Getting Off the Hamster Wheel of How

Sara Wise

In theory, if we are successful in the nonprofit world, we should eventually work ourselves out of a job. Vision statements – like M.D. Anderson’s “Making Cancer History” tag line – imply that we are all working toward a goal of eliminating the problem or challenge our nonprofits are tackling. If we are ultimately successful as a society, one day there will no longer be hungry mouths to feed, diseases to cure, abused children to care for, and schools to improve.

As wonderful as that world would be, we all know it is not even close to reality.

Our business is the business of tackling problems, issues, and challenges. The nonprofit industry by definition works to make our communities better places in which to live, learn, and work, often filling the gaps that our government and private entities cannot.

We are in a noble profession. And as fundraisers, we are agents of change, matchmakers, and fairy godmothers/godfathers. What job could be better?

I am often curious why we don’t hear more amongst our colleagues in the nonprofit industry about the noble, thrilling nature of our work, but I think it may drill down to the core nature of those of us who find our calling here. Simply put, we are too busy getting the job done to stop and think about the nobility of our work. And more importantly, I believe this work calls a type of person who truly feels this is the only kind of work worth doing – noble or not. Making a difference, somehow or some way, is what we live for, and what keeps us going through the many days of hard work, insufficient pay, and never enough resources.

And while we are on the topic of being too busy to stop and think about our work, let’s also discuss the phenomenon I like to call the Hamster Wheel of How. Whether you are in a shop of one or a large office of 50, it can happen to anyone, anytime.

If we are reasonably able employees, we all know and understand our ultimate mission and how that drills down to our annual goals, and in turn, we know what we need to do daily to meet those goals. While the nonprofit fundraising world is a complex mix of art and science, true relationship management cannot always be accurately quantified by the number of calls made, meetings scheduled, or other metrics. But it is absolutely essential to the bottom line of raising critical revenue for our organizations.

No money, no mission.

That should be motivation enough to make it happen, and make it happen we often do. But I also see many development professionals languishing and suffering on the Hamster Wheel of How.

What is the Hamster Wheel of How, you ask?

It is the whirling dervish trap of spinning your proverbial wheels on the “how” to accomplish our goals. It is, shall we say, a sophisticated type of procrastination. Instead of picking up the phone to call that hard-to-reach donor or writing a handwritten thank you note to thank a sponsor, we spend our precious time running in circles and ultimately getting no closer to the goals of our nonprofit. We run reports on our annual campaign progress, have meetings discussing how we really need to raise more money, write sticky notes of reminders about donors to call so we can raise that money, enter reminders in a database to remind you of important donor calls, brainstorm ideas for events rather than preparing for the one already scheduled, and rewrite that to do list for the umpteenth time.

Of course, YOU don’t do that. And I have never done that.


It happens to the best of us. Procrastination, even in the Hamster Wheel of How, is like your favorite sofa. It is SO comfortable, and once we sit in it, we do not want to get up. We LOVE the Hamster Wheel of How, because then we can walk into our colleague’s office at the end of the day or call our best friend and lament about how relentlessly BUSY we are, and how there is never enough TIME to raise the money.

Think about how much time it takes to pick up the phone and make a call. Or write a couple quick handwritten lines. Why don’t we do more of it? If we did, I think our fundraising lives would be a whole lot easier.

We love to make it harder on ourselves. We love to overcomplicate the tasks on our list.

Why? Maybe because we secretly convince ourselves that the donor calls, meetings, and important notes are a bit scary and intimidating, and it is hard to quantify moves management. What if they actually answer the phone? What if they actually say yes? What if they say no? What if we say or do the wrong thing and mess up the relationship?

I think even experienced fundraisers get a little weary or tired or just plain anxious about the donors with whom we are privileged to work. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, it can be tough getting that meeting and training your CEO to make an ask. Yes, we are human and not always perfect. And yes, our donors are human, too, and GASP – don’t always react the way we want them to when we see them.

But, isn’t it wonderful when you get to do the real work? Don’t you love the connection you feel when you finally get to visit with a donor or thank a donor in person? It’s FUN!

The Hamster Wheel of How dilutes the enjoyment of what we do. It keeps us too busy to stop and consider the impact our profession has on our communities. How do you get off the wheel?

You can do it. That Hamster Wheel of How can spin empty for a while – maybe we can even kick it to the curb one day.

But let’s start with that one phone call first. Baby steps.

Advance your mission. Today.