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PND Talk: Burned Out and Don't Know What to Do?

February 21, 2014

Job_burnoutLong-time readers of Philanthropy News Digest may remember PND Talk, the message board we launched back in 2004 and maintained for the better part of a decade (until the launch of our new site in November).

During its heyday, PND Talk was a lively community frequented by a regular cast of generous, knowledgeable nonprofit professionals — people like Susan Lynn, Sheryl Kaplan, Rick Kosinski, Julie Rodda, Tony Poderis, and the late (and much missed) Carl Richardson and Linda Procopio.

Recently, we realized it would be a win-win if we shared some of their advice and wisdom with our readers here at PhilanTopic. To see the first installment in the series, which offered a compelling rationale for giving to the arts when so many people are in need, click here.

In the post below, a mid-career development professional by the name of Maddy sounds a familiar refrain -- and receives some terrific advice from three board participants.


In her original post, Maddy wrote:

I have always worked in NPs (with a BS and MA in NP management) in the fundraising area. I have never really found a great fit (organizationally or position-wise) and have basically job-hopped (nine jobs in ten years). All hops were moves up in title/responsibility, but I've never been happy. I love nonprofit work, but feel totally burned out. I have absolutely no motivation and cringe at the thought of writing another solicitation letter/grant/etc. I have only been in my current job for seven months, but am depressed that once again I hate it. I just don't know how to get excitement, motivation, satisfaction [from my work]. Should I just leave the field completely? Am I the only one feeling like this out there? Thanks for listening to my ramblings....

To which long-time PND Talk community member Julie replied:

Maddy --

I think we all hit a wall from time to time. The important thing is to assess how much damage has occurred when that happens, and to make plans to avoid it again, if possible. Since I have no concept of your financial situation, I cannot blankly tell you to take a break from work altogether, but it does sound to me like you could use a well-deserved break from the fundraising challenges you face at present. Fundraising is a brutal challenge at best, but it sounds as if you are running a race without heart -- when you hit the finish line, there is no joy for having gone the distance.

If you re-read your post, the answer seems somewhat clear, at least from the outside looking in. We can't always be happy with our work, at times even disliking it, but there should be some modicum of joy for the investment of hours you spend. Fundraising is above all driven by a passion for a cause, and frankly, your remarks -- "I have absolutely no motivation and cringe at the thought of writing another solicitation letter/grant/etc." -- can't be fair to those who put their confidence in you when you were hired for the task.

In all your years of work, what did you REALLY enjoy? Pursue that! Sometimes it pays less than the upgraded positions and responsibilities, but pays off generously in other less tangible areas like job satisfaction, peace of mind, enthusiasm and self-respect.

And if you can afford to take a break, go for it....

While Karen, another longtime member of the PT community, had this to say:

Maddy --

Try answering these questions:

1. What attracted you to nonprofit management as a field of study? As you were completing the M.A., what did you envision would happen when you graduated? When you thought about pursuing a career, what sort of work did you see yourself doing?

2. When you began your first position, what were your expectations? Was fundraising your first choice for nonprofit work? At what point did you realize that you were not happy with your job? Think of specific causes for your dissatisfaction. Answer the last two questions for each position you have held.

3. What goals did you set for yourself as you began each job? Were the goals realistic? Did you feel that your education and training prepared you well to do the work? Did you feel that your co-workers, board, etc. supported your efforts? Answer these questions for each job.

4. What changes would need to occur to make your current position professionally satisfying? In looking back at the other positions you held, can you identify any common themes?

5. Finally, identify exactly what it is that you love about nonprofit work. Is there some area other than fundraising that interests you?

I hope you'll be able to find work that is rewarding.

And a fundraiser in Colorado added:

Although this post is a bit late, I've been thinking about your statement about the forced nature of building relationships with potential donors. And what I have come to realize/experience is this:

Not only does the mission and the organization of the nonprofit have to match my passion and style of fundraising, but the current and potential donors need to be the kind of people I would build relationships with in my personal life. To give you an example, I worked for a nonprofit whose mission and organization I was passionate about -- yet the majority donors were polar-opposite from me in lifestyle and politics. Therefore, when I was developing relationships, these donors were indeed fake friends.

On the other hand, I worked for a nonprofit whose donors are similar to me. I enjoyed building the relationships -- they became true friends. Once I did tell a donor to give to another organization --knowing that the other nonprofit fit the donor's motivations better. In the short run, I didn't meet my fundraising goal. In the long-term, I did because this donor respected my decision to put her needs first, and gave even larger (than the one "refused") and more frequent gifts.

Just another perspective when considering a fundraising position.


How about you? Have you found yourself -- or known someone -- in Maddy's position? What advice did you get -- or give -- that was particularly helpful? Use the comments section below to share your thoughts and wisdom....

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Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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