November 5, 2009

Burned-Out and Bummed-Out: Grant Writing and Compassion Fatigue

In this article, I explore ways for grant writers to avoid compassion fatigue, for themselves and for their readers, by shining a positive light on proposals.

Non-profit organizations, grant writers, and philanthropic organizations are all working toward the same goal: to help those in need. But that commitment to helping can take a toll on our well-being. My own recent bout with compassion fatigue got me thinking about the nature of my work, my relationship to it, and how my attitude might affect the reaction of the review panel.

Compassion fatigue is defined as deep physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. Although it often affects those working in care-giving professions, such as health care workers and law enforcement agents, compassion fatigue can also affect people in any situation where they routinely expend emotional and physical energy trying to help others.

Does that sound like anyone you know?

I got into this field to make a difference: to take advantage of my research and writing skills to connect people who want to help make the world a better place.

Sometimes my job as a resource development officer makes me feel great: I learn about our clients’ innovative programs that seem destined to succeed. I work with people who are genuinely passionate about making a difference. I spend my time doing work that I know is truly helpful. I feel privileged to build relationships with clients who are making a real impact in the world, often in areas where help is desperately needed. And, of course, when the funding comes in, it feels so good I can’t think of a way I’d prefer to spend my working life.

That is the truth. But it’s not the whole truth.

The truth is, sometimes, my job makes me feel awful: I spend a lot of time researching heartrending statistics about poverty, hunger, sexual abuse, and failing schools. I learn about things I’d prefer not to think about. I really believe the compelling arguments I craft about how each funding request is a make-it-or-break-it proposition, which makes me genuinely scared that people are going to suffer if this proposal doesn’t get funded. Sometimes my heart stretches to the breaking point, filled with compassion mixed with overwhelm at the magnitude of the problems that need fixing. Aside from the constant deadlines, the ‘doom and gloom’ can be one of the hardest parts of the job. And, of course, if the funding doesn’t come in, I feel crushed.

As a grant writer, my job is to build a connection between each client and each funder. My goal is to establish a connection so straight, clear, and strong that it makes funding the project seem inevitable. Of course, funding decisions are complicated, and often we never learn the reasoning behind a rejection. But my goal remains the same: to make the match between the client and funder feel perfect.

Often crafting a compelling statement of need is an essential element of a proposal. And, often the need can seem genuinely overwhelming. But, psychologically, it is not to my advantage to overwhelm my reader, since ‘emotional overwhelm’ is not a state that inspires action. I am in a powerful position to shape my audience’s experience as they read my words. It’s up to me to set the tone of the proposal, and to try to guide the reader’s reaction. If my choice of words can change the scenario from hopeless to hopeful, that might influence the funder’s willingness to get involved in the project. Psychologically, I want it to feel easy for the funder to help.

The question becomes, how can I tell the story accurately without generating compassion fatigue among the review panel? How can I avoid emotionally overloading or distancing my audience? How much harsh reality is too much?

Take the following example. Both statements are true, but which one makes you feel more like getting involved?

This neighborhood suffers crushing poverty, a growing gang presence, the highest violent crime rates in the city, and unprecedented unemployment. And without your help, it will stay that way…


When we envision this neighborhood, we see a community whose cultural vitality is matched and supported by economic vitality. We envision successful, local small businesses employing neighborhood residents, and streets bustling with healthy economic activity. We see productive citizens, high school students prepared to enter college and the workforce, and families that are financially independent and secure. And with your help, we can make that vision a reality…

Whether we are talking about grant writing, approaching individual donors, guiding media coverage, or recruiting volunteers, look to craft words in ways that inspire hope, show the positive benefit of your work, light a passion for your vision, and generally inspire. Here are a few tips for incorporating this approach:

  • Use client or constituent stories. A specific story of help and hope can accomplish more than pages of explaining the benefits of your work. Look for stories that typify the problems/needs you’ve outlined and tie into the approach and benefits that you are proposing.
  • Do a search for “doom-and-gloom.” Read through your proposal, noting negative language. See if there is a way to reframe the core truth of the statement with positive language. Without avoiding harsh facts, is there a way to state the truth without the doom?
  • End on a positive note. Conclusions are great places to accentuate hope. Make sure your conclusion paints a picture of a future with needs met and problems solved. Give the funder a clear path to help solve this problem.
  • Take a break. When the statistics get to be overwhelming, take a break. Go outside. Play with your dog. Hug your kids. Take a walk. Remind yourself it’s a beautiful world.

The point of the positive angle is not to sugarcoat reality, but rather to build a bridge between the funding possibilities and the solution. This doesn’t mean glossing over need – the foundation of case building is demonstrating and describing the current situation. But, try to equate the funding with hope, not the lack-of-funding with lack of hope. It might seem like a subtle difference, but I want the proposals I work on to have all the advantages, no matter how subtle.

Shining a light on the positive helps us take care of ourselves and our organizations so that we can keep doing the important work we love to do for years to come. So, go do good and be well.

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