Fundraiser wellbeing: 9 tips to avoid burnout as a freelance fundraiser

10 February 2021
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A starfish washed up on a beach

Sally-Anne Hunter looks at the relationship between being a fundraising consultant and wellbeing, and offers her tips for avoiding burnout while working during the pandemic

With 2021 looking more like 2020’s evil twin every day, the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Fuelled by a sense of mission and often under-resourced at the best of times, those working in the third sector have been hit by a perfect storm of dramatically reduced income and increasing need for their services. The impact of the global pandemic meant that, overnight, most charities found themselves working to alleviate disaster, without the resources to do so. The sector has #neverbeenmoreneeded but the stress on those working in it can be unrelenting.

The recent Third Sector Wellbeing Survey (Dec 2020) found that, after the COVID-19 crisis itself, lack of funding was the next main cause of stress for those working in the Sector. With the first lockdown in March 2020, significant fundraising income streams, such as retail and events, switched off overnight and it is still uncertain when, if ever, they will be back to pre-COVID-19 levels. Estimates suggest that in 2020 alone, £12.4 billion of expected annual income was lost to the Sector as a direct result of the pandemic. Those fundraisers still working have seen colleagues furloughed or made redundant at the same time as income streams disappeared.  Now they feel a moral and professional duty to fill the chasms of lost income and save both the organisation and their beneficiaries.

As a strategic and fundraising consultant to charities, CICs and socially driven organisations, I work to ensure that those making the world a better place have the funding they need to thrive. When the pandemic struck, I had no idea what impact it would have on my consultancy work; even to the point of wondering if I would continue to be in demand. As it turned out, I have never been busier.

As well as reviewing fundraising strategies and plans and working harder and smarter with existing income streams and pipelines, new streams of “emergency, resilience and recovery funding” from governments and foundations appeared that I quickly realised would be of value to my current and new clients. They required both speed of response, with some funds opening and closing in days, and skills in adapting and presenting organisational strategies, plans cash-flow forecasts, reserves and budgets. I provided my clients with the resources and skills they needed for success. This was a lot to take on and, as the workload piled up, I soon realised I needed to manage my own health and wellbeing if I was going to get through this intact.

I have found being grateful, joyful, mindful and keeping with the familiar rather than starting something new has helped. For example: walking in places I know and love; doing virtual versions of the classes I did before lockdown (Les Mills’ Body Combat virtual boxing classes have been a major feature –giving COVID-19 a good seeing-to); staying in touch with friends and family; and reinvigorating old hobbies (sorry to those friends who have received somewhat naïve beadwork book marks from me!); along with meditating and getting lots of sleep. In short being kind to myself.  And here are nine of my top tips to avoid burnout and stay sane as a fundraising consultant.

Top tips to avoid burnout

1. You are your own boss. I choose to work as a freelance consultant for the same reasons many others do: I want to use my skills to make a difference, to have the freedom to work my own hours and to work with several organisations rather than just one. The upside of this is that you are your own boss; the downside is that you are your own boss. I have a picture a friend gave me above my computer screen  of a rainbow and the words “BOSS LADY” written across it in big bold letters. During the pandemic it has reminded me to put on my “employee hat” and then swop it for my “boss lady” hat. I do the work and boss lady takes on the responsibility of my employer. So, be your own boss and ensure you take regular breaks, take TOIL if you have worked extra hours and don’t take on more work than you can do.

2. You can’t save all the starfish. When the pandemic struck, I felt I needed to strap on my superwoman cape and save the third sector. It sounds daft now, but alongside my client work, I was taking on everything, including giving talks, being on panels and writing about how to survive and thrive. I soon realised the best thing I could do was pull back and care for those closest to me. Now more than ever you and your family, friends and clients should be your main focus.

3. Don’t take it all on. These are challenging times and the people and organisations you are working with are, understandably, under stress and, as their trusted consultant, they might want to share their worries and stresses with you. The best advice is to lead with empathy, be gentle and kind (to them and yourself) and keep them focused on what you are there to support them with: funding and strategy.

4. Let no one steal your joy. There is no masking the fact that this pandemic is truly awful and many in the third sector are on the front line. As fundraisers we have to face the darkest reality and, at the same time, paint a picture of hope for a brighter future if we are to attract the funding the organisation needs. If you can, choosing to be positive and full of joy rather than despair is going to help you and your clients to get through this intact. Joy is your superpower in the darkness so don’t let anyone steal it!

5. Find your hive mind. Having groups you can share challenges and opportunities with makes life easier and I would like to give a big thanks to fellow fundraisers on the Facebook and WhatsApp groups I belong to for their support. Honestly, without them, sometimes I think I would have lost the plot. There are only so many times your dog will listen to you complain about the word count restrictions on a funding application after all.

6. Have set days when you are working. No one appreciates an email at midnight and it is really helpful for your clients to know when you are “on’ for them. It means they know when they need to get work to you so you can do the best job for them and it creates a mutual respect of each other’s time. This does not mean you can’t work extra hours or into the small hours for your clients but it does mean it becomes a choice than is valued and appreciated rather than something expected.

7. It is not personal. Whilst the objective is to bring in the funding needed, whether a particular funder says yes at any given time is outwith our control. All we can control, and therefore should be judged on, by ourselves and others, is the activity we complete.

8. Switch Off. If we are not careful with it, technology means we are “Always On”. Find ways to make technology work for you not the other way around. For example, you can set Slack to “Not Active” and email to "Away”. And make sure you have real time off (this is where Boss Lady should step in and mark holidays in your work calendar…)

9. Show Me The Money! If this was just one of the best lines uttered in the film Jerry Maguire it would be funny but sadly it also represents the attitude of some organisations to their fundraisers. Not running out of cash is an organisational and strategic imperative. It should not be left solely on the shoulders of fundraisers.

Several years ago, I founded the Commando Spirit Appeal and worked with the Royal Marines. I found their mindset inspirational: be the first to understand; the first to adapt and respond; and the first to overcome. And in the early days of the pandemic, that became my touchstone. I wanted to quickly understand all the funding options available to my clients and I wanted to help them to adapt, respond and overcome the pandemic. And I also remembered how the Royal Marines don’t waste their energy. They train, they eat, they rest, they use humour in the face of adversity and they prepare themselves to be at their best when they are needed. So, to all fundraisers out there, whether freelance or in-house; take care of yourself, because the skills you have are in short supply and the third sector badly needs you.


Sally-Anne Hunter
Sally-Anne Hunter
Sally-Anne Hunter is a member of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising and Chair of their Standards Advisory Board Scotland.

Wellbeing and fundraising

Fundraising is a hugely exciting, rewarding, and skilled profession. But it is also one that can be demanding and pressured. We've produced this resource to help fundraisers, and managers, improve their wellbeing.
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