Can’t A Fundraiser Catch A Break? 5 Helpful Tips to Prevent a Crash and Burn

By Rachel Cyrulnik

Nonprofits that follow the July-to-June fiscal calendar closed their annual campaigns yesterday, and their fundraisers finally exhaled as they left the office (that is, unless they took home a list of phone numbers to make a few final, Hail Mary calls in the evening before the clock struck midnight). Over the course of my years in the nonprofit world, I recall more than one manager ending the day by facetiously telling me and other staff members to enjoy the break after June 30, because the next campaign year begins on July 1.

When the need for securing funding is constant, how can development professionals ensure that they don’t push themselves beyond their limits and burn out?

This question is actually of equal import to fundraisers and organizations alike, as the well being of both hangs in the balance. Nonprofits lose both time and money when a fundraiser leaves a position. Organizational memory and relationships are two important components of a development professional’s job; nonprofits sacrifice both, as they begin from scratch with a new hire. Additionally, the direct and indirect costs of hiring a replacement reach into the six figures, according to Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research. With the average turnover rate for a fundraiser at 16 months, organizations and employees must do more to mitigate the constant pressure and increase the satisfaction and lifespan of nonprofit professionals within an organization.

With that in mind, I invite you and your organization to internalize these five tips to protect yourself against burnout:

1. Celebrate Success – This may seem obvious, but for a fundraiser whose job is to always look for increases, it is easy to view accomplishments from a glass-half-empty perspective. Perhaps these sentiments sound familiar: “We asked for x and only got y”; “I asked x number of people to join a giving circle, and only y agreed to join”; or, “that’s all well and good that I raised x, but I still need to raise y more.”

Raising money is critical, meaningful work. But it can also be hard. Recognize your successes for what they are, and give yourself the praise you deserve for having achieved them.

2. Keep Expectations in Check – If you’ve ever had a friend who consistently disappointed you by falling short of your expectations, you’ll know that a hard-learned but valuable lesson is adjusting your expectations. Once you understand what to expect from that friend, you won’t be (as) disappointed when he or she fails to call, visit, or remember a special occasion.

Fundraising is no different. In Yours For the Asking, Reynold Levy compares fundraising to baseball. One hit out of every three at-bats is the kind of performance that warrants MVP consideration. Keep your thick skin and positive attitude – rejection is part of the game and makes the victories even sweeter.

3. Don’t Go It Alone – High-achieving, goal-oriented fundraisers do everything in their control to reach and exceed their financial goals. But oftentimes, the magic happens in the work beyond your immediate control.

Collaborating as part of a team has many advantages – you will feel more supported in your work, other team members will generate new ideas, the work will be spread out, and you will be able to accomplish more. Ultimately, it is you who is accountable for the dollars raised, but all staff members at your organization can and should support fundraising efforts in some way. Non-development staff can add prospects to your pipeline, make introductions, and share your organization’s work at donor meetings. Of course, board members and other select lay leaders should be treated as part of the fundraising team as well.

4. Focus on Your Career, Not Just Your Job – Reaching your financial goal for your nonprofit requires incredible focus and hard work. As a devoted professional, this is understandably where you expend the majority of your efforts. But it is important to carve out time for your own career growth and professional development. Network with others and maintain professional relationships. Request learning and training opportunities from your organization, such as conferences and webinars. Read up on new trends and best practices in the field. Instead of feeling like your organization is sucking the life out of you, you’ll know that while you are working, you are simultaneously building your own career, and that broader recognition and focus will better position you to sustain a longer commitment to your organization.

5. Be Kind to Yourself – The field of social work coined the term “Care for the Caregiver,” but I think it is fair for fundraisers to borrow it. Development officers admirably devote long hours to raising money for populations with needs to improve the life circumstances of those groups. Do not neglect your own needs in doing so. Take note of which leisure activities almost instantly improve your mood, clear some time, and go enjoy yourself! Listen to music, exercise, spend time with family, play sports, or go to the beach – after all, today is July 1.

Rachel Cyrulnik is founder and principal of RAISE Nonprofit Advisors, a strategic development firm servicing nonprofits. Contact Rachel at