A Crossroads on the Path of Professionalism in Fundraising
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
References: Fundraising Careers Trends and Issues
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