When I come into my house, I seem to have this instinct to lock the door behind me. There’s really no compelling reason for it. I live in a pretty safe neighborhood. We all watch each other’s houses and have an idea of who is or isn’t a regular in the area. Maybe the habit comes from years gone by, when I was younger and lived in some not-so-great neighborhoods.
Do you do the same?
How about when you arrived at your other home—the one called “work.” Did you lock the door behind you to keep out all those strangers who don’t know about fundraising?
This struck me the other day when I was doing a series of video interviews for a class I teach. When I asked, “How did you start in fundraising?” I got more than a few that were variations of “I came into it the traditional way—I fell into it.”
So, how did you come into fundraising? Did you fall into it?
While fewer people can say this today than years gone by, it still makes up a significant portion of our profession. “Falling into it” can mean a wide variety of circumstances.
It could be a social worker with good writing skills who was tapped to write a proposal. Then another. Then another. Before he knew it, he became the development officer!
It could be the environmental activist who was great in front of a crowd. The executive director appreciated the skill, because while she really wanted to work with birds, she couldn’t stand the turkeys she met on the fundraising circuit. Today that activist is a major gift officer.
Maybe it’s the student who picked up a work study job with the university phone-a-thon, which led to a job filing gift records in the development office, which led to writing an annual fund letter. And pretty soon that journalism major graduates into the assistant director of the annual fund.
Maybe it was a board member who was between jobs when the organization’s development officer left her role. Her background in insurance sales was a natural fit—and soon she was starting as the new director of development.
Is that your story?
How about when you hire fundraisers? What’s your criteria?
Is it three-to-five years progressively responsible experience in development? Don’t tell me it isn’t! Not only do I see hundreds of job postings with these words, but I also rarely ever see any that say “transferable experience considered.”
This isn’t an oversight. I’ve done plenty of searches as a manager of fundraisers and as a headhunter. In my headhunting role, I would always ask, “Will you consider nontraditional candidates?” Even among those who said "yes"—most are honest and say, "no," despite my discussion of the possible advantages—it was clear that there was a discomfort with hiring an outsider. This from clients who I knew were outsiders themselves not long before.
In effect, they locked the door behind them.
Is it out of habit? Do they live in a bad (recruiting) neighborhood? Is it simply easier?
No doubt, hiring any job is a high-risk enterprise. Making mistakes can cost a lot—in time, for sure, but in a worst-case scenario, in lawsuits and money. Hiring in fundraising is an even higher risk. A mistake can cost you lost revenue in addition to other losses.
Since fundraising jobs by nature can involve a lot of personal interactions with significant donors, volunteers and staff, a bad hire can cause a lot of damage. But does that explain it all?
Are we nonprofit chauvinists?