Last week I gave a presentation with Mandy Johnson at the Institute of Fundraising Yorkshire conference entitled “Fundraiser, heal thyself.” We spoke about our own ‘journeys’ and personal lessons from when we’ve battled back from mental health issues. This blog is based on my parts, with special thanks to Mandy for inspiring much of it. I am not a mental health expert – this blog is written from personal experience, and I hope some of it may be relevant for you.
Why are fundraisers particularly prone?
We all know about the tight deadlines, the overlapping high targets, competing priorities and demanding colleagues we face. These can lead to long hours, anxiety, stress and feeling inadequate.
But there’s more. To be good fundraisers we arguably need to feel strong affinity with the causes we represent. This can lead to secondary trauma of exposure to often life-changing issues, illnesses and more besides.
We are communicating passion, which can be exhausting in itself, and it’s tough to get knocked back when we’re personally invested.
There’s also often the inescapable feeling that we’re not doing the real work of the charity. This can lead to internal divisions between fundraising and other operational and comms teams, and fundraising can quite literally become a thankless task.
Things are going well. So why am I crying in my garden?
Let me take you back six or seven years. I loved the charity I was working for, liked and respected my colleagues, was pretty successful in fundraising terms. I thought I was happy…
That winter, I was getting some work done in our garden that I was quite excited about. But it was always dark when I left the house and when I got back so I could never see the progress. That Saturday I got up at dawn to go take a look…
It was so beautiful to me. I started crying. And this unexpected emotion made it clear that I was under more stress than I realised.
How does it physically feel?
And one of the benefits of growing a little older has been that I’ve learned to identify some of these signs of heightening mental stress. Examples have included unexpected emotional turbulence like this, and losing fountain pens in my schooldays.
I’ve also learned from attending training by the excellent Leap Confronting Conflict to pay more attention to how it feels physically. For me it’s an ache in my gut. For you it might be whooshing in the ears, a headache, or something else entirely. Listen to your body!
What’s the worst thing they could say?
I know of two other things that happen when I’m under stress:
- I start over-envisaging stressful conversations or scenarios that might never happen in real life. In fact, I sometimes even get angered by the imagined responses of the person I’m imaginary-arguing with! It’s all in my head.
- I find myself waking up at about 4 in the morning immediately thinking about some knotty issue that I clearly haven’t processed properly in the working day.
These are all things I look out for. I’ll come back to them a bit later on.
Introducing The Stress Bucket Model
Now, thanks to Mandy, I’ve learned of a very useful model to understand the various contributing factors to mental health issues. Think of your mind as a bucket. It’s filling up with water because of factors such as finances, work stress, relationships, your nasty manager, lack of sleep, bad diet and so on. What are yours?
If you’re not careful, the bucket may overflow, which might result in injury, depression, sickness, or a mental breakdown.
What are your taps?
The taps in the side of the bucket can help lower the waterline and reduce the stress. I’ve learned in recent years what some of mine are, and they’ve really helped me. They include going to parkrun and playing the cornet (although funnily enough I do look quite nervous playing the solo in this clip!). What are yours?
But it’s still me
But above all, I’ve learned that those indicators are still authentically part of who I am. They’re just a bit out of control. I understand now that if tempered, if I harness these traits well, they can help me to be really good at my job.
- What is my over-envisaging other than slightly obsessive scenario planning? We need to be able to do this well as fundraisers. What is the worst thing that someone could say to us in a meeting? If it’s a “no” what should I or my colleague say next? What would happen then? Effectively, I’m drawing a conversational flow-chart.
- And my chewing over problems at 4 in the morning has made me realise that I need time and space away from my desk to look at problems from different angles. If I can do that, often while running for example, my brain will be less likely to wake me up at some ridiculous hour.
When it comes to the crunch, I’m always learning.
Get knocked down. Learn from it. Go again.
I hope that these reflections can also help you to understand when you might be heading for a fall, to get back up and to come back fighting.