Guest blog post by Chris O’Sullivan

Stress Awareness Day falls this week, and we will likely see content about stress, and coping strategies. 

Most of us are all too aware of stress, which the HSE defines as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. 

Fundraisers are part of a charity ecosystem that has never had a greater need to innovate, adapt, and deliver. We need to ‘do more, with less’. We need to be ‘resilient’. Many fundraisers need to be and do that with little support and development, within existing, or dwindling resources, whilst facing structural discrimination, inequality, or harassment, and in the context of difficult workplace relationships. 

To solve the challenges that we face, we want to be at our best. 

We should be able to look up and out with confidence to see opportunities on the horizon, and able to support those we lead with directness and empathy.

Awareness days and ‘moments’ can be helpful in drawing attention to a topic, but when it comes to promoting good mental health and preventing psychological injury at work, there needs to be sustainable action year-round.

This is a different blog to many you might read. 

Yes, there are some tips for things you might do to build your resilience where you can, but it’s more about what organisations can and should be doing to change the nature of work to make our profession sustainable and successful. 

The things we can do ourselves. 

Social feeds always seem to be full of things we can do to change our world or live our best life. If we are powerless to change our circumstances, it can seem like this kind of content mocks our challenges or leans into a privilege we don’t have.  

That said, most of us can find small steps to take, both as acts of self-care in challenging times and as part of more sustainable habits to bring to our work and lives.

Getting the basics in place can make a big difference especially when things are hard. Could your sleep be better? How’s your diet? Are you drinking enough water? What about getting outside in the light, or getting some exercise? 

Recently the Mental Health Foundation published a new set of evidence-based tips for looking after your mental health and whilst some may seem obvious, it’s amazing how often we forget them. 

It can be hard to find time, or money to do the things we’d like, so where employers can support and incentivise these activities with employee benefits, it can be a big help. We also need to understand that not everybody can adopt these strategies without help and support.

Of course, when we are in it, and up against it, stress, burnout and overwhelm are awful things to experience and it can be hard to imagine how we can change things for ourselves. When our mental health is challenged our minds often take us away from things that might help but seem counter intuitive – like exercise. We can also judge ourselves very harshly, so working on self-compassion skills in better times can really help. The Overwhelm First Aid Kit is a good resource to have on hand if you often find that you don’t know what the next step could be.

You may find that your employer offers an employee assistance programme which can be helpful in accessing counselling, or that you have access to benefits like this through a spouse’s employer, insurance or health plan. Samaritans is open 24/7, every day of the year, and you can call for free on 116 123.

What do leaders and organisations need to consider?

Managers, leaders, and boards need to be aware of their duties under the law, and the wider implications for performance, staff engagement, recruitment, and retention of talent in not acting. 

As a sector, we often build out around the mission without the policies, systems and structures that enable organisations to function effectively when they grow. Passion and commitment often drive us forward and can help us cope with challenges – but dedication can also lead to our people going beyond or being pushed beyond their boundaries and into stress or burnout. 

Burnout itself is often seen as a personal issue, but it has been categorised by the World Health Organisation as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Because so many of the factors that lead to workplace stress can’t be changed by individuals alone, or mitigated by simple solutions, burnout is very definitely an organisational challenge requiring organisational efforts to prevent

So where to start?

All strategy starts with a clear definition of where you want to get to – which for most charities will be sustainable delivery of the charitable objects and mission. 

Sustainability has often been about funding, and more recently also about environmental impact – but sustainability also includes supporting the major asset of most charities – the people who deliver the work.

Psychological safety is a term coined by Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School and it is key for fundraisers to succeed. Psychologically safe cultures create a space where people feel safe to speak up, take risks and learn from mistakes. 

If you think about it, that’s where the gold lies in terms of high performance – Edmondson calls this the learning zone – where we are pushed by high standards and accountability but balanced by the safety and security to speak up, be heard, and grow. 

Getting there is far from simple, but the reward can be huge.

A good place to start is with the fundamentals of good management. Line management relationships are crucial to workplace wellbeing, and it is crucial that people managers have the training and support they need to do that alongside the ‘delivery’ components that are asked of them.

As a supervisor, managing for good mental health might include ensuring that your team know what is expected of them, can see their efforts paying off, and sees you consistently applying the policies and processes in your organisation. It means receiving and acting on concerns and having difficult conversations directly but with kindness. It means building your self-awareness, setting boundaries, and committing to people management as a privilege and not a chore. 

As a senior manager, it could mean committing to assess and manage stress risk by using the HSE stress risk assessment framework, putting a wellbeing metric on your board dashboard, or ensuring that your policies and procedures are inclusive, applied, and create minimal drag or dependencies. It could mean introducing a coaching programme, or employee benefits.

Leadership is more about values – showing integrity, and inspiring trust. Leadership isn’t always about job titles that loads of amazing movements for change and improved wellbeing – like #showthesalary, #charitysowhite and #charitysostraight have come out of collaborations at all levels. 

As leaders, we need to understand our values, and how they blend with those of the organisation. If we commit to leading by example asking people to push themselves to new heights, then we must be prepared to grow and change and we must deliver what we say we will. We must also model the behaviour we want to see. We may even need to reimagine the way charities operate to truly meet the challenges people face – and therefore deliver sustainable impact to beneficiaries.

Wherever we are personally or organisationally, there’s a lot of good information, and good work happening in this field, and there are huge opportunities for peer networks and sharing of ideas.

Fundraising Everywhere also has an amazing new leadership programme for existing and aspiring leaders, which includes access to great content and free coaching taster sessions. Check it out.

Chris O’Sullivan is an experienced manager, fundraiser and leader with an interest in mental health and wellbeing in leadership. He previously led workplace mental health programmes for the Mental Health Foundation, developing and delivering evidence-based workplace mental health training and content across the UK.

Voice Your Thoughts 🗣️

Our platform is open to anyone and everyone in the sector that has an opinion, idea, or resource they would like to share. If you would like write and share something, email [email protected] and we will support you every step of the way to share your voice.

Written by Caroline Danks, Author at LarkOwl.


Early in May 2010, I remember staying up as late as I possibly could, watching the results of the general election. 

Being a morning Lark, I think I made it to about 10:10pm.  Nowadays my election watching tactics involve an early night and then setting the alarm for 5am…

Labour had been in power since 1997 and the prospect of them remaining in office was slim.  People blamed them for the global financial crisis and for the decisions they took thereafter to rescue our banks and to retain funding for public services.

The next morning, I remember Gordon Brown’s desperate efforts to negotiate with members of smaller parties, before giving up and making room for the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition.

Incidentally, the week prior to that night, I had become pregnant (although I didn’t know it yet).

I had a new life on the way, and a new government which would shape the world into which she would be born.

I couldn’t escape a sense of gloom about my new child’s life chances.

Austerity felt like a low point and showed up in many painful and irreversible ways across society.  I saw it in my own community too:


In 2016, Brexit happened.

A global pandemic followed (with different rules for MP’s and the general populous it turned out) and then war in Europe. Oh, and apparently there is ‘no credible path to preventing a global rise in temperature of 1.5 celsius.

We’re also on the cusp of an Autumn Statement which we’re told will include ‘tax rises for all and eye watering cuts’.  Austerity mark 2?

My daughter is 11 now and it’s hard not to feel despairing about the state of our country and the wider world. 

The slow descent of our political system into chaos and corruption and widening wealth inequalities have had a direct impact on the charitable sector – the place where those most in need come when there is no one else to turn to. 

I don’t need to tell you how things have been of late. 

Put simply, there is increasing need for the services which charities offer, combined with a reduction in the funding available to pay for them.

Charity: just a sticking plaster?

It is my personal belief that for the most part, the existence of charities represents a failure of the state (or course there are exceptions).  And although many charities treasure their independence (which I totally get), things like:

really should be part of a modern and civilised society, not optional extras.

When there is less to go around and more people to help, it’s difficult not to feel like the work we do as fundraisers is nothing more than a sticking plaster.

And not even a good waterproof sticking plaster with a fun cartoon character on it.

I’m talking one of those useless sticking plasters which peels off at the first sign of a single bead of sweat.

And what happens when the plaster falls off?  It just doesn’t bear thinking about…

I think I’m in a bit of a rut – obsessing over the news and feeling more and more like I’m in a minority of people in this country who think that Boris Johnson looks like ‘he’d be a laugh down the pub’ and that David Cameron was a great Prime Minister because ‘looked good in a suit’.

When there is less to go around and more people to help, it’s difficult not to feel like the work we do as fundraisers is nothing more than a sticking plaster.

Looking to the future

It is not my intention to write a piece which focuses entirely on negativity and I promise not to leave you this way.  I’m not convinced I have any answers, but I routinely advise fundraisers that they focus their energies firmly on the things they can’t control (rather than things which sit outside of it) so maybe it’s time I took my own advice.

It’s important to remember that as individuals, we can’t throw all the starfish back into the water.

But those we can throw, will appreciate it.  Not only will they appreciate it.  They will survive and (with any luck) thrive.

And all the while the system degrades, we will just keep on keeping on, forging partnerships with those who have both the means and the inclination to reject the individualistic / capitalist / growth for growth’s sake and to strive for something fairer.

In the podcast ‘The Rest is Politics’ Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart were asked (a much more eloquent and better-worded version of) the following question:

How do you not despair when everything’s really depressing?

I stopped and really listened carefully to the answer because it was the question I’d been asking myself:

The answer was simple:

‘You have to find hope.’

It’s really simple isn’t it. 

You have to find hope.

Alongside the daily joys of seeing small differences made as a direct result of the fundraising I’ve done, I feel determined to see hope and inspiration (and to shift myself away from the sad sticking plaster metaphor I’d got, well stuck on).

Join me and other, less ranty humans for Fundraising Everywhere’s Grants and Major Donors conference on Thursday 15th December.

My session is a journey from anger to hope. It's a (short) rant about the state of the world followed by some practical advice for continuing a successful fundraising practice, despite the challenges in the world around us.

It’s for tired fundraisers, who still have the spark of a flame inside them and want to do the best they can with what they have.

Key learnings

- Some practical tips for working with trusts and major donors in tough times

- An exercise in identifying what you can control (and what you can't)

- Ideas for wellbeing and not getting caught up in the storm

How do you not despair when everything’s really depressing?
You have to find hope.

Grants & Major Donors Conference 2022

When? Thursday 15 December, 12 - 3pm GMT

Where? Online, so your living room

What do I need? A journal and mince pies

Can I bring an Eggnog? Hell yeah.  Or Coquito if you prefer a Mexican variation.  Alcoholic and virgin options are both equally welcome.

You can buy your ticket here.*

* This post contains my affiliate link and when you purchase a ticket through my link I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Written by Leesa Harwood, owner of By The Waves Charity Consulting and charity adviser, leadership coach and mentor.

Back in January, I wrote an article about my experience of burnout and how I could see the same signs in those around me.

The energy spike that usually accompanies the beginning of a new year failed to materialise amongst many of my third sector colleagues and I worried about their wellbeing.  There was a huge reaction to the article leading to an online session to share experiences and advice.

Since I wrote my article in January, I continue to see symptoms of burnout and stress amongst sector leaders and their teams.

The more insecure we feel, the more we feed the other symptoms of stress, getting caught in a downward spiral

Five Signs of Stress

1. Loss of perspective

The small things get bigger as you lose the ability to step back and put problems into perspective. Soon, your head is filled with small but noisy problems punching above their weight.

2. Irritability

You find yourself snapping at those around you. A short temper and sharp tongue mean that friends, family and colleagues feel the impact of your lack of patience, perspective and rising stress levels.

3. Control

The more out of control you feel, the more controlling you become. As a leader you begin to interfere and disempower those around you, picking at the detail and wrenching projects away from others in a desperate attempt to regain control.

4. Ill health

Physical and mental health diminishes under acute stress. You don’t sleep, and feel tired all the time. You suffer from anxiety and depression. But as a leader you have been taught that resilience is non-negotiable. So, you keep going, deny your vulnerability and wait until you break before you finally stop.

5. Insecurity

As your performance as a leader starts to suffer, so does your confidence. This inevitably leads to self-doubt, a lack of confidence and an overwhelming sense of insecurity. The more insecure we feel, the more we feed the other symptoms of stress, getting caught in a downward spiral.

Leadership burnout is not inevitable.  There are things we can all do to protect ourselves and each other from stress.

Beat burnout

At Fundraising Everywhere's Leadership Festival 2022 in the Culture Tent, Madison Gonzales (CEO of Morning Light Inc) brought burnout back into the spotlight.  I for one am very grateful. 

Leadership burnout is not inevitable.  There are things we can all do to protect ourselves and each other from stress.  If you or someone you know is experiencing from one or more of these signs of stress, catch up on Madison Gonzales' session as she guides us through ways to prevent burnout.

Madison shares how to make our workplaces happy and healthy places to be, with practical tips and reminders we can all take back into our work environments so we can foster a positive environment for all.

Building a culture where leaders and their teams feel confident, healthy and supported has never been more important.  Catch up on Madison's and the other great Leadership Festival sessions On Demand.

A huge thanks to Leesa Harwood, who was Growth Tent Partner at the Charity Leadership Festival 2022. We collaborate with people who care about the future of our sector on our events. Each Tent Partner brings their insights and audience, meaning we can empower and upskill more people. Tent Partners may earn commission from tickets purchased through their links.