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A Crossroads on the Path of Professionalism in Fundraising

By Tom Watson on September 19, 2007No Comment

Like many professional fundraisers, I arrived at my eventual career after venturing down many paths, one as an English teacher. Robert Frost’s beloved poem, The Road Not Taken, left a deep impression on me as well as my students, with its memorable closing lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Today the fundraising profession seems to also be facing two roads.  The question, are we technicians or professionals, has gained prominence.  How do those outside our profession – those who hire us, those who work with us, the general public, government officials, our international colleagues, and others – view us?  Do we seem like the back slapping car salesman types or those who follow the pop-psychologist’s ten easy steps to success?  In spite of all our rich history of fundraising in the United States, why can a dean at a major university still say, “I’ve always considered what you do rather grim reaperish and utterly lacking in dignity?” 

Are we still the technicians, by choice or circumstances, who try to achieve pre determined goals set without our involvement, have no voice, practice a fill in the blanks type of fundraising in which we count the visits and follow those “ten easy steps,” follow and don’t lead, and obey the rules without thinking about them?  Or are we professionals who can command respect? 

Are we proud of the research now available and being conducted in our field and does that information shape our practice?  Do we adhere to the body of knowledge and fundamentals that dictate best practices? We have many publications, associations with clout, oversight organizations or “watchdogs,” and philanthropy and fundraising are the subject of books by ex-presidents and mainstream media publications.  Do these influence us and our practice, or do we shrug off such indicators of professionalism as too academic and esoteric, choosing to focus on the technicalities of our jobs?

Questions like these might truly indicate that we are at a crossroad, with one path leading to a more technician-focused career, and the other assuming a more professional role. A look at some of the trends, changes and issues in fundraising as a career may help us determine just which road we seem to be embarked on (for ease of reading, a list of readings and information sources will be attached at the end of this article rather than included as references in the text).

As the nonprofit sector continues to grow, individuals are increasingly joining its ranks as employees from young college graduates to late-in-life business executives.  What does a fundraiser in today’s nonprofit climate face?  Here’s a look at some of the trends, changes, and issues affecting nonprofit professionals of all ages.      

More With Less
Employees in nonprofit organizations are being asked to do more with less labor input.  Consequently, fundraising has become a job requirement for many who do not technically work in the development office.  Nonprofit employees have historically had to wear many hats; the fundraising one is yet another to add to the list.

Professional Development
There appears to be more acceptance by employers that we can expand our skill sets while on the job, and mentors help us evaluate the possibilities for learning, training and professional advancement, whether we plan on fundraising as a career or whether we wish to make the jump from business or government positions.  There are also more chances to learn about various careers and roles, which can be matched to individual personalities and skills brought to the profession.

Business Backgrounds 
At times, it seems that people with a business background are more valued than career fundraisers because they are thought to be more bottom-line focused and strategically oriented.  This may be one cause for the increasing reliance on executive search firms in finding qualified candidates.  An inherent problem, however, surfaces with this trend.  Many senior fundraisers have been approached by a “headhunter” sometime in the last six months.  How many of the persons conducting that search have ever done fundraising themselves or know much about the skills needed? 

Fundraising is complex and competitive, and vulnerable to economic shifts and other workplace pressures.  The current extraordinary emphasis on major gifts (and planned giving, a type of major gift) has led to a mind set that only considers goals and dollars raised versus many other aspects of fundraising activity, such as the developing of relationships which take time to mature.  This may well be the reason why young people, for whom educational, training and other types of career-entry opportunities have increased enormously, view fundraising as a career path but not a career goal.  Indeed, the pressure to bring in major gifts certainly affects more seasoned professionals.  Many competent and successful fundraisers turn to other careers or means of making a living because of burnout.  Certainly there continues to be high turnover due to long hours and stress.  Adding to the complexities and pressures is the ever-present gender salary gap, and while salaries in general have become quite respectable, there is also a widening range between the experienced and the novices, and among types of nonprofits.  No doubt all of the above influence the predicted leadership deficit, which projects that three out of four nonprofit senior executives will leave their jobs in the next five years. 

The Technician vs. The Professional
Whether the circumstances are self-imposed by us as fundraisers, whether the economy dictates certain practices, or whether realistic or unrealistic expectations are ultimately imposed by employers, we seem to be struggling to maintain a balance between mastering the technical aspects of the job and acquiring the broader body of knowledge that comes with ever-increasing access to research, studies, and publications on the sector.  Whatever the circumstances, we must acknowledge that much is expected from today’s fundraiser.

As we evaluate the current status and future projections about fundraising as a career, we recognize that today’s fundraiser must have a broader set of skills and level of professionalism than ever before, that unexpected turns must be handled with flexibility, that there is a blending of technology with old fashioned people skills, and that, whether unfairly or not, there is an increasing focus on the bottom line over process, causing skewed views of who really is or can be a fine fundraising professional.

Frost’s concluding lines are enigmatic.  There is no indication whether the road less traveled was the right choice, or what difference that choice made.  When it comes to fundraising as a career, our choices appear to be just as enigmatic.  Perhaps ultimately the answer is to choose to be professionals who, having mastered technique, take our practices and expertise to a higher level and are respected for the value we bring to nonprofits, to communities, and to our society in general.

Lilya Wagner, vice president for philanthropy at Counterpart International, has taught fundraising at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. She can be reached at

References: Fundraising Careers Trends and Issues

AFP Home, Resource Center, “A Scarcity of Good fundraisers?” June 30, 2005,

Anft, Michael, “A Growing Debt to Society,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 5, 2006.

Bitti, Mary Teresa, :Fundraising Profession in Focus,” Philanthropy Journal,, October 9, 2006.

Bitti, Mary Teresa, “Professional Development in Cyber Space,”, May 29, 2007.

Blum, Debra E., “Fund Raisers’ Pay Hits New High, Compensation Survey Finds,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 28, 2005.

Boice, Jacklyn P. And Cathleen Williams, “The Fundraisers’ Guide to Managing Your Career,” Advancing Philanthropy, September/October 2003.

Boney, Ret, “Building Nonprofit Skillsand People,”, May 29, 2007.

Burlingame, Dwight F., “Developing Nonprofit Leaders Critical,”, May 29, 2007.

Clolery, Paul, “The Fundraising Office of the Future,” The NonProfit Times,” June 15, 2005.

Cohen, Todd, “Most Nonprofits Lack Fulltime Fundraisers,” Philanthropy Journal,”, July 30, 2004.

Cohen, Todd, “Nonprofit Training Seen Trailing Demand,”, May 31, 2007.

Collins, Mary Ellen, “Too Hot to Handle?”  Advancing Philanthropy, May/June 2006.

Cummins, H. J., “Prof Helps Boomers Change Jobs,” Star Tribune, May 25, 2004.

Elmer, Vickie, “Versatile, Passionate Fundraisers,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2007.

Hager, Mark A., “Who Raises Contributions for America’s Nonprofit Organizations?” Urban Institute,, July 28, 2004.

Hall, Holly, “Fund Raiser to CEO: Making the Jump,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 5, 2006.

Hall, Holly, “Lack of Training Contributes to Scarcity of Qualified fund Raisers Nationwide,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 21, 2007.

Hall, Holly, “Turning Fund Raisers into CEO’s,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 5, 2006.

Hall, Holly, “Advice for Fund Raisers Considering CEO Positions,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 5, 2006.

Hall, Holly and Leah Kerkman, “Development Dollar Divide,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 7, 2006.

Hall, Holly, “fund-Raising FrenzyThe Race is On to Hire Workers Who Can Solicit Big Gifts,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 21, 2007.

Hall, Holly, “Evaluating How Well a Fund Raiser Does in Luring big Gifts,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 5, 2006.

Han, Peter, “Nobodies to Somebodies: How 100 Great Careers Got Their Start,” Working Knowledge: Harvard Business School, May 17, 2005.

Hollister, Julia, “Nonprofits Ideal for Careers With Care,” California Job Journal,, November 9, 2004.

Hrywna, Mark, “NPT Salary Survey 2006: Women Catching Up With Men, But Neither With Inflation,” The NonProfit Times, February 1, 2006.

Hugg, Matthew, “Think a Nonprofit Fundraising Job is Just Asking for Money?  Think Again!”,, September 18, 2006. 

Jensen, Brennen, Leah Kerkman, and Cassie J. Moore, “Pay Raises for Charity Leaders Keep Pace With Inflation,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 29, 2005.

Kitchen, Patricia, “More Workers Being Drawn to the Nonprofit Industry,” Newsday, January 6, 2007.

“Leadership Deficit,”, March 22, 2006.

Lindgren, Amy, “Nonprofits Attract People Re-Evaluating Their Lives,” The Miami Herald, December 1, 2003.

Lipman, Harvy, “A Growing Disparity,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, November 7, 2005.

Lipman, Harry, “Pay Gap Narrows for Male and Female Nonprofit Executives, Says New Survey,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, October 9, 2006. 

Lipman, Harvey, “Pay Gap Narrows for Male and Female Nonprofit Executives, Study Finds,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, October 27, 2006.

“Nonprofit Executives Burning Out, Planning to Leave Jobs,”, March 27, 1006.

Otting, Laura Gassner. Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector: Shifting Your Focus from the Bottom Line to a Better World.  New York: Kaplan Publishing, 2007.

Panepento, Peter, “Making the Move,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 14, 2005.

Panepento, Peter, “Bad Consultant Confidential,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 17, 2007.

Preston, Caroline, “Charities Urged to Do More to Attract Young Workers,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 21, 2007.

Professionals for NonProfits, “Amidst Unprecedented Senior-Level Changes, Professionals for NonProfits Releases 2006 NonProfit Salary Survey,”, March 6, 2007.

Rees, Jenny, “Charity Career Now the Fashion,” The Western Mail,, December 12, 2003.

Rhoades, Brandi, “How to Get Nonprofit Training,, October 25, 2006.

Silverman, Les and Lynn Taliento, “What Business Execs Don’t Knowbut ShouldAbout Nonprofits,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2006.

Slayter, Mary Ellen, “How They Made the Nonprofit Jump,” The Washington Post, July 22, 2007.

Slayter, Mary Ellen, “How They Made the Nonprofit Jump,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2007.

Stafford, Diane, “The Fire Within Philanthropy,” Kansas City Star,, Feb. 11, 2007.

Strout, Erin, “Fund Raisers Become Harder to Find and Tougher to Keep,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 26, 2005.

“The Learning Curve: Tips for the New Fundraising Professional,” Advancing Philanthropy, February 2007.

Wagner, Lilya, Careers in Fundraising, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001.

Walwick, Mal, “A Ceo’s Guide: Getting Your Money’s Worth From Your Fundraising Manager,” The NonProfit Times, August 15, 2005.
Williams, Cathlene, “More Than Money: Highlights of the 2007 AFP Compensation and Benefits Study,” Advancing Philanthropy, July/August 2007.

Wong, Stacy, “Moving Backwards: Women in Fundraising Earn Less Than Men, and Gap is Widening, New Study Says,” Women in Development,, January 13, 2006.

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