t just mean crisis care like seeing a therapist or doctor. (But if that’s what you need, then you should prioritize that care.) Our recommendation has more to do with preventive care to protect your mental health.
For you, mental health care might be having a formal daily meditation practice or working out at the gym three times a week. It could mean taking actual breaks (see #2 above). It could mean having a hobby where the emphasis is on your enjoyment instead of your performance. Maybe it means having a mentor to help keep the job in perspective. Or having a reliable source of laughter and humor — like your friends, your kids, your pets, or even a podcast you listen to regularly. [For this author, it was a funny show on the radio that helped him survive an hour-long commute each morning.]
When one’s mental health is good, it’s often invisible. But when it goes bad, things can get very ugly very quickly. Take steps to create some positive mental health habits and they will help see you through even the toughest times.
4. Celebrate Achieving Your Goals
Fundraisers are busy people. In our experience, most will breeze right by the accomplishment of a goal to focus on the next task at hand. Very few take the time to celebrate their achievements, even the big ones. By skipping this step, you miss out on one of the best parts of nonprofit work — the deep satisfaction of having made a difference.
Celebrating doesn’t mean throwing a party every time you cross a task off your list. (Reserve those parties for when you meet your year-end fundraising goals!) Celebrating could be a simple act of acknowledgment like taking a moment to tell your coworkers or your leadership team, “Hey, we hit this benchmark today and that means we now have funding for X” or “We finally closed that major donor we’ve been working on for the past few months, so now we can afford to do Y.”
The important thing is getting in the habit of feeling a sense of accomplishment from your work. Getting lost in a sea of never-ending tasks and goals is a sure way to burn out.
5. Get Restful Sleep
Restorative, restful sleep plays an important role in relieving all kinds of problems — from stress, anxiety, and depression to physical issues like gut health and heart disease. Yet it’s often one of the first sacrifices we make when we’re busy. Practicing good sleep hygiene and protecting your sleep time will keep your mind and your body healthy enough to face the challenges that come to you each day.
The amount of sleep you need and the best time for you to sleep are both personal to you and your physiology, but some general guidelines that everyone can benefit from include: Wake up at the same time each day, avoid screens right before bed (blue light blocking glasses are inexpensive), and try not to eat three hours before you go to sleep.
[Additional information: Why Sleep Matters from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School]
6. (Re)Assess Your Capacity
Everyone has bad days now and again. If you’re having a bad day — i.e. your energy is low, you’re distracted or worried, or you’re just feeling down or discouraged — accept that your capacity might be less today than it is normally. Don’t judge your performance today against your best day; don’t compare who you are right now to the best version of yourself. How does it help your situation to add negative judgment to a day that’s already difficult?
Pushing yourself beyond your capacity can lead to breakdown — maybe you get sick and lose a whole week instead of just a day. In extreme situations, we’ve seen nonprofits lose great employees, not because those employees were overworked but because they pushed themselves too hard.
Instead, be gentle with yourself on those “bad” days; do what you can with what you have. Accept that these are the inner resources you have available today, and remember that you will come out the other side. Ask yourself honestly, “What do I have to contribute today?” Then give that. Be content that you are doing your best, even if “your best” changes from day to day.
And when you’re feeling better, review this list of wellness practices again for more ideas on how to take better care of yourself. One of the hidden benefits of wellness is that it continually improves your personal production capacity over time, leading to fewer “bad” days and even better “good” days.
Don’t wait until you’re starting to burn out before you take self-care seriously. Prioritize your wellness now and every day. What makes you strong, mentally and physically, also makes you stronger for others. Focusing on your wellness is one of the best things you can do as a fundraiser to make a greater positive impact on your work, your organization, and the people you serve.