AHP Connect Articles

AHP Connect delivers updates on industry news and research, educational and professional opportunities, best practices and other articles related to health care philanthropy.

The Resilient Fundraiser: Fighting Burnout and Regaining Control of Your Life

Alisa M. Smallwood, CFRE and Jacynta Brewton
Published:  01/31/2024
This article was Originally Published in Heathcare Philanthropy, the Journal of AHP


You hear the email notification before you look down at your phone. Oh no. It’s from her. Your breathing increases. Your blood pressure rises. You feel a ringing in your ears. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Just seeing her name makes you nauseous. You’ve had it. You’re over it. You just can’t take it anymore. 

Sound familiar? It sounds like burnout. 

Over the past several years, the role of the fundraising professional has been elevated in both stature and responsibility. In addition to providing leadership and strategic direction for philanthropic activities, development officers are expected to work with hospital leadership, be knowledgeable about hospital operations, liaise with the community, and create partnerships with internal colleagues. And even those who are not in executive leadership positions are required to lead up, down, and across their organizations.  

In a 2021 survey of 1,500 U.S. workers, more than half said they were feeling burned out as a result of their job demands. The pandemic and its aftershocks have only exacerbated the existing burnout epidemic–so much so that the Surgeon General took the extraordinary step of issuing an advisory on addressing health worker burnout in 2022.

As the public health needs in our country grow, so do the annual financial goals necessary to help meet these needs. As employee engagement scores continue to decline, creating an internal culture of gratitude becomes especially challenging. Our philanthropy teams are called on to do more with less and for higher stakes. The result can be debilitating burnout that leads to physical and mental symptoms.  

What is the difference between run-of-the-mill fatigue and workplace burnout? The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and  
  • Reduced professional efficacy.
In short–burnout impacts your energy, emotions, and efficacy. It can manifest itself with physical and emotional concerns that may not be recognized as symptoms of burnout. These may include headaches, muscle aches, indigestion anxiety, nausea, and shortness of breath. What’s most important here is not to blame yourself for burnout. As Dr. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, stated in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Burnout manifests in individuals, but it’s fundamentally rooted in systems.”   

Dr. Christina Maslach, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has said, “Despite popular culture coverage of the issue, burnout can’t be fixed with better self-care.” In fact, the notion of self-care unfairly places blame and responsibility on the burnout victim. There are, however, strategies that we offer that might help you cope with what you’re feeling.  


Three Practical Coping Techniques

One of the keys to your resilience is realizing what things you can affect vs. things outside of your control. While you can’t often change your stressors, there are some techniques you can try to help cope and manage your reaction to them.  


1. The Grounding Technique

This technique is sometimes called The 5-4-3-2-1 Method. As you feel your burnout symptoms increasing, pause and refocus your brain. This grounding exercise brings you into the present – reducing your focus on things that went wrong in the past and keeping you from catastrophizing about what could go wrong in the future.  

In full awareness of your present surroundings, begin to engage your five senses by answering the following questions aloud (if you can): 

What are five things you can see right now?  
What are four things you can touch right now? 
What are three things you can hear right now? 
What are two things you can smell right now? What is one thing you can taste right now? 

In addition to engaging all five of your senses, The 5-4-3-2-1 Method also helps to calm your central nervous system. Focusing on things around you helps you remain present. And as you go through this exercise, remember the fact that you are in control of it. The idea is to remember to control what you can control.  


2. The Mirror & Matching Technique:

By now, many of us have taken tests that help us examine our strengths and personality types (examples include Strengths Finder, Birkman , DISC, and Enneagram). While no person is confined to one box, the general categories outlined in each might be helpful in thinking about our stress reactions. The Mirror & Matching Technique is an exercise that demonstrates rapport-building between people who have dramatically different approaches to stress.  

To begin, create a scenario. Here’s an example: Your boss has just come into your office waving an annual report you produced with a serious typo in it. His stress behavior is to yell and scream. Your stress behavior is to retreat into yourself. You need to meet him halfway.  While we don’t recommend screaming back at your boss, you can rehearse “matching” your boss by quickly acknowledging the seriousness of the situation, and “mirroring” by verbalizing steps you can put in place to improve the process. Grab a friend who can roleplay your boss and test different responses until you are comfortable. What you are managing here is your reaction to a stressful encounter. When these situations happen in real time, you can be better prepared to control your physical and emotional response. 


3. The Energy Boost Technique (Hype Song Karaoke):

Every athletic event needs a great hype song. You’re no different. Need to speak about philanthropy in front of a room of burned out clinicians? Time for you to make your first six-figure request to a potential donor? Scheduled to have a difficult conversation with an employee? Take a walk with your smartphone and play your favorite hype song. Braver souls can sing along. Focus on the rhythm and music and allow your brain to wander for a few minutes. D.J. Khalid’s “All I Do is Win” is one of our favorites. Now go get your own hype song!  

When It’s Time to Go 

The strategies presented for combating burnout and strengthening resilience are designed to help you cope–not continue working in a toxic situation. If you determine your work conflicts with your well-being start preparing to leave, if at all possible. Maintain connections with colleagues, mentors, and advisors outside of your organization with whom you are comfortable being transparent and vulnerable. Honestly sharing your experiences will help them guide you toward your next successful career opportunity.  

So, here’s to your ongoing strength and resilience. Your talents are critical to better health in our communities.  




Interested in writing for the AHP Journal? Find out how.

Meet The Author

Alisa M. Smallwood, CFRE and Jacynta Brewton
Holy Cross Health

Share This

facebook-icon twitter-icon linkedin-icon