Fundraiser burnout is an all-too-common tale. One way to solve that problem is to tell a better story about the work of the fundraiser.
Things look bleak. Fundraisers don’t stay. They don’t stay at the nonprofit. They don’t stay in the industry. They are stigmatized by outsiders. They are devalued by insiders. Is the situation hopeless? Actually, no.
The problem, at its core, is story. Bad story. Externally stigmatizing story. Internally dismissive story. The solution, at its core, is also story.
THE ONE BIG THING
Let’s go back to the beginning. The one big thing in fundraising is this: Advance the donor’s hero story. The hero story is a universal story. It is compelling at a primal level. It is archetypal. It is the monomyth. Adopting this one thing transforms the paradigm for fundraising. But the transformation is not just for the donor. The transformation is also for the fundraiser.
AN INSPIRATIONAL ROLE
In the donor’s hero story, the fundraiser fills a critical role. The fundraiser is the wise sage who guides the donor through the hero’s journey. This is the role of
- Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)
- Minerva McGonagall (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
- Gandalf the Grey (The Hobbit)
- Morpheus (The Matrix)
- Mickey (Rocky), and
- Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid)
The fundraiser is the sage who challenges with a choice. This challenge moves the donor’s hero journey forward.
But this challenge isn’t the end. The fundraiser continues in this monomyth role beyond the initial challenge. She introduces the donor-hero to helpful friends and allies. She presents the donor-hero with powerful instruments. These magnify the hero’s impact. The fundraiser serves as mentor, sage, advisor, and guide.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
For the fundraiser, embracing this role changes things. The hero is a powerful, attractive, archetypal role. But so is the hero’s guiding sage.
This character appears in all forms of myths and fairy tales. It is “the Wiseman” or “the Helper” This character helps the protagonist along his or her journey, often by providing magical assistance. Paul Moxnes of the University of Oslo calls it a “primordial” role. He explains, “the role of the Helpers are of a deep role nature, and they are – next to the essential family roles – the most important ones in human societies.”
Changing the story changes the role. The fundraiser’s role transforms from stigmatized to epic. Along with this change in role comes a change in goal. The goal is now to help the donor. Specifically, the goal is to help advance the donor’s hero story. Yes, the fundraiser wants the donor to give. But she wants the donor to give in a way that advances the donor’s hero story.
The gift should match the donor’s values, life story, and journey. It should deliver an identity-enhancing victory. Advancing the donor’s hero story is not just about delivering money to the organization. It’s about delivering meaning to the donor.
A CHANGE IN VALUES
Along with this change in goal is a change in values. Fundraising work is no longer just “money getting.” Indeed, the actual work of fundraising cannot be about “money getting.” The actual work of any occupation cannot be about “money getting.” The financial outcome says nothing about the work itself.
Money for the charity is nice. But this becomes only a byproduct of effectively doing important work. Yes, effective donor guidance does benefit the organization. But the fundraiser’s work is with the donor. It is about the donor’s journey. It advances the donor’s hero story. It encourages meaningful generosity. The fundraiser’s work provides deep value to the donor.
The traditional view of fundraising manufactures fundraiser burnout. Consider the position of a new fundraiser. She starts because she loves the cause. She loves the organization.
But now she is responsible for whether it thrives or suffers. To feed it, she must do stigmatized work. She must “seek charity.” The synonyms include beg, chisel, sponge, and panhandle. If she fails in her unpleasant work, the thing she loves suffers. And the suffering is her fault. Good people doing noble work get fired. And it’s her fault.
If she succeeds in her unpleasant work, her success is credited to others. (“We get donations because we deserve them.”) Worse, her success becomes the “new normal” baseline. If she doesn’t succeed even more next year, she fails. Again, the thing she loves suffers. Again, it’s her fault.
Occasionally, things get worse. A desperate crisis, project, or campaign increases the intensity. She must do more of the unpleasant work in a short period.
This all creates a perfect recipe. It’s a recipe for negative emotion, burnout, and quitting. No wonder the average new fundraiser leaves her job in only 16 months.
FROM FUNDRAISER TO HERO'S GUIDE
But what if things were different? What if the job was not just about grabbing cash for administrators? What if the work was to guide, advise, and help the donor? What if the goal was to assist the donor in making a personally meaningful impact? What if the job was to advance the donor’s hero story?
The work itself then becomes independently important. The work encourages the core human ideal of generosity. It delivers value to donors. It builds personally meaningful donor experiences. It makes donors, and the world, better off.
The fundraiser’s occupational mission and values change. These are no longer just about the money. These are about the actual work of fundraising. The fundraiser’s mission and values are complimentary to the administrator’s. But they are different. They are separate. This separation changes everything.
HERO'S GUIDE IN A "CRISIS"
Consider this new paradigm in the previous situation. What are the emotions when a desperate organizational crisis or deadline arises? Panic and fear? Overwhelming responsibility and guilt? Dread of new unpleasant obligations? No. None of these. For the fundraiser’s separate but complimentary mission, the crisis is beautiful opportunity.
The question is not, “Oh, no! How can I solve the administrators’ desperate crisis?”
The question is, “How can this crisis help advance the hero stories of the donors I am guiding?”
Does it tell a more urgent and compelling story? Fantastic! Does it provide an opportunity for personally meaningful and heroic gifts? Great! Does it motivate administrators to provide more resources for promoting generosity? Wonderful!
For the fundraiser’s mission – the separate but complementary mission – these are superb opportunities. Administrators may be in crisis. But this need not create destructive emotional experiences for the fundraiser. In the new story, the fundraiser’s core mission and values are not in crisis. The fundraiser’s work is not the administrator’s work. The fundraiser’s work is to encourage meaningful generosity among the donors she is guiding. The fundraiser’s work provides deep value to the donor.
THE FUNDRAISER DELIVERS VALUE
The bad story encourages bad behavior. If the fundraiser’s job is simply “money getter,” then she is a burden to donors. She is an unwelcome obligation. She gets money from donors and leaves them worse off.
But what if the fundraiser advances the donor’s hero story? What if she serves as an effective guide on this journey? Then she offers real value to the donor. She provides deep, meaningful benefit.
The donor is left better off than if he had just spent more money on more consuming. What trinket is better than having a more meaningful, even heroic, life journey? More consuming can’t compete with that experience.
FUNDRAISER RETENTION AND DONOR MESSAGES
Does messaging affect fundraiser satisfaction and retention? One study found a direct link. Some nonprofits focused on selling the organization’s story. This was the “press agent” model. Fundraising was “a one-way avenue.” In these nonprofits, “information spews forth from the organization yet few comments, responses or concerns are returned to the organization.” And, “In terms of fundraising, the interests of the donor are outstripped by the interests of the organization.”
These organizations scored lowest in fundraisers’
- Satisfaction with the nonprofit
- Trust in the nonprofit, and
- Commitment to the nonprofit.
Another approach was the polar opposite. It was the “two-way symmetry” fundraising model. Donor communication was based on “mutuality,” “cooperation,” and “collaboration.” Fundraisers’ satisfaction, trust, and commitment were all highest in these organizations.
One approach views the donor as an ATM. Striking the donor ATM with the fundraising “stick” spits out cash. This view isn’t just bad for fundraising. It’s bad for fundraisers. It’s bad for fundraiser retention. The opposite approach is based on providing value. The fundraiser helps the donor. She delivers value to the donor.
IT'S HARD WORK
Of course, providing real value isn’t always easy. It may require learning the donor’s life, the donor’s values, and the donor’s journey. Uncovering these can be a difficult process.
Challenging another to heroism isn’t easy. The monomyth sage who challenges with a choice always faces rejection. Refusing the call to adventure is part of the hero’s journey. Advancing the donor’s hero story is hard work.
Being a competent guide means knowing the terrain. It means knowing the dangers and the short-cuts along the journey. The effective guiding sage knows how to introduce the hero to friends and allies. The effective guiding sage offers powerful instruments or weapons. This might mean developing new giving opportunities to match the donor’s story. It might mean learning about tax benefits and complex instruments. The role isn’t easy. But it is important.
Typical fundraiser training is all about tactics. Tactics are useful. But tips and tricks don’t change story. They don’t change character. Playing a stigmatized character with better techniques is fine. But it’s still playing a stigmatized character. Powerful solutions start deeper. They start with character and story. They start with occupational identity.
If you start with the right identity, techniques will follow naturally. If you start with the wrong identity, techniques won’t fix the problem. Michael Norton explains that success in fundraising is really not about what you know. It’s not even about who you know. Instead, “in actual fact, it is much more about who you are.” Michael Bassoff and Steve Chalder explain,
“The secret to rapid and astonishing success in fundraising seems to require a shift. Not a shift in what you are doing (although that will happen) but more of a shift in who you are being.”
Dr. Beth Breeze describes the advice this way. Effective fundraising “goes beyond the mechanical aspects” because it requires “making existential changes.”
The hero’s journey is a primal story. In this story, the hero is a compelling archetypal character. But so is the hero’s guiding sage. Transforming the donor’s identity is powerful. But so is transforming the fundraiser’s identity. The fundraiser becomes the guiding sage who advances the donor’s hero story. This changes things.
The fundraiser fulfills a critical role in a personally meaningful journey. She provides deep, lasting value to the donor. She makes the donor’s life more transcendent. She becomes an essential character in an epic story. That’s a character worth playing. That’s a story worth living.