I recently met with a colleague. We went into the conference room and looked at each other. The standard “How are you”. We both paused and made faces at each other. We know each other well enough not to use the platitude “Good and you?” “I’m fine, I’m fine”. Instead, she sighed and said, “It’s the compassionate weariness.” I nodded my head knowingly and then we went on and got to work bringing up our meeting topic.
Compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others. It is often confused with burnout. There is one difference, however – burnout is the effect of a stressful workplace. Compassion Fatigue is the effect of helping others – helping those who have significant barriers and feeling a bit like saving the Titanic with just a small bowl. It makes sense to me. The United Way of Freeborn County is a happy office with a birthday cake and people making beautiful handmade quilts. Puppies come to visit and we have music and food and exercise balls. We take breaks and run.
Burnout is about being exhausted – and that can be related to compassion fatigue. When compassion fatigue remains uncontrolled, burnout sets in. It is important that we empower those who work to help others to ensure that compassion fatigue does not lead to burnout.
The other day I heard about a non-local organization that was raising the cost of living. The person who shared the information was upset and said, “Don’t you know it’s a charity? I’m not donating for someone’s salary ”.
Every time I hear this, it breaks my heart. If we had a world where nonprofits could be run entirely on a volunteer basis and not accept a salary, that would be fantastic. But we don’t. We have people out there who are well trained, highly efficient, and highly motivated to help others. Don’t they also deserve a living wage?
All over the media, we hear of restaurants closing due to staff shortages, stores that are out of products due to the supply chain. Every sector is affected, and nonprofits are not alone.
Why is the non-profit paying at a competitive rate? I agree no one should get rich on a nonprofit salary. But shouldn’t we pay the competition for the same amount of work and experience? At least we should see wage increases to get there slowly.
I know a managing director who pours a large part of his salary straight back into his organization. He is not alone. We’re like teachers who shop at Target and pay for supplies out of pocket. When a person can do that, that’s fantastic. How many people are we losing – or how many people cannot we hire because they cannot afford to work for us?
Compassion fatigue is tricky because it is inherent in human service. On an operational level, however, one way to combat compassion fatigue is to make sure you’re paying a viable wage (or at least have a plan to get there). Provide benefits such as paid time off, a family-friendly policy, or other benefits that promote work-life balance.
If you are on a board of directors, I hope you consider the impact of compassionate fatigue on your organization. Take a look at the CEO’s compensation. Is it competitive for what they are doing for the organization? Do they have a salary budget to adequately staff their organization? Perhaps they will tell you that it is not necessary – but it is. If you choose to invest your salary back into the organization, that is your decision and it will be documented.
Too often board members look at past compensation to determine it for the future. Stop it now! Look at the skills. Look at the cost of living, the cost of inflation. No space in the budget? Why not? Is your organization working on a tight resource model? Is there a way to scale back? Is there a way to increase board participation to reduce the stress of working hours and employee responsibilities?
Charitable works live our missions. We dream about work and spend time on our vacations thinking about work and thinking of things we would do if we only had the time and resources. We enjoy these dreams, but it can be frustrating when we can’t even achieve one of these dreams.
If we continue the model of taking away those who work for us to give to those in need, then we will eventually turn that compassion fatigue into burnout. Then we are faced with staffing problems beyond what we already have.
It won’t happen right away. Develop a strategic plan. In the meantime, highlight your favorite organization by volunteering or just publicly recognizing them for their work. Last Christmas one of our organizations received pans of take-and-bake enchiladas from Casa Zamora. One of the staff later told me how much it meant to be able to take dinner home and not have to think about it. It saved her, the thought and time that it bought her to spend with her family. What can you do? Bring a home cooked meal to an organization. Don’t get me wrong, our first responders deserve every little bit of the meals they get, but think about the others too.
This fall and holiday season, nonprofits are going to be asking for a lot. We ask for donations so that we can continue our work. This is important to us – to keep our work going. Help us with this, but also take a moment to pick up the workers. Show us that you are connected with them by recognizing your hard work each and every day. Do you need an idea? Call my office at 507-373-8670 and I’d love to share some ideas for our nonprofits with you.
Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.