Skip to main content

More Charities Keeping Eye on Employees' Work-Life Balance

Written by: Eden Stiffman
Published on: Feb 11, 2020

When she was director of individual giving at Ballet Austin, Angela Osborn sometimes worked 80-hour weeks, attending evening performances and gatherings with donors.

In her previous job as development director at the Sustainable Food Center, she often logged 60-hour weeks as she and two other staff members searched for new donors and launched a capital campaign.

Today, her life is just as hectic: She oversees fundraising and communications for the Austin Humane Society, serves as president of the Texas city’s Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter, and cares for her six-month-old daughter.

During her 15 years in the fundraising world, she’s developed a new outlook on juggling her personal and professional lives.

"We’ve given up on work-life balance, but what we’re trying to achieve is work-life integration," she says, taking a reporter’s call from her car.

In some cases that "integration" means bringing her family to work events: Her husband volunteers at her charity’s annual gala, and the whole family attended the recent statewide AFP Philanthropy Day event.

"Millennials, less willing to sacrifice personal time than older workers, are driving change at some organizations, experts say."

A Culture of Overwork

Amid the frequent travel to meet with donors, after-hours events, the wide variety of tasks in a small fundraising office, or the need to be constantly "on" to woo donors, achieving work-life balance can be tough.

"It’s the biggest challenge of all of our work," Ms. Osborn says. "From the beginning of our training, we are taught to say ‘how high’ when the donor says ‘jump.’ "

"The nonprofit sector’s ‘culture of scarcity’ often drives people to overwork," says Beth Kanter, a consultant who, with Aliza Sherman, wrote The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout. And while this creates strain for all kinds of nonprofit employees, "a lot rests on fundraisers’ shoulders," she says.

The rampant frustration among top fundraisers nationwide was laid bare in a 2013 study from CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. Half of the chief fundraisers surveyed said they planned to leave their jobs within two years or less. Forty percent said they were thinking about leaving fundraising entirely.

According to a recent national survey of higher-education fundraisers, 68 percent reported working at least 45 hours a week, and 30 percent said their job frequently interfered with their home lives. Thirty-seven percent reported often putting their personal lives on hold because of work demands, according to the study by researchers at the College at Brockport.

Millennials, who now make up the biggest group of nonprofit workers, are especially concerned about excessive work demands: Seventy-one percent said their jobs interfered with their personal lives, professional-services company PwC, the University of Southern California, and the London School of Economics found in a 2013 study.

That comes at a cost for charities: Turnover in the development office can make it harder to foster strong donor relationships and to raise money consistently. In addition to the odd hours the job often requires, fundraisers might be shouldering other duties, such as prodding board members to help raise revenue.

It’s on individual fundraisers to develop personal strategies to reduce stress, and it’s on nonprofits to foster a workplace culture in which employees can thrive, Ms. Kanter says.

Off the Clock

Elizabeth Coffey is one of seven fundraisers in Harvard University’s San Francisco Bay Area office. As a regional director of capital giving, she journeys to Los Angeles and Orange County about twice a month to meet with donors. "Especially when traveling, you’re ‘on’ that whole time," she says.

Because the work depends on building relationships, "fundraising can be all-consuming." "There’s always the feeling that when somebody is one of your biggest donors or closest relationships, when they want something or have a request, regardless of whether you’re on vacation or what time of night it is, you want and need to respond to that."

For that reason, she tries to be strategic about when she’s available and when she’s not. She does that by delegating to her colleagues at times, waiting to respond to evening messages until the next morning, and turning off email while on vacation.

Harvard has policies to ease some work-life tensions, says Anne Melvin, director of training and education for the university’s alumni-affairs and development department. Managers allow people to stay home the morning after a work trip to catch up on errands. Employees can take flex time or operate on part-time schedules. The department also started a wellness program last year.

After her second maternity leave, Ms. Coffey worked from home on Fridays for six months. "It was unbelievable how helpful that was," she says.

Other organizations, like the Girls Scouts of America, offer generous family-leave policies, and the Humane Society of the United States allows staff members in its Washington office to bring pets to work.

But workplace perks will be successful only if nonprofits give employees a say in what kinds of benefits they want and what’s most important to them, Ms. Kanter says.

And it’s not enough just to offer those things. "You could say in your employee handbook that you offer perks, but it really has to be embedded in the culture" so that staff members feel comfortable taking advantage of them, Ms. Kanter says.

Millennials may be driving some of these changes, according to a recent survey of nonprofits in New York and Washington by PNP Staffing Group.

Younger workers are bringing a different set of values to the workaholic culture of nonprofits, pushing organizations to offer training, pay, and opportunities for advancement and to place a higher priority on workplace flexibility.

Job Demands and Turnover

Both large and small organizations face challenges to improving work-life balance.

Smaller shops fear spending too much on overhead or fundraising, Ms. Osborn hears from the members of the Austin chapter of the fundraisers’ association.

"We’re all trying to run our [organizations] on shoestring budgets, and that really does hinder the size of teams," she says. "Every fiscal year you hope that this will be the year you get that additional person. It doesn’t happen, and yet we’re expected to raise 10 percent more in the upcoming year."

At bigger organizations, the challenges may include the large number of donors and prospective donors who need attention. Some nonprofits can solve that problem by adding staff.

For example, Texas Tech University has hired enough new major-gift fundraisers that each one manages about 120 donors, down from 500 each before. The university has also hired support staff to handle donor relations and record keeping and to write grants.

In addition, deans at Texas Tech are receiving training this spring in how to raise money to provide additional help for the development-staff members.

"We want to give them a workload where they can be highly successful," says Lisa Calvert, vice chancellor for institutional advancement. Texas Tech’s chancellor has helped set the tone for this kind of "sustainable philanthropy" by showing his support, she adds.

Setting an Example

For smaller organizations, a good relationship between the executive and development directors makes a huge difference in helping fundraisers balance work and life.

Says Ms. Osborn, "If they don’t understand our role, we fall flat on our face."

Indeed, the 2013 CompassPoint report found that the lack of help fundraisers get from chief executives, boards, and other staff members was a major reason for dissatisfaction with their jobs.

Ms. Osborn adds that managers don’t always set the best examples: "We’re sending those emails at 2 a.m. and then staff think they have to immediately respond."

One easy way to ease the pressure on employees: use an email scheduling program to delay sending messages until work hours begin, she says.

Making Time for Family

Caleb Baker says life as a fundraiser "gets crazy at times," and he has learned to set boundaries that allow him to feel fulfilled in both his professional and personal lives.

He and his wife are hoping to adopt their two foster boys, so he has steered away from the kinds of positions he held earlier in his career, including a stint at the University of North Carolina. Those kinds of high-pressure jobs in large development offices often require extensive travel and other demands that can strain family life.

His wife, a freelance book designer, can work from home, but Mr. Baker doesn’t want to miss too many parenting activities. "Bedtime and story time are very important to those guys and to me as well," he says.

Mr. Baker now runs a two-person development office at the United Methodist Retirement Homes, which manages three facilities in North Carolina. He visits the facilities every couple of weeks, meets with donors, writes grant proposals, and confers with residents to discuss planned-giving options.

Life is manageable. The new job allowed him enough flexibility to become president of the AFP chapter in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, attending monthly meetings and helping to plan the association’s statewide conference.

But he puts limits on that role, too. He’s not afraid to decline speaking requests, and when he does participate, he’ll often speak for only 15 minutes rather than the hour the organizers might request, to reduce his preparation time.

"When I first started in nonprofits, I wanted to do whatever I could to help whomever," he said. "Having the ability to learn to say no over the years is something that has been important to me."

Send an e-mail to Eden Stiffman.