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Fundraising Might Be Hazardous to Your Health

Lori Halley 08 August 2011 0 comments

In a recent post - Juggling Priorities at Small Staff Organizations - I discussed the potential for stress and work overload at non-profits and membership organizations. But recently I heard about another potential occupational hazard that can afflict non-profit fundraisers: Vicarious Trauma.

In her article, “The cost of caring: stresses of working in the charitable sector” in the Hilborn e-News, Leah Gardiner notes that fundraisers can succumb to vicarious trauma that involves “the transfer of negative feelings from the person who experiences trauma to the person who hears of it.” While this has been seen in aid workers, emergency and healthcare personnel in the past, it can also impact non-profit and charity fundraisers.

According to the Headington Institute, Vicarious Trauma - also called Second-Hand Shock - “is a process of change.… that unfolds over time. It is not just your responses to one person, one story, or one situation. It is the cumulative effect of contact with survivors of violence or disaster or people who are struggling. It is what happens to you over time as you witness cruelty and loss and hear distressing stories, day after day, and year after year.”

In her article, Gardiner notes that in trying to get donors to feel for their clients, “they tell and re-tell the heart-wrenching stories of their clients to gain support.” But fundraisers are not immune to the emotions these stories evoke. And their empathy can lead to fundraisers setting unrealistic expectations of themselves and their organizations. Since they are painfully aware that failure can have harsh consequences – where “the life of a child, a parent or a grandparent may depend on how well they communicate” – Gardiner suggests that when fundraisers don’t meet their targets, they are “exposed to trauma through a secondary means.”

Keeping our empathy in check

Aside from fundraisers, I think that there are many other non-profit and charity staff and volunteers that might suffer from the cumulative effect of working tirelessly to help others or promote change. And while it is important to be empathetic to the cause or the individuals, it is also critical to maintain a balanced attitude.

I know from firsthand experience that altruistic goals need to be tempered with a strong dose of reality. While I’ve never worked directly in fundraising, years ago I worked at a cancer organization on a multi-media awareness campaign. I was involved in capturing the stories of cancer survivors and their families for this project over a number of months. We produced an amazing campaign with a moving song and a number of award-winning commercials. And while I found the strength of these adult and children cancer survivors inspiring, I also found this project got me down. Seeing what these folks had gone through made me frustrated that a cure wasn’t in sight. My colleagues and family helped me come to the realization that the work I was doing WAS helping and I should focus on what I could do, rather than obsessing over a goal I had no control over. One of my colleagues had a saying: "circle of influence, circle of control."

Since then, I've learned a lot about workplace stress management strategies - which I think could be applied to dealing with the early stages of vicarious trauma. For example, counsellors always suggest that people who feel stressed are often trying to tackle too much or too many things at once and are overwhelmed by the long list or the unrealistic expectations they place on themselves. Counsellors advise that  folks deal with one issue or problem at a time - taking small steps and managing one issue before moving on to another. This might also apply to fundraisers who are trying to reach unrealistic goals as well.

The first step is recognizing the problem

Leah Gardiner suggests that recognizing and coping with feelings of vicarious trauma is the first step. Fundraisers need to be watching for signs that they are being impacted by their work and be sure to “practice self-care … and incorporate time to relax, rest and play into your daily routine.” She notes that “by not allowing ourselves the emotional time and freedom to acknowledge and deal with the trauma our clients are experiencing, we are not only hurting ourselves but also the overall effectiveness of the success of our charities.”

Whether you are a volunteer, staff person, aid worker, membership manager or fundraiser, be sure that you maintain a balance between your constituents' needs and your own emotional well-being. In other words, by all means, take care of others but take care of yourself as well.

If you’ve had experiences that have evoked vicarious trauma tell us how you’ve maintained balance in the comments below.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 08 August 2011 at 9:30 AM
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