Do you need a Professional? Anybody can Fundraise — NOT!!

June 19, 2020

I have often written about the fact that fundraising isn’t rocket science. I would like to take the opportunity to use this article to clarify that thought a bit more. While anyone can ask for funds, it takes a seasoned professional to ensure the overall fundraising program is successful. Planning from concept to reality is often a herculean task. Having a deep understanding of the various types of possible fundraising initiatives, costs related to each and managing expectations should be part of the fundraising professional’s skill set. And that thought speaks nothing of the skill involved in donor relations and case writing!

I have been fortunate enough to sit around a lot of Senior Leadership (and Board) tables. Fundraising always seems to be that enigma that people don’t really understand. The belief is that somehow, somewhere, someone shakes a money tree and voila! The money is lying on the ground in a neat pile. If that were only true.

Jeff Brooks wrote a great article about amateurs getting in the way of fundraising. It really struck a chord with me. For some strange reason, when there needs to be consideration of some HR or Finance initiative, the professional lead rarely needs to justify their actions. The staff is simply treated as professional and content authorities.

Now, contrast that thought and think about a Fundraising issue. For some reason (unbeknownst to me), these issues need to be discussed with a larger audience.

Why don’t we trust the professional?

Is there a lack of confidence in the fundraiser? If so, you need to replace your fundraiser. I might suggest that it is a lack of confidence in the Senior Team/Board with respect to fundraising.

It could be that people still don’t understand how fundraising works, so everyone is a self-proclaimed expert on the matter. Quite often people equate the totality of fundraising with ‘the ask’ when, in reality, ‘the ask’ is a small part of the process.

Fundraising is a relatively new profession. My good friend Jason Lewis says that fundraising is going through a messy adolescence. This is where one may be critical of the fundraising ‘elders’ that came before you. The new fundraisers want to blaze their own path. Professional fundraising has only been around for the last thirty years and is quickly maturing. And like a messy adolescence, there is always that push/pull with your parents. The same can be said for fundraising — there is always that push/pull with senior leadership and boards.

Fundraising as an Investment

I see so many organizations that look at fundraising as an expense. While it is a service area (like HR or Finance) because it doesn’t deliver front-line programs, it is different. In my opinion, fundraising is an investment.

I received a call a few months ago from an organization that I had worked for almost 20 years ago. One of their donors had passed on. When the fundraiser was reading the donor’s file, they saw my notes with respect to a bequest. That meeting twenty years ago solidified the $500,000 gift that the organization just received.

So, while I was employed by that particular organization, a direct correlation between my salary and this gift didn’t exist. However, it did eventually ‘pay off’, but many years down the road.

Plugging the Hole

I have seen fundraisers replaced with non-fundraisers. I have seen organizations actually seek out non-fundraisers for fundraising roles. This was initiated in the hope that their transferrable talents ported over. Sometimes it did, but more often than not, it didn’t. You need to hire professional fundraisers if you wish to have a well-balanced fundraising program.

If the head of the fundraising department isn’t a fundraiser, how will s/he know how to run a successful shop? How will they know about the industry standards? How can they mentor the junior fundraisers in their shop? I liken this thought process to the Canadian governmental Ministers. One day, they could be Minister of Education and the next day, Minister of Tourism. Their value is based on the fact that they can manage people and processes. The matter experts are the Deputy Ministers. That works for the government, where cabinet shuffles and new governments change every few years. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for the Minister to establish a group of loyal ‘customers’ and colleagues. Hopefully, in. the fundraising world, your head of the department is in it for the long haul — not just a few years.

Where does this thought process come from?

I think that there is a basic lack of understanding and/or respect for fundraisers as professionals. Twenty years ago, there were few who chose fundraising as a career. It is described by many as ‘falling’ into the profession. Today, there are degrees and certificates in fundraising from around the world. The definition of success was defined as having more money in your coffers today than you did yesterday. However, today’s success is measured quite differently.

As I have said earlier, fundraising as a profession, is relatively new. There is now a shift away from the predictable, replicable mass fundraising. Shops now create a more bespoke fundraising plan for their top prospects/donors. COVID-19 has truly shaken up fundraising. Boards and Bosses are usually thrown into a panic as the predictability is not as readily apparent.

Trust in the professionals who have learned how to customize the ask. Believe in the professionals who have decades of experience and who have a network of colleagues to bounce ideas off of and learn. And have faith that the fundraiser is working for the greater good of the organization.

Fundraising is a worthy profession. It deserves to be treated like one.

Until next week.

L’chaim