Giving In or Giving Up?
It's discouraging when you read the numbers. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported last year that the average tenure of a fundraiser at his or her job is 16 months. And earlier this year that same publication had this chilling information: "Half of the chief fundraisers plan to leave their jobs within two years or less. Forty percent are thinking about leaving fundraising entirely."
Now, I've been in fundraising long enough to have earned "dinosaur" status. And I won't lie — all my days haven't been happy. I confess, in my darkest moments, I have fanaticized about being the person who rides on the back of the parking lot shuttle at Disneyland and reminds people to keep their hands, arms, feet and heads inside the car at all times.
But rather than changing careers, I've found a few things that have helped me survive — and yes, even thrive. Check them out, or set this aside for a day when you need it. Maybe there's something here that will help you over the latest hurtle and restore the joy of fundraising to you.
Arm yourself with facts
Someone commented to me a few days ago that he never tells his uncle, a geophysicist, how to do his job — because he (the nephew) has no idea how to be a geophysicist. So why do people who know nothing about fundraising feel empowered to tell fundraisers how to do their jobs?
One way to address those who say things to you like, "I don't know; I'm just not feeling it …" after reading your latest direct-response copy is to be sure you have facts to back up what's working in fundraising these days. Choose reliable sources like the Atlas of Giving, The Blackbaud Index or articles in this publication written by seasoned pros. Explain what is working in fundraising, and insist that following the best practices is the best way to raise money.
And yes, this is why continuing education is important. Read. Listen to webinars. Take classes. Seek a mentor. Even if your employer can't (or won't) pay for it, investing in yourself is a strategy that can pay off in the future (financially, maybe, but definitely in your feeling of pride in yourself).
Don't be afraid to push back
When the goals given to you are absurd or the copy edits have sucked any hope of success out of your appeal, give your blood pressure time to return to normal and then explain (respectfully) why the other person is wrong. Yes, this is difficult if this is your boss or a board member, but giving in isn't going to make the impossible come true. And the end result is probably going to be ugly. Choose your battles, and make sure it's clear that you will work as hard as possible to make whatever it is that is being asked of you successful, but you as a fundraising professional have serious concerns.
Be your own biggest cheerleader
Don't wait until the once-a-year (or less frequent) review to reflect on what you have done well. It's sometimes difficult to remember that great idea that turned around a dismal fundraising program or that test you proposed that resulted in much better net income. So keep a running "self-evaluation" — either in an actual document or in a file where you put reminders of your successes. Then, without being a braggart, highlight the improvements in your fundraising program from time to time. You don't have to say, "I did this," but simply send a memo that says, "Here are ways we have improved our fundraising program in the last quarter."
Know when it's time
Sometimes it is time to move on. We all have reasons we have left a job, of course, but there are times when fundraisers are left with no other choice. If you are being required to do something unethical even though you have explained why it is such, you should think long and hard about your next career move. If you no longer believe in the mission of the organization or how your employer is carrying out its work, you are probably going to be ineffective as a fundraiser. If you are given impossible goals and feel you are being "hung out to dry," it may be time to look elsewhere.
Being a fundraiser is truly an honorable calling. So don't give up and don't give in too soon.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.