Keep Feeding Your Fundraiser Appetite
Last week, I offered some considerations for choosing your next position. I’m not advocating change; in fact, I feel discouraged when I review the statistics on longevity of fundraising professionals. A 2013 study called "Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising" found that one in two chief fundraising officers plan to leave their jobs within two years.
Truthfully, every time I am reminded of that statistic, it makes me sad—but not surprised. I regularly hear “war stories” from fundraisers working at nonprofit organizations (and I have a few of my own from my 30 years working in the sector) that give credence to the claim of dysfunction in the nonprofit sector. (I also have some wonderful experiences that I still miss, occasionally finding myself jealous as I listen to my clients talk. But that’s for another article.)
As I think about my own career and those of other fundraisers I know, several things stand out in terms of what makes for a fulfilling—and even longer lasting—career as a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization. So with a bit of help from one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, here they are.
Work where you are passionate. It’s easy to want to go for the position that offers the best pay and benefits package, or other perks that make it appealing. But passion is what will challenge you to work well into the night to make sure the year-end mailing goes out on time or the annual event is the best ever. If you don’t have a tremendous desire to help advance the mission, your work becomes merely a job.
In my experience, the enthusiasm for a cause you are passionate about has value far beyond the monetary compensation. It packs a mighty sense of pride in accomplishment and even gives you a sense of purpose. As Mark Twain put it, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.”
Do what you enjoy. As is true in most professions, there’s a hierarchy in fundraising. And I know my passion—direct response—is not at the top. But I love what I do. Getting quick results fuels my competitive spirit, the variety of communication methods excites me creatively, and the details that come together for success meshes well with my obsessive nature. In short, it makes me feel happy about what I do, and truly look forward to getting up (almost) every day.
Whatever aspect of fundraising you enjoy, go for it! People who thrive when leading a capital campaign are essential. Those who make major-gift fundraising look simple are magic. The ones who make sure the data is accurate and actionable are invaluable. Choose what makes you feel as Twain felt when he wrote, “What work I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work, I shouldn't have done it.”
Never stop learning. It’s difficult to carve out time for a webinar, let alone a multi-day seminar or full-semester course. Added to that, there often isn’t budget for registration and travel. Yet those learning opportunities are what make us better fundraisers.
One assignment I give my students in every class is what I call “in the news.” They regularly have to find an article from a reputable source and share it with their classmates. We learn from staying tuned in to what’s happening in our profession. What you choose to learn and how you choose to learn may differ, but the important thing is to keep learning. After all, according to Twain, “A full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.”
Know when to move on. This is a tough one if you, like me, are incurably loyal. But if there comes a time when you are no longer satisfied in your work, when you no longer have that “fire in your belly” that makes you approach each new challenge with increased passion, admit it. Or worse, when you no longer are willing to fight for what you believe is the right way to raise money, when you are too worn out to push back against bad ideas and copy edits that serve no purpose except ego, when “because we’ve always done it that way” no longer makes you determined to do it better, consider Mark Twain’s advice: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
It truly makes this old dog sad when people tell me how frustrated they are in their fundraising jobs, or how unfulfilled they feel. We have a wonderful opportunity to make an impact on the world. So seek your passion, do what you love, keep learning—and love what you do because (with apologies to Twain for my addition), “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself” or with your work.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.