The cost of caring: stresses of working in the charitable sector

publication date: Aug 3, 2011
author/source: Leah Gardiner
Fundraisers often tell and re-tell the heart-wrenching stories of our clients to gain public support and raise awareness. Hearing and repeating client stories can deepen our connection to our organization's cause. As fundraisers, we believe our programs are the best and want to scream to the world, "Support us! Choose us! Change the lives of people with us!"        

We want our donors to feel for our clients, to hear their voices, to know where they are coming from and to help us get them to where they need to be. 

But how do all these stories affect fundraisers personally? Having passion for a cause is a good thing - but it can also contribute to negative effects. Is there a cost to caring?

Vicarious trauma - when the stories pile up 

For fundraisers, those stories solidify the reality of negative experiences and the need for funding. Wanting to change the lives of clients in need can lead to setting unrealistically high expectations of ourselves, our colleagues and the results we want to see in our work.

Research for other professions (humanitarian aid and social work, for instance) has documented accounts of the transfer of negative feelings from the person who experiences trauma to the person who hears of it. This transfer of emotion is called vicarious trauma. The condition has been labelled a potential occupational hazard for people working in helping professions.

"Vicarious trauma is the negative effect of caring about and caring for other people," according to L.A. Pearlman and K.W. Saakvitne, authors of Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. It is a process of change that happens because you care for people who have been hurt or suffered in some way and you feel committed to helping them.

This caring feeling does not result from one person's loss, crisis, story or situation. It's what can happen to you over time as you witness cruelty and loss, or hear distressing stories and statistics day after day and year after year.

Fundraisers' perceived failure brings harsh consequences

Some fundraisers are painfully aware that if they do not meet their targets, clients are forced to return back to the streets, back to their abusers, or back to a situation they were depending on their charity to save them from. In health care, fundraisers know the life of a child, a parent, or a grandparent may depend on how well they communicate. These fundraisers are exposed to trauma through a secondary means.

Little known about effects on fundraisers

Scientific research is currently not available for this condition within the fundraising profession. The preliminary research I conducted during my graduate studies in the Humber College Fundraising and Volunteer Management Program indicates that 100% of respondents sampled are able to relate to and empathize with the emotional status of their clientele. Considering that the ability to empathize acts to transmit vicarious trauma, that is an important finding. 

In addition, nearly 75% of respondents take on more work than they can handle and often work longer hours to produce better quality work. That indicates sector workers are emotionally involved because they genuinely care about the cause that their efforts represent. Such emotional involvement could be the cost of caring.

Further research correlating this fact with risk factors associated with the condition and specific factors related to the charitable sector needs to be completed.

Countering risk of vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma does not negatively affect everyone who works in a helping position. It depends on many factors. While more research needs to be done, it is not too early to start taking preventive action.

Beginning to cope with feelings of vicarious trauma is the first step. It is important to take time out of your schedule for yourself. Incorporate time to relax, rest and play into your daily routine.

Remember that your work has great meaning to those who benefit from your services. Defining that meaning for yourself can help you cope with the stress of negative emotions.

By not allowing ourselves the emotional time and freedom to acknowledge and deal with the trauma our clients are experiencing, we are not only hurting ourselves but also the overall effectiveness of the success of our charities.

Our clients' stories change us forever, and to honour that, it is important we practice self-care. Take care of yourself and those around you.

Leah Gardiner is a recent graduate of the Humber College fundraising and Volunteer Management Program. Email her 

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