I see it almost daily from social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, and other professional do-gooders. They are tired. They are weary. Paralyzed. They are worked to the bone. They are stressed, beaten down and in some cases physically ill. Their home life is strained with personal crises including financial collapse and divorce. And some are left to question whether the pursuit for greater good is worth it.
It seems saving the world is a very dangerous and draining pursuit.
Past research shows that half of fundraisers want to quit their jobs and that three quarters of nonprofit executive directors don’t see a long-term future in their current roles. I’m quite sure if you surveyed social entrepreneurs, you’d find similarly high levels of frustration. While there are many reasons for unrest among these do-good professionals, compassion fatigue is an enormous contributor.
Compassion fatigue is a term typically used to document a gradual lessening of compassion over time, usually referring to trauma and crisis professionals such as therapists, nurses, psychologists and first responders. When defining it in a broader way, this condition also promises to be one of the greatest challenges facing anyone who thinks they can make the world a better place.
Those who sign up to be socially conscious for a living tend to internalize their perceived shortcomings and self-diagnosed inability to move the needle fast enough or far enough. They see people in need, every day. They see more good that must be done. If left unchecked, their passion and heart for humanity can actually work against them. It can discourage them. It can cause them to give in, give up or go sideways from applying far too much pressure, expectation and guilt on themselves.
It’s no wonder we all feel this way as change makers. There is significant resistance from the status quo. It is an uphill battle to sustain momentum. There’s always the feeling that more can be done, the burden of failing to help everyone who needs it, the constraints of doing more with less. And at the end of the day, you also have to get employees, donors, investors, customers and even your own family to buy in to your audacious, outrageous vision.
This affects everything. It has implications for how you communicate, your ability to recruit and retain talent, your effectiveness in selling your services, your opportunity for creating positive change.
This affliction doesn’t just strike founders and executive directors. It’s highly contagious and can infiltrate employees and staff members at all levels of an organization. Just as importantly, this is also a condition that infects donors, customers and other supporters.
Individuals are inundated with pleas for help, with worthy causes, with the next “do good” product or service. You can’t walk down the street, buy pet food or coffee, check your email or Facebook, answer your phone, or open your front door without being approached by someone in need or another way to help. Couple this with the constant barrage of decontextualized images and stories in the news media about tragedy and suffering, and it’s a recipe for consumer disengagement.
Despite unprecedented levels of consumer interest in social responsibility, we run the risk of individuals growing numb to our calls to action. They are being relentlessly pursued, and not just by noble, worthy causes. Everyone has a purpose and a promise for them. Many of those are empty, hollow, or not realistic. How often have corporations touting their social responsibility efforts come under fire for questionable business practices? How many times have you heard about an organization that is going eradicate poverty, end hunger, cure every disease or single-handily reverse climate change? As a result, consumers are equally skeptical when it comes to an organization’s true intentions and its actual ability to make a difference.
This idea of compassion fatigue is critically important, and yet there’s not nearly enough attention paid to it. So if you are a world changer, how do you avoid cause-based callouses? And how do you protect your staff, donors, customers, investors and other stakeholders from burnout and fatigue?
You’ve heard it before. If you don’t keep yourself healthy and well, you’re no good to anyone else. This means get rest. Find ways to decompress. Take time off. Invest in your health, in your family, in your own personal development. Do you want to be a martyr? Or do something that matters? Work and life balance is not just for those with corporate gigs. It applies to cause-based organizations as well.
It’s easy to dismiss the battles you’ve won when you feel like you’re losing the war. But if you are in the world-saving business, even the smallest victory can have long-standing positive repercussions. Routinely take time to reflect on people, places and things you’ve positively impacted. Research by psychologist Daniel Kahneman shows that losses have twice the impact on us as gains. For example, the pain of losing a $100 bill is twice as intense as the joy of finding a $100 bill on the street. Guard against this natural tendency, or your failures will overshadow your accomplishments.
Also, understand that no matter how great your organization is, no matter how big your idea is, the problem you are trying to solve is bigger. You can’t do it alone. And that’s fine, because no one can.
Keep a trained eye on burnout and be ready for it when it tries to creep into your organization. Anticipate how you will prevent it, or best manage it. Care for your team (remember that work/life balance thing?) and understand they also need help with perspective. Keep your mission front and center, and consistently share progress toward goals. Also, keep an open dialogue and build a culture where colleagues feel comfortable talking about fatigue.
You can take a break. You can press pause. You can regroup. But don’t stall out. Don’t allow the paralysis by analysis to settle in. Move forward. Ironically, the best thing you can do when you’re feeling fatigued and burned out it to lean in and initiate change. Make something happen. Get inspired again.
While you’re at it, keep making the decisions you have to make, but aggressively defer or delegate decisions that shouldn’t be occupying space in your mind. If you are a founder or executive director, you shouldn’t really be weighing in on the design of the t-shirt for the summer picnic or the spacing between icons on pages that are three levels down on your website. Being involved in too many unnecessary decisions will fuel your burnout while dampening your staff’s motivation and effectiveness.
There comes a time when you have to stop treating people like transactions and start building relationships. If your supporters only hear from you when you need them, that’s not good. If the only time you communicate is to “make an ask” or to follow up on an ask you’ve already made, that’s equally not good.
Instead, look for ways to engage with your supporters and bring them into your story. Try to create opportunities to add value to their lives, even in really small ways. They don’t want to feel like your debit card. They want to feel like they are part of something that is bigger than they are.
It should go without saying that you can’t afford to lose faith in what you’re doing. But you also can’t afford for your staff and your supporters to seriously doubt you either. To maintain confidence, especially in the face of burnout, continually make promises you can keep and set realistic expectations.
It’s important to paint the big picture for people, to showcase the mountain you are climbing, but remember a climb is a slow, steady ascent. In our #selfie society, we are addicted to now, and we will discount the value of things that are further into the future. We rarely have the patience to stick with an organization and its journey if we aren’t experiencing instant gratification and sense of progress. To keep your stakeholders from wandering to the next really cool story, make sure your most recent success is appropriately celebrated and that the next step in your adventure is always clearly marked and accessible.