Curious how fundraisers get their start?
A few years ago I put out a call to fundraisers both new and very experienced to find out what got them into fundraising. I asked them what words of advice they might have for someone just starting out in the profession.
“When I was in 4th and 5th grades, I didn’t like school very much. So I would volunteer for every out-of-classroom project possible; I’d organize friends to clean up litter, gather canned goods for people in need at Thanksgiving, sing at the mental hospital at Christmas — anything! And guess what — I was a good at it! I succeeded. I felt great and finally school had much more value to me.
“My first fundraising gig was when I was about 15 and I trick or treated for UNICEF at Halloween. I loved the feel of the box, its orange color with black writing, the shape which was like a little house. And the weight when people put their quarters in it! Fantastic!!
“My first week as a freshman in college I fell in with some students who were going to the Alumni Center to “dial for dollars” for the annual fund. Again I had a blast. The student-volunteers were great and the folks I called were wonderful. The great feeling I had knowing I was doing good and helping out but also having fun cemented in my brain that I wanted to be a fundraiser.”
Janet L. Hedrick, CFRE, Virginia resident and Eastern Regional Development Manager for Buffalo Bill Historical Center, took a different route. Janet was a high school teacher when the superintendent of her school system encouraged her to apply for a development job.
“I didn’t even know the term development as we use it… I had agreed to be the sponsor for the high school yearbook two years earlier and the yearbook had been successful in getting out of debt and winning a State award. With that achievement and the completion of my master’s degree, the Superintendent thought that I should have aspirations beyond the classroom.”
A few months later, Janet started a new job as Director of Annual Funds at Longwood College. Janet says that it took her ten years to realize that fundraising was really her profession before she dared to toss out her teaching plans.
“I was doing a lot of volunteer fundraising. I found that I enjoyed my volunteer work so much it was time to make a career change. I saw that many nonprofits had no clue how to relate to business people so I felt my business experience would be helpful to the nonprofit world.”
“I left a more lucrative officer manager position with a financial consultant to fundraise on a volunteer basis for two months. I had no prior development experience–baptism by fire!
“I had fallen in love with the theatre during my first visit as a patron. I recognized the need for someone to handle fundraising and broaden the theatre’s donor base, so that we could increase and improve our programming and restore our building.”
Kylie started as a volunteer then to a part time paid position and finally to full time. She cautions: “only do this if a) you are absolutely dedicated to the cause and b) you have a very supportive spouse!”
So, after jumping into the fundraiser role without a lot of prior experience, what advice do these fundraisers have for people starting their first job?
First and foremost, get training and support!
Linda advises: “No matter what your background, if you’ve never served in a development staff position, you need to be a sponge and absorb every bit of training and education you can find. Join the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP)! Get involved in your local chapter … attend the international conference, attend workshops, read, and participate in audioconferences,”
Janet stresses how helpful your colleagues can be: “The most important asset you will have in this business is your colleagues – in and out of your organization … locally and throughout the nation. Develop a network of 100 people with whom you stay in touch. Some you may only contact annually while others you will want to communicate with more often. Join organizations that provide networking opportunities.”
“Be a giver first. I do not think you can be a legitimate asker if you aren’t a giver.” Ann
“Working for a small nonprofit … everything I do—regardless of whether it is in my job description–has some bearing on the work that I do, from customer service to clerical work.” Kylie
“You must have a plan that incorporates diverse funding steams and methods, and you need to develop a compelling case for support for your organization.” Linda
“Keep an open mind and be willing to take risks. Try new strategies. Share your ideas with others. ” Janet
“Above all, know and live the code of ethics …. Never do anything that is not in the donor’s best interest. “ Linda
In my own many years in fundraising, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor a number of newbies. Some make it. Too many turn away when they find out that just like any other profession, you’ve got to learn its technical aspects, invest in your own development, build networks of support, have a solid plan, listen, be creative and learn to roll with rejection.
But perhaps those individuals who didn’t make didn’t follow Ann’s advice:
“Choose a cause/organization you are passionate about. It doesn’t matter which one, just that you believe in it with your heart, mind and soul. It will keep you happy, engaged and excited about going to work every day.”
Thank you to my generous colleagues for letting me share your stories.
This post first appeared in Contributions Vol 22: No 3.