Are Fundraisers Professionals?
Are those of us who earn our income as fundraisers professionals? Oddly, that’s something I never really considered. I’ve always considered myself a professional and strived to act accordingly. But seeing how the occasional few in the name of fundraising act dishonorably or even illegally to increase contributions and/or their income does certainly point to at least some who view fundraising as simply a way to earn a living.
Leadership speaker Mark Sanborn wrote, “A true professional is not defined by the job he or she does, but how he or she does the job.” In the work of fundraising, how we do our job matters. Yes, the results also matter, but if we take a long-term view, it’s not just how much money we raise, but how healthy the relationship with our donors is as a result of that fundraising. Do our donors feel proud to have given or browbeaten? Are they more knowledgeable about what we do and how we will use their gift to accomplish the mission, or were we less than honest?
An interesting website named “Key Differences” spells out the differences between an occupation and a profession. A professional is defined as a person who “renders services to others by applying his or her knowledge and skills is a profession.” Providing service to others is a wonderful goal for a fundraiser because it acknowledges that we are not begging or selling something; rather, we are giving people an opportunity to contribute to a change that matters to them by giving within their capability to do so.
“Key Differences” notes several things that separate a profession from an occupation. While they are all relevant, my focus in this article is on four of them:
1. There is a code of conduct. Many of our professional associations have a code of conduct, including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). AFP’s Code of Ethical Standards includes 25 commitments a member must make. This is worth reading. If you don’t agree with every one, research it. Find out why it is stated the way it is and what dissenting opinions say. Challenge yourself when needed and challenge others, if necessary. Telling a boss I could not do something because it violated the AFP Code of Ethics that I had agreed to as a member was very difficult, but violating that would have been more difficult for me—not because I feel beholden to AFP, but because I had given them my word. And when it comes to asking people for money, being known as someone who keeps his or her promises is a character trait I aspire to.
2. Higher education is necessary. We are very fortunate that there are many opportunities for higher education, both in terms of degrees (through the doctoral level) and professional certifications. Fewer than 30 years ago, that wasn’t the case. There were limited—and very costly—choices. Seeking higher education as a fundraiser is not a guarantee for success, but couple it with truly good experience and a passion for fundraising and you have a solid basis for your career.
3. Training is compulsory. If you are not seeking a certification or renewing one (such as the CFRE credential), you may not consider continuing education mandatory. But if you have been in fundraising for more than a decade, I daresay there have been changes in the field as a whole, not to mention at your employer. Staying current with these new methodologies and learnings may not be mandated, but it is a wise move if you want to have a long and growing career. If I was still doing only what I did when I was hired for my first fundraising job years ago, I would be far less marketable now—not to mention, I would be bored! Even if no one else is requiring you to get training, make it a personal requirement. You won’t be sorry.
4. There is very high respect and status for a professional. Yes and no. I believe there are many fundraisers who are highly respected. In fact, I believe that applies to the majority of fundraisers. Unfortunately, being skilled, successful and passionate about your work seldom makes the news, so we all bear some of the stigma of the few “bad apples” in the profession. Few people stop going to a doctor because one doctor somewhere was indicted for malpractice, but some leaders of nonprofit organizations are skeptical that a professional fundraiser is worth the investment and will neither hire a professional nor invest in helping a staff member gain the training and expertise to truly be a professional fundraiser. Personally, I feel that this is one reason we have so many tiny, struggling organizations that never achieve their potential.
I am privileged to serve on the International Advisory Panel for Rogare, the fundraising think tank at the Plymouth University Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. Their work is what challenged me to think about the professionalism of fundraising because, frankly, I have always considered myself a professional and a fundraiser. I realize that everyone doesn’t share my opinion, but I am proud of the work I do and am committed to continue my professional growth as long as I remain active in the field.
I encourage you to ask yourself, “Am I a professional fundraiser, or do I aspire to become one?” If you answer is “yes,” don’t wait for someone else to give you a blueprint for achieving or growing your professionalism. Set goals for yourself for education and training, measure yourself against the AFP Code of Ethical Standards or other similar documents and always, always strive to be respected as a fundraiser and defend the professionalism of fundraisers to anyone who disparages our work.
This old dog is unashamed to say, “I am proud to be a fundraiser!” Will you join me in that chorus?