As a fundraising leader, you likely experience a lot of pressure to continue to raise funds and grow your program so you can support your organization’s work. We often hear about fundraiser burnout and being overwhelmed, which remains a significant issue in our sector. But we don’t often look at how to support leaders through stress or provide leaders with tools to support their team through stress.

Let’s face it: when we’re stressed, your team feels that pressure and stress too. And this ultimately has a negative effect as you and your team become less productive, are more absent, have less creativity, do less problem solving… which then leads to higher turnover.

So, how do you address your team’s needs when you’re barely keeping your own head above water? Let’s first take a moment. Take a breath. Step back. Check in with yourself first.

  • How am I doing right now? How is the stress and pressure impacting me emotionally, physically, mentally, or spiritually?
  • What is causing me the most stress at this moment?
  • How am I passing some of that on to my team?
  • What’s the most important step I can take today to start managing my stressors differently?

This work has to start with you. It’s difficult to bring calm guidance to your team and help them be more productive if you’re not modeling this for them. If your actions don’t match your words, then they instinctively won’t trust you or what you’re saying.

So, how can you help yourself and your team to take a step back and do some recharging and connecting? Here are some ideas:

  1. Build a culture of connection with check-ins — Creating space to connect and build rapport is critical as you tune in to each of your employees and start to support them individually and as a team. Start by speaking openly about the stress everyone has experienced, its impact, and send the message that “we’re in this together.” If you’re vulnerable and authentic about your own struggles, it normalizes what everyone is going through and gives them permission to do the same.

    During these check-ins (which you should be doing individually and as a team), take ten minutes to see how everyone is doing. Go beyond a simple, “How are you?” because people tend just to say they’re fine. Ask more specific questions like, X is where I’m feeling the most pressure right now; how about each of you?

    As a leader, an important part of your role is to listen actively, ask questions about what systems and issues are getting in the way of your employees’ success, and work to fix those issues where you can. Be open and non-defensive about what people are struggling with and be transparent about what you can and cannot do to change things. Remember, listening and honoring someone’s struggle has value in itself, even if you have no control over changing the outcome.

  2. Involve your team in decision-making — Set up “What’s Your Opinion” meetings to discuss critical issues like whether you should start meeting with donors in-person or if you should return to working in the office versus staying remote. This will allow you to gain insight as a leader. Plus, your team members will feel more control when they’re treated as trusted and respected members of the organization.

  3. Model and encourage workplace wellness and balance — “Balance” is talked about a lot, but if it isn’t modeled by leadership and an active part of your culture, your people won’t really feel like they have the permission to choose balance.

    Here are some ideas you can implement personally, if they resonate with you, or that you can encourage your team members to consider for how they can maintain wellness and balance.

    • Exercise — Being active takes our minds off the stress, releases endorphins, and helps our mood. Model and encourage your team by taking breaks for a walk or workout.
    • Manage Meetings More Efficiently — Structure meetings to only last 50 minutes or less, instead of a full hour, and make sure you state an objective of the meeting at the beginning. Then help participants sticks to the topic, be concise and draw conclusions.
    • Practice Mindfulness — It puts us in a calmer state, balances out our fight-or-flight responses, and helps us cope better with whatever life throws at us. Meditation and breathing exercises can help you become more self-aware, less reactive; they increase compassion for yourself and others; and they reduce the activity of the amygdala, which triggers your stress response. Start meetings with a quote, a short meditation, or a moment to just breathe to get everyone present and lower stress.
    • Get Into NatureResearch has shown that sitting or walking in nature for just twenty minutes drops your stress hormone cortisol levels. Have fun with encouraging your team to meet via phone while each person is walking in nature and then tell them to spend some additional time out there before returning to work.
    • Encourage Vacations and Time Off — Encourage everyone to take time off that is actually work-free. Help set up back-up systems to keep the work going while allowing your team to be completely offline during vacation. Share some pictures from your vacation, or day at the lake when you get back, and encourage team members to do the same where you celebrate breaks from work.
  4. Practice gratitude — Simply sharing gratitude in a specific and direct way can have a big impact. Start creating a culture that is quick to celebrate the wins and good moments that happen! And don’t forget to use this same philosophy with your donors. Showing gratitude toward your donors strengthens the relationship and can take some pressure off the fundraiser.
  5. Set clear and realistic goals — When you don’t have clear goals, structure, and systems, it can be incredibly stressful and difficult for your team to know what’s expected. When you create a system that is easy for everyone to understand, and actually realistic, you’ll be setting your team up for success and lowering stress overall. Remember, it’s also frustrating for you, as a leader, to not have a clear structure because your expectations will never be in true alignment with your team.

Stress doesn’t have to be this pervasive, constant state of being that many of us are used to. Your team, and ultimately your organization, will benefit greatly if they feel they have permission to practice wellness, find work/life balance, and to take a vacation. And the result of this culture will be improved creativity, greater collaboration, and thriving relationships, which will all lead you to have a greater impact on your mission.