Fundraisers in the nonprofit sector work in a complicated field. If I earned a dollar every time I heard about the need to bring new voices or new ideas to the table, I could buy a lot of tables. And not just those IKEA ones—I’m talking fancy tables with smart screens built into them. Of course, those who say this are right on the money (excuse the pun). But are we actually on the right track or merely tracking the right conversation?
We in fundraising talk a lot about systems change. If it were built, rebuilt, or even dismantled, then the system would allow everyone to thrive. To be sure, systems are key. But the “system” still needs people to review, challenge, ideate, and, of course, implement it. We have the energy for change, but do we have the right people in place to make the change? And if we have the right people, do they have the resources to make it happen?
Here’s what it could look like to think about the role of fundraisers (and the foundations of the job) in a new light.
The nonprofit sector feels the pain of change more acutely than most. While it has the heads and hearts for change, it doesn’t necessarily have the deep pockets and all that comes with the luxury of large revenues. Even if it did, it comes with a cost.
For example, when you sell lots of commercial products, you can benefit from creating more at a cheaper cost per unit. This will drive higher profit margins. When your programs grow at a nonprofit though, you must raise more money to build them out and hire more staff to keep up with demand.
Sometimes it’s just too much. Nonprofits fail for one, two, or all three of the same reasons for-profit businesses fail:
So how do we as a sector keep up with other industries whose business models are ultimately more flexible and incentivized? An embrace of the fundraising talent and tech available to us would be a terrific start.
The sector is evolving at a breakneck pace. This is especially true for the way donors engage, the way donors think, and the way donors give. Understanding fundraising fundamentals and embracing fundraising as a core cultural value will ensure continued high-impact giving and strengthen donor-organizational relationships. It also leverages a trove of data that can help make for more effective service delivery and those valuable success stories that showcase our work.
Nonprofits work with spoken and unspoken motivations that are often more emotionally charged than those in the for-profit world. It is the job of our fundraisers to identify those motivations. Then, it’s a matter of connecting the motivations with their organization’s cause, communicating the social return on investment, and developing lasting partnerships to sustain their organization.
And if we are to have an authentic fundraising culture that reshapes our nonprofit structures and adapts to the changes we are seeing, it’s wise to focus on the professionalism in fundraising in general.
According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey, 51% of fundraisers planned to leave their jobs this year. More alarmingly, three in ten respondents said they recently left or plan to leave the development field altogether in the next two years. The survey highlighted that the main issues included too much pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals, too little pay, and frustrating organizational cultures.
Fundraising goals can be challenging due to the uncertainty of revenues beyond endowments and multi-year grants. Due to outside forces and unforeseen events (global pandemic, anyone?), fundraising revenues can fluctuate much like the stock market. There will be up years and down years, but there should still be an ability to project out historical gains over time. To avoid any pitfalls, an organization should have multi-year goals which would bring more predictability, stability, and intentionality around fundraising. This would negate the temptation to overreach the year following a strong showing, allowing consolidation of the gains made and putting all excess funds into reserves (that good old rainy-day fund).
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the professionalism of the fundraising sector, however, is the stigma associated with it.
The most self-degrading thing a fundraiser can say is that they “stumbled into” the world of fundraising. It’s really sad to hear. Building up resources to enable organizations to do mission-based work and improve the lives of others is something that should be admired, not disparaged.
Apart from the role of CEO, there is perhaps no lonelier position than those operating in development. They deal with low budgets, sky-high expectations, and a unique pressure from leadership to identify the donors and funds that will not only help keep the lights on but expand services, fund a new building, and establish a seven-figure endowment from scratch. It’s often a thankless task.
No wonder the typical tenure for a Development Director is 16 months. Sixteen months. Think about that and whether that’s enough time to develop a mature portfolio and build up the networks, infrastructure, and messaging to be successful. The 16 months following is where you’ll see real dividends in this line of work.
While I’m not advocating for a complete pardon of responsibilities in year one, I am advocating for time, patience from management, and the baseline for frontline fundraising staff in this first year to simply be to make budget. If this target is surpassed, then the expectations are not to be raised exponentially—they should grow organically. This is about building a healthy foundation and long-lasting partnership with your lead development staff. Try to realize that an investment in them is something that can take your fundraising to the next level.
That investment should be frontloaded, too. There is currently no specific degree in fundraising. Instead, the principles and best practices are covered within degree programs focused on nonprofit management and philanthropy. Going to college because you want to be a fundraiser would definitely end the “I fell into this” saying.
Becoming great at anything is not a matter of blind luck. Formal education is essential in fundraising, as bad habits can manifest early in an individual’s career without the right training. There are an abundance of donors out there, and with the proper education, even the newest of development staff can make impactful asks for the benefit of their cause.
All of this is why we must continue to uplift the work of groups that are looking to professionalize the sector and provide timely and relevant training that can elevate fundraisers. Nonprofit Hub, Candid, and AFP, for example, understand this and should be commended for their efforts.
Of particular note is the Fundraising Academy at National University. This program takes a serious look at how to increase the effectiveness of the nonprofit sector by simply teaching the skills needed for fundraising. More funding, more capacity, as the theory goes.
The Fundraising Academy’s Cause Selling approach is a relationship-centered, collaborative approach to professional fundraising. It’s a model that integrates valuable systems from the for-profit realm with an intense focus on building long-term connections that benefit both the donor and the organization.
I mention the Fundraising Academy because it is uniquely housed within the National University System, a Veteran-founded nonprofit based in San Diego, California. Fundraising Academy leverages national partnerships with universities, community college systems, and nonprofit organizations and associations to offer low-cost and free professional development programs. In turn, these programs prepare emerging fundraisers to build authentic relationships with donors and raise more funds for their causes.
Ultimately, education and re-education are needed to further an up-to-date understanding of a complex and evolving industry. New giving vehicles and platforms are bursting onto the scene almost daily. We must all continue to be students of giving.
In addition to our call for better pathways for fundraisers in the sector, we must also acknowledge that fit is imperative in workplace partnership. There needs to be a renewed focus around choosing your next staff members. Finding that sweet spot is difficult, but tools exist to measure a candidate’s direct and indirect experience, their communication skills, and their values.
There are also groups that apply specific methods to ensure your job descriptions, staff expectations, and the resulting candidate pool are a good fit for your organization. These alone shouldn’t determine fit and should only be counted as one factor that determines your final choice. But they can go a long way in helping make a much more informed decision.
Fundraisers are without a doubt one of the most underrated and underappreciated positions in nonprofits. They are equal parts storytellers, connectors, and strategists. They also play a critical role in an organization’s success, helping to empower all levels of the organization to operate in a development mindset.
Our favorite story is of JFK going to NASA in Houston and asking one of the janitors what they did. Their response? “I help fly people to the moon.” It’s that level of connection to the mission that we should all be striving for. And it’s that level of organizational investment in our development staff which could kickstart a new golden age for our sector. That is, a golden age in which fundraisers are leading the charge on the front lines.
Find more professional development resources to help your fundraising career by viewing our blog posts and Hubinars created in partnership with Nonprofit Hub & Do More Good. Or, reach out to us by emailing [email protected].