When Fundraising Hurts: Vicarious Trauma, Burnout, and Compassion Fatigue

Published by Rebecca Davies on

You mean there’s a name for this? Said by me, exactly one year ago.

I’d just guest-lectured at Humber College on the topic of crisis communications in war zones and natural disasters. The professor, Ken Wyman, took me aside after my presentation and said I seemed a bit raw, that my stories were close to the surface. He suggested I speak with another Humber instructor, a social worker, William Sparks. It turns out there are actually two names for some of what I was feeling: Vicarious Trauma (VT) and Compassion Fatigue (CF).

In the traditional helping professions (firefighters, aid workers,paramedics, animal cruelty investigators, teachers, and clergy) VT and CF are rampant and well-acknowledged. It’s easy to understand the mental health risks for these workers, whose cost of caring is a spectrum of emotional exhaustion, acute traumatization, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fundraising, too, is a high-touch – and as my new friend William Sparks and I’d both argue – helping profession. While as fundraisers we’re not on the front-lines pulling crushed bodies from collapsed buildings after earthquakes, or counselling patients of domestic abuse, our role is indeed to help. We help our organizations and colleagues get the money needed to help our beneficiaries. And we help donors. Intensely.

Why did you give?

It’s usually the first question we ask the donor.

I gave in memory of my daughter who committed suicide.

As a fundraiser, could you manage a conversation like this? Helping donors best means opening up an empathic space. As fundraisers, our work is informed not just by our beneficiaries’ needs, but of our donors’ motivations too, which are almost always emotional and come from a well of concern, even despair. And for a trifecta: as fundraisers, we’re also human beings, and bring to the relationship our own anthropology and stories. Are you aware ofthe effects of childhood trauma, and have you dealt with them? Do you have the mindfulness and strategies to manage and banish both the dramatic and quotidian stressors you experience now as an adult? Trauma can be cumulative, and therefore the most invisible of mental health disorders.

So how then do we, as fundraisers, keep an open heart and allow ourselves tofeelthings and remain engaged and connected with our donors, and still protect ourselves from VT, CF, and burnout? And whatarethese conditions, exactly?

  1. Vicarious Trauma

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily – and not be touched by it – is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.– Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, Kitchen Table Wisdom

Traumas are events that shock us and change our worldview. VT describes our transformation of the view of the world due to the cumulative exposure to traumatic images and stories. This is accompanied by intrusive thoughts and imagery and difficulty ridding ourselves of the traumatic experiences recounted by our clients (Francoise Mathieu). Symptoms are usually rapid in onset and related to one particular event, and include avoidance, being afraid, trouble sleeping, intrusion, and hyperarousal. Some trauma at work can be direct (primary) trauma. In other cases, work-related trauma can be a combination of both primary and secondary trauma. Make sure you understand what you’re bringing to the work you do in terms of your own primary trauma. And trauma is relative. For some, a near-car accident is nothing, for others it’s traumatic.

How are fundraisers at risk for VT through workplace trauma exposure? A few from experience:

  • debriefing program staff (e.g. aid workers just back from the field)
  • witnessing the humanitarian atrocities yourself, and while playing host to a major donor
  • forging a relationship to or close identification with those being assisted (e.g. a special patient in the hospital you work at)
  • working with other traumatized colleagues
  • sifting through pictures and program reports to find the best, most horrible stories to tell donors
  • watching sick or elderly donors decline
  • attending donor funerals
  1. Burnout

Burnout is a problem for most people working in nonprofits. It is a particular challenge for fundraisers because of the special stresses of raising money. We are often expected to raise the entire budget of an organization by ourselves, with little to no training, support, or infrastructure for fundraising. Our work often goes unrecognized by co-workers, who may see it as a necessary evil but not as the “real work” of the organization. Boards and executive directors often don’t understand that.– Manisa Vaidya, Grassroots Fundraising Journal, May/June 2009

What happens when the wooly mammoth at work chases you every day? Your acute stress response revs the sympathetic nervous system and vitals: pupils dilate, muscles tighten, and heart pounds. Everyone’s mind and body respond differently but usually predictably. For me, during extremely stressful periods, my various tics tock more wildly and a stammer publicly chides me. And in work cultures where Showing Emotions is Not Professional, we riskEmotional Ketchup Burst.

Too much fight, flight, or freeze can lead to burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout reduces productivity, motivation, and energy, and renders feelings of hopelessness, detachment, isolation, cynicism, resentfulness, and irritability. Worst of all for fundraisers and the donors we work with: a reduced ability to empathize.

Some of the unique stressors that fundraisers face:

  • trying to earn a living and still do the work you love
  • the Central Anxiety that you’re everyone’s mortgage payer
  • bullies: bosses, boards, colleagues, staff, donors
  • a perception of the public’s indifference to your cause
  • the feeling that donors aren’t giving for the right reason
  • inexperience for the role
  • isolation from other workers in your organization
  • ineffective boards and volunteers
  • being so focused on the cause that you put up with bad working conditions
  • working without rest or break as work seeps into every aspect of your life
  • feeling that whatever you do is never enough
  • not allowed having feelings:suck it up and have a cigarette
  • having difficult, unaddressed power dynamics in your relationships with co-workers
  • moral distress over your organziation’s HR practices or program/service delivery
  • contract work: not knowing how long you’ll be at your current job or what comes next
  • passionately believing in something and identifying yourself with the cause (rather than as a fundraiser – although mercenary fundraisers are not ideal either)
  • connecting too closely with your donor
  • not connecting closely enough with your donor
  • and…
  • as well…
  • etc…
  1. Compassion Fatigue

We don’t get Compassion Fatigue because we screwed up, we get it because we care.– Francoise Mathieu

Compassion Fatigue, per Charles Figley, Tulane University’s Kurzweg Chair in Disaster Mental Health, is a deep erosion of our compassion, of our ability to tolerate strong emotions and difficult stories in others. This usually happens because helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate.

And Dr. Beth Stamm indicates CF has two components: Vicarious Trauma and burnout. VT, again, is negative feeling driven by fear and work-related trauma. And again, burnout concerns things such as exhaustion, frustration, anger, and depression. Dr. Stamm’s ProQOL is a great tool that tests for Compassion Fatigue/Satisfaction, VT, and burnout. It shows the cumulative effects of all three and how they relate (e.g. VT is different from burnout but, both together or either one can cause CF).Take the test and rate yourselfon your Professional Quality of Life.

  1. Vicarious Resilience

When Odysseus finally makes it home, he is much changed, but his loved ones know him by his scar.– Ann-Marie MacDonald, Adult Onset

Look down at the map. Look up at the sky. Where is the sun? Now walk. Make a new pathway, walk out of the forest.– Ann-Marie MacDonald, Adult Onset

It’s absurd to think we can lead a stress-free life. I wouldn’t even want to. And studies show that each one of us will experience at least one capital-T trauma in our lives. The key to mental wellness is awareness, preparation, support, and self-care.

Regarding fundraising, we know we must activate our donors’ emotions – and some of the anxious ones – to motivate them to give to our cause. It’s our responsibility to do so. But it’showwe treat our donors at their moment of giving and just after that will make the transaction one that heals or hurts them more, for their own exposure by us to the traumas that burden our people.

For a great gift in all this is that VT can beget Vicarious Resilience, a powerful witnessing of and reflection on a survivors enormous capacity to heal from trauma. These are the stories of our beneficiaries, and of our program staff or volunteers, who’ve been able to overcome or reframe monumental challenges and are stronger mentally for them. And in telling their stories so are we, as our donors will be too, when we do the responsible thing as fundraisers and show them, thanks to them, the resiliency that came from the trauma.


Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Jill Nelson · February 5, 2016 at 16:59

What a terrific and helpful article Rebecca, thank you so much for sharing your hard won wisdom with all of us. Just beautifully put.

    Rebecca · February 5, 2016 at 19:56

    Gosh, thanks Jill. I realize I didn’t really offer anything about managing and coping during the dark and stressful periods. Part ii of this post coming soon!

Bill Sparks · February 6, 2016 at 04:48

Absolutely Rebecca! I am sharing with my networks!! -Bill

    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 04:32


Marsha Miles · February 6, 2016 at 10:20

Interesting and familiar points in this article. I often feel personally responsible for the whole success or failure of the charities I work for. However I know deep down that there are many factors to this, some out of my remit as a fundraiser. The starfish story (look up online) helps keep things in perspective when it comes to the size of the need vs the funds available. http://Www.marshamilesconsultancy.com

    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 04:27

    Thanks Marsha. I really appreciate the starfish parable (as did my four-year-old). :)

Jim Schaffer · February 6, 2016 at 15:35

Rebecca, the absolute all-time best article I’ve read here, and that’s saying something because everything here is so right and needful. Looking forward to your next post on this important subject.

I started a blog in January and then promptly lapsed, with the last post being on this very subject: http://www.charity-spring.com/news/. I share this only to share, not to promote (I’m not selling anything). You said it much better.

One of my heroes who speaks to the issues and challenges we face in the caring professions is Parker Palmer. Someone else I follow who knows this territory intimately is the living saint, Jean Vanier.

Confession. I’ve always held MSF out to be a preeminently worthy charity incapable of subjecting its fundraising people to the hazards about which you so personally write here. That this is where you devoted most of your career, and you can still call out these issues, helps me realize that no one is exempt.

Thank you for your courageous writing. Keep going!


    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 04:11

    Dear Jim

    Re: your own writing on this subject: I told, you showed. Your craft elevates this subject far more than I did (thank you) and especially because we get to meet some who gave you resilience. I wish all of us the ability to cover others – and accept being covered – with that light you describe. And I respectfully disagree with you on one point: it IS about you, the fundraiser. It has to be, or this work is not sustainable.

    Re: Jean Vanier. Have you read the letters between Toronto’s own Ian Brown and Jean Vanier? I hope you’ve not, because you’ll love it. Their correspondence is exquisite. Here’s the first instalment: http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080929.wfocusvanier0927/front/Front/Front/ and some more: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/there-is-a-beginning-and-an-end-to-all-things/article4300660/?page=1 and the rest: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/jean-vaniers-comfort-and-joy-find-the-places-of-hope/article27842806/.

    Re: MSF. Ah, my beloved MSF. It’s not only individuals that can become traumatized, Jim, but organziations too. Trauma is the dominant characteristic of MSF and probably drives why it’s so effective in the field. But yes, like most other non-profits I’ve worked in, there’s room to become more trauma-informed in the headquarters.

    Thanks for this note and I’ve bookmarked your blog.


      Jim Schaffer · February 8, 2016 at 20:50

      Hi Rebecca. I thought to return here after reading today’s post about 101’s 5th birthday. Thanks for your kind reply and for the gifts/links and even your kindly rebuke. All good. I guess I should begin to post again, now that I have at least one person reading, but it’s already being said so well here I lose heart! Sincere best wishes to you and to all at 101, including your hearty readers doing such wonderful work throughout the world.

Brent Johnston · February 6, 2016 at 18:49

Great blog Rebecca. As I was reading, I had two thoughts. The first was that I would end up knowing the author (which is true) and the second was the reality of how many of my fellow colleagues have ended up leaving the advancement space. I think, likely, for many of the issues you cite above. After 24 years in advancement, the one aspect that truly grinds me down is the consistent and constant need for continued fundraising. The number of times that I have experienced, after some success or another, a volunteer/manager/Board stating “well what’s next”. Most professional fundraisers rarely get any chance at downtime or space to recharge. Glad you articulated what so many of us feel, but can’t give voice to.

    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 04:16

    Nothing to add here. Thanks Brent. And nice to reconnect! It’s been years. :) Rebecca

Laurel · February 6, 2016 at 21:57

Hey Rebecca,
I really appreciate your article. Thank you for writing about issues that can often be very hard to face in our organizations and as fundraisers.
One thing that would have been interesting to address is the length of time at which these stressors of burnout can happen. You could be 6 months in to a job and already feel these things.
I think many fundraisers feel guilty when they start to get these stressors so soon in to a job. I think it’s so important to always keep check on your feeling and make sure you have an outlet to draw strength from.

    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 04:25

    Thanks Laurel. Yes, add the burden of guilt to the list. I also wonder if extreme stress felt in the first 6 months is also due to poor on-boarding by an organization? A whole other blog post. :) RD

Betsy Schuurman · February 8, 2016 at 05:32

This is great. You would assume that nonprofits would be on top of this but there’s always such a time/money crunch that mental health support and self care are often overlooked.

    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 22:58

    And the cobbler’s children.

AE · February 8, 2016 at 06:18

Thank you so much Rebecca for having the courage to post this article. It is timely for me, and I couldn’t believe how many things you mentioned that are so familiar. I look forward to reading your next post on managing and coping with this.

debra bond-gorr · February 8, 2016 at 17:32

Well done Rebecca. A thoughtful and timely piece.

    Rebecca · February 8, 2016 at 22:57

    Thanks Debra!

Mary Cahalane · March 1, 2016 at 03:15

This is wonderful, Rebecca, thank you! You’re putting a very useful frame around inchoate feelings so many of us have experienced.

Holly Cook · August 23, 2016 at 23:53

Great article Rebecca. Thank you for sharing. CF is a difficult affliction and I’m glad it’s finally being discussed.

Derek Humphries · October 26, 2017 at 19:34

What a brilliant and important piece. Thank you for writing this.

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