What is Compassion Fatigue and How Can Storytelling Prevent It?

Mckenna Bailey

Raise your hand if you’ve ever turned off the news because it was just too much to handle. 

Yeah, me, too. 

That’s a sign of compassion fatigue. 

Caring deeply about people can start to affect all of us over time. Our hearts and brains can only process so much information about the causes we care about. If we don’t take steps to protect and replenish our compassion, we start to shut down.

That’s why going on a news diet, or a social media break, or turning off the radio can be good for your compassion, ultimately. As a nonprofit, the risk of being ignored by your donors because of compassion fatigue is too high. In order to grow, you need them to be more engaged, not less. 

Help your donors overcome compassion fatigue, and stay engaged with your mission, with storytelling before they go on a “nonprofit break.”

What Is Compassion Fatigue? 

Before we can combat compassion fatigue, we need to understand what it is and what causes it.

Empathy is a beautiful thing, but when you combine great caring with a sense of powerlessness to do anything meaningful about the problem, that’s where you run into trouble. “Compassion fatigue” happens when your donors hear heartbreaking stories without enough news about progress. They start tuning you out in the name of self-preservation. Eventually, even the most caring people can get worn out by caring so much. Also called “empathy fatigue,” or just plain “donor fatigue,” it’s a real danger for your nonprofit. 

“Compassion fatigue” was originally a term used to describe a secondary trauma disorder suffered by caregivers and service providers. Basically, it’s what happens when you spend all your emotional resources helping people in distress. Eventually, the day-in, day-out second-hand experience of all that trauma gets to you. In the nonprofit sector we see it in our professional lives (look at all that burnout), especially among program staff. 

When we talk about donor compassion fatigue, we’re not necessarily talking about trauma. Donors may be constantly slammed with sad stories, and that does have an emotional impact, but it’s not a direct correlation what happens to the people on the ground emotionally. However, some of the symptoms of compassion-fatigued caregivers and donors do overlap: detachment, apathy, sadness, difficulty concentrating, and lack of a vision for the future. 

What Causes Donor Compassion Fatigue?

Since donors aren’t developing secondary trauma from caregiving, what causes their compassion fatigue? There are (at least) three components:

1. Bleak Messaging

Many nonprofits are confronting truly horrifying things. Organizations dealing with violence, diseases, disasters, climate change, or poverty may struggle to find something uplifting to say. But relying solely on upsetting stories is a mistake. If donors know that every time they open your emails, they’re going to be faced with despair, they will stop opening them. 

Nonprofits have the opportunity to provide a different narrative that is more sustainable and engaging: one about changing the world. After all, nonprofits exist to solve problems. Tell stories of how you’re trying to address issues, the ways you’re attempting to fix things, and the change you’re making. This gives your supporters many reasons to give, not just their own guilt or sadness. 

These days, we’re all subject to a constant barrage of terrible news. War, violence, climate change, disease, disasters, the list goes on. We hear about horrifying things daily, and it takes a toll. 

2. No Follow Up

If the only messages your donors ever get from you is, “There is a giant problem and tremendous need!” over and over again, you can’t blame them if they conclude they’re not making a difference. Impact updates aren’t just polite, they protect your donors from compassion fatigue. 

You don’t have to eliminate poverty or stop global warming to have good news to share. Even small stories of tiny victories go a long way to keeping donors engaged and excited about your cause and organizaiton. 

3. Non-Responsive Communications

Your donors are not a uniform block. Even if most people are okay with harsh realities, some may be particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue and taking steps to protect themselves.

Take a look at your donor data. Did engagement drop off after a particularly intense message? Who stopped opening emails or responding to calls to action? Consider taking these donors out of your general communication stream, and only sharing good news with them for a while. See if they re-engage. 

Is Compassion Fatigue A Problem For Your Donors? 

If your fundraising campaigns aren’t getting the results they used to, compassion fatigue may be the culprit. See if it’s a problem for your donors by considering:

Are They Listening? Low Engagement in Marketing

If your emails are sitting unopened, and your social media posts don’t provoke any response, the first thing you should do is make sure they’re interesting, targeted, and relevant. But if your content is solid, and your engagement rates are still declining, it may be a case of compassion fatigue. Watch out for:

  • Unsubscribes
  • Unfollows
  • Unopens from people who used to open them. 
  • Sentiment in the comments. Do people ask for some good news? Are you only collecting sad faces?

Are They Giving? Reduced RFM Metrics

Your fundraising metrics are another clue about your donor’s level of fatigue. Head to your CRM and dig into your data. 

Look for giving trends, especially around:

  • Recency: Has it been a while since donors gave? When did they stop? Does that date correspond to a disaster or tragedy?
  • Frequency: How often do donors give? How does it compare to previous years?
  • Monetary: How much are donors giving? Is it less than they used to?

These RFM metrics can give you a quick overview of overall giving. If you run the numbers on specific donor segments (age brackets, history with your organization), you can get an even clearer picture of what’s going on. 

Are They Attending? Lower Participation

How is event attendance? When you throw a party, and no one shows up, that gives you some important information. It may be that you scheduled your event on the night of the Super Bowl, or that none of your donors like ax-throwing, but it could also be a symptom of greater disengagement. 

Compare your numbers to previous years and the communications you’ve sent. Are there trends between engagement and the messages you’re delivering? Check across all platforms and donor segments to really understand big trends in your data. 

How Storytelling Can Reduce Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

Just as negative storytelling can fuel compassion fatigue, positive storytelling can fight it. While nonprofits shouldn’t hide the realities of the causes they’re championing, you can make sure you’re adding inspiring, impactful and joyful stories as well. When you tell stories like these, donors don’t get sick of them. 

Inspire Connection Instead Of Isolation

Use your storytelling to show donors that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It’s inspiring to know how many people care about a cause. Tell stories about how donors make a difference, why your donors give, and ways to get involved. Use inclusive words like “community,” “together,” and “with your help” so donors know they’re part of the team.  

This is particularly useful if your organization hosts events frequently. A request for your donors to attend your event, connect with people and potentially find new ways to do more good is much more motivating than an event centered around bad news. 

Tell A New Story Instead Of The Same Old Thing

Is there just one story you tell about your organization? Then it’s time to mix things up. Tell stories of how your organization makes a difference for different people, or shed new light on a fresh aspect of your cause. Highlight the work of your volunteers and employees, including why they are working for the cause and the ways it has changed their life individually. There are incredible and inspiring stories in your organization, you just have to look for them. 

For example, if you’ve always focused on what you do for children, tell a story about how that made a difference for their parents. If you’ve only ever talked about how clean water access reduces disease, start talking about how wells give women and children more time to pursue other things like work and education. Provide pictures and first-hand accounts of big days in the lives of these women and children. Connecting your donor base with the people that they’ve impacted is more powerful than more bad news about the current state. 

Telling new stories helps donors stay engaged and excited about your cause. 

Promote Joy Instead Of Despair

Nonprofits are dealing with difficult things, no doubt about it. That makes it even more necessary to find joyful ways to talk about your mission. Doom and gloom may get you a one-time guilt donation, but joy is a better long-term option. 

How do you make a sad thing joyful? By focusing on the work you’re doing to address it. Look at the difference in these two examples.

 

  • Without books at home to read, Joey doesn’t get enough practice to score well on literacy tests. He reads at school, but that’s just not enough time. “Everyone else is ahead of me,” the eight-year-old says. “It makes me feel stupid.” A gift of $15 will supply Joey and kids like him with three books of their own through our Lit Kid program.

 

  • Before Joey became a Lit Kid, he could only read at school. That’s where the books were. “Now I read a book every night,” says Joey. That’s because Lit Kids get three new books a month, thanks to our generous donors. With books of his own, Joey gets way more reading practice than he could at school alone. His literacy scores are improving, and he’s finding out just how fun reading can be. His favorite books this month? “A-Z Mysteries, the best.” 

 

 

Example A isn’t the worst possibility. People will feel sad for Joey, and could be moved to give. However, this example is all about what’s sad: Joey doesn’t have books, his test scores are low, he feels bad. Example B is about what the organization is doing to improve things, it’s about what’s being accomplished. Donors could read a lot of stories like that without feeling terrible. 

Show Impact Instead Of Powerlessness

Part of the reason donors get compassion fatigue is that the problems nonprofits face are so big. When confronted with the sheer scale of poverty, or cancer, or other issues, it feels impossible to make a difference. Small-scale actions like giving $25 just don’t feel adequate, so donors may decide not to even bother. 

Nonprofits can help donors with this overwhelm by demonstrating how much of a difference small-scale actions can have on a bigger cause. Tell stories that center how one person’s life can be better because of a donor’s gift, and show how that fits into the larger picture. 

Whenever possible, connect the money your donors give to their impact. Demonstrate how even a small amount helps. 

Start Telling Your Stories

The way you tell stories about your nonprofit can make a big difference for your donors’ compassion fatigue. Hopeful, joyful, and inspiring communication protects against your appeals ending up in the trash and your emails remaining unopened. More than that, it protects your donors’ hearts. 

To get started telling your nonprofit story in the most effective ways, listen to our interview with Beth Guckenberger, Fundraising and the Art of Nonprofit Storytelling.

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