Feeling Drained? 13 Tips to Revive You and Your Donors

Three kids. Three dogs. One frozen turkey to show who’s boss before Thursday.

My wife and I have been juggling work and life at home during a pandemic for the past eight months. A perfect storm of family, house and school calling on us daily, with the emotional epicenter stalling out over our house some days.

Can you relate?

Of course you can.

That’s because you, like many of your peers in planned giving, have been operating at surge capacity—a concept I discussed as a co-panelist at the closing keynote of the Charitable Gift Planners (CGP) Conference.

When enough is enough.

Surge capacity refers to our innate ability to “gear up” and mentally and physically adapt to acutely stressful situations. When we surge, our bodies go into a state of survival mode. That’s why we can suddenly lift a car to save a man trapped underneath or run a virtual meeting with kids, pets and a ringing phone in the background.

After too long, however, we hit our limits—our surge capacity. Like an electrical overload, when too much power is drawn for too long from one single circuit, the wiring overheats and melts down.

Our bodies’ surge capacities tell us when we need to power down. Quickly. Because we’ve relied for too long on our heightened state to get us through tough times.

But you’ve kept going, haven’t you?

No surprise, you, your team and your donors have had to adjust in massive ways—and for an extended, indefinite period of time—in how you live, work and engage in this new space of separation.

You’ve made it look seamless, easy even. Not missing a beat over these past eight months in connecting with donors, communicating how your organization is adapting its missional programming to meet a heightened need and relating to donors in a more personal way to say “we’re all in this together.”

As we move into another round of rising positive COVID rates, mixed in with the holidays, how can we monitor our own surge rates and unplug when we need to, yet still be mindful of evolving organizational and donor needs?


1. Acknowledge that what we do is tough work.

Did you know that 90% of nonprofit employees report burnout as contributing to a job transition? Talking to people about their dreams and plans for their assets after they pass away is tricky, even in the best of times. Today, even stickier as COVID cases climb. On top of that, we’re hardwired to be personally invested in our work. We truly care about our donors. We know about their kids, hobbies, even childhoods. Seeing them worried right now can get to us.

MAKE IT BETTER: Set yourself in that space of acknowledgment. “You have to accept that in your bones and be okay with this as a tough day,” says Michael Maddaus, M.D., at the University of Minnesota.

2. Also tell yourself, “It is what it is.”

These five words get me through the toughest situations and surliest of feelings. We all have them.

REMEMBER: Adopting this mantra isn’t about giving in or giving up. Releasing the need for control when it is beyond your power stops harmful negative self-talk. It’s about release and respect, acknowledging that there will be stressful situations in our lives but keeping them in healthy perspective.

3. Focus on what is right and certain in your life: your important relationships.

“The biggest protective factors for facing adversity and building resilience are social support and remaining connected to people,” says Ann Masten, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota. “That includes helping others, even when we’re feeling depleted ourselves.”

DONORS COUNT TOO: Arrange 15-minute coffee breaks, either virtually or by phone, with as many donors as you can. Do one or two a day, whatever fits into your schedule most easily. This will take some planning, but avoid making the process too formal by keeping follow-ups conversational. Try something along the lines of: “Hi Dave and Jan! Looking forward to coffee on Tuesday at 10. Bring a mug and some snacks. Here’s your invitation link and easy directions to join our chat.”

4. Take timeouts.

Take a walk outside. Have a five-minute dance party. Meditate. Research shows that it’s all time well spent and improves clarity, productivity and creativity.

5. Do the 1 big thing every day.

Feel empowered and in control by doing at least one thing that’s been nagging at you to complete, like editing newsletter copy or cleaning donor files. Focus only on that one thing and do it in the morning to set the rest of the day’s productivity.

6. Choose gratitude.

I used that word intentionally because every day you must choose to find gratitude, even in the smallest places.

  • Say thank you to someone at least once a day.
  • Smile and laugh. Find a silly joke online. Better yet, share it with a donor who would appreciate the humor.
  • Notice the little moments that create joy. Say what you’re thankful for aloud.

7. Stock up on your resilience.

You really can! Otherwise called a resilience bank account, this idea involves drawing from many sources and practices, as often as possible, so that when you’re getting low, there’s plenty left to cover what’s lost. Setting boundaries, getting enough sleep, eating healthy—these are all part of your bank account.


One root of our insecurities right now is uncertainty—what in the world is going to happen tomorrow?

Most of us are wired to want control and to know that we’re not alone. It’s the feeling of connection that people (e.g., donors) long for, not the formality, Michael Rosen tells us.

With that in mind, try these tactics:

1. Set up virtual town halls featuring essential administrators. Keep loyal, longtime donors in the know about how your organization is making an impact right now.

2. Be a trusted advisor and offer assistance. Provide resources that can help donors, when they’re ready, with any planning questions.

3. Focus on the “why.” Planned giving can tend to emphasize the how (i.e., gift vehicles). Now, it’s more critical than ever to focus on why your donors care about your mission, not how they can support.

4. Send a personal postcard or “hello!” video. It’s a quick, joyful way to touch base with volunteers. Here’s one we made recently for our clients to show them what we’re most thankful for this Thanksgiving.

5. If your children are young, put them to work drawing pictures or creating paper-doll chains, linking paper hands and showing we’re all still in this together. Donors might also enjoy a picture of your child at his or her home desk—or mom or dad working at theirs!

6. As a nonprofit “family,” create simple handmade holiday greeting cards to send to donors. They could be created by program or service recipients too.

BONUS: Don’t forget to be social, as in social media. Many of us use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., as a means for connection, especially now. Use these free Thanksgiving social images to wish your supporters a happy holiday.


Have you hit your surge capacity at any time over these last eight months? How’d you work through it and what did you do to help remedy that feeling? How about donors’ reactions and feelings to these past eight months?

P.S. A Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. Take a break if you can over these next few days, and please know that you matter to all of us at Stelter.

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