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?
It’s easy to see how we might be. Just spend a year absorbing the nonprofit culture of democracy in decisions and sacrifice to mission, and the business world from whence you came can pretty quickly look alien. Besides, most business refugees don’t do themselves any favors.
In the thick of the Great Recession, I had what seemed like hundreds of calls from people who were either out of a job at a business or seriously disillusioned with their role. Unfortunately, most waxed romantically about “giving back.” It’s a real turn off, along with the often implied (and sometimes stated) “any nonprofit—those undersized, under-managed, under-funded, not-quite-businesses—should be glad to have me” arrogance that comes with having a solid 401(k) plan—having security.
As a dedicated nonprofit professional, I don’t need to tell you that it is all about mission. No mission, no money. No money, no mission. Right? It is time to swallow hard and think about alternative ways to meet your mission. Is it time, instead of finding someone who has already fallen into fundraising, to raise an outsider to the sublime level of a nonprofit professional? Can thinking differently lead to mission success?
Maybe. I’ll tell you that my own experience in hiring outsiders is mixed. Some worked out great. Others flamed out. But I’ll also tell you that established, sure-thing nonprofit fundraisers didn’t work out either—at about the same ratios.
So is it our own confidence that’s at risk here, and not the hire?
Those of us of a certain age remember the saying “nobody gets fired buying IBM.” Back in the days of the first personal computers, you could take a risk on Apple, or you could “buy Big Blue” and feel safer about your job. It was short-term security. Anyone buy an IBM PC lately?
I don’t want to tell you that outside is better, or that as a profession, we need fresh blood (though it never hurts). However, when someone with 20 years of selling something like aircraft engine parts—where you’re used to developing long-term relationships with people in high-level positions that lead to a major transfer of funds at the end—comes to your door, you might be talking to a future major gifts officer.
Don’t lock her out.