Faith, hope and climate change

All the news about climate change has been getting me down lately. I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling this way. Becoming a parent has intensified this feeling; it turns out all the cliches are true.

This bad news is one of the many factors that has influenced my decision to quit social media. It had become my main source of news, and given that the algorithms of these platforms favour content that evokes strong negative emotions – such as fear – I decided I was better off without this in my life.

I wanted to be informed without being skewed towards fear. The mainstream news, however, does love its apocalyptic headlines.

Yes, things are bad and the world needs to do more and faster. But as is always the case with stories like this, there is more nuance than first appears. I’ve sought out some positive stories about progress towards changing the world, and have listed some of these below.

The good news I’ve found online

The change I’ve seen in my short lifetime

In my early twenties (I’m now 34) I was passionate about the environment and combating climate change, and was involved in activism and various protests (all legal in my case; I never had the guts to risk arrest). I could also be quite annoying. I believed that evil commercial companies were destroying the planet and the future lay in “alternative” energy sources.

My politics are still left-leaning, but now that I’m older I feel as if I’m better at seeing more of the complexity and uncertainty in the world. Companies are not inherently evil. Many are actively working to make the world a better place. And the world is also improving in many ways. As is clear from some of the links above, renewable energy is no longer on the fringes.

Increasingly, those in power are recognising that the choice between improving the environment and safeguarding the economy is false. These two priorities are converging, and in my view that’s good news for everyone.

The future is uncertain, and always will be

The idea that the future might not be good, or hopeful, or full of opportunity, is a terrible one, whether you are a parent or not.

But then again, I realise I’m naive for wanting certainty about the future. Here in the developed world, it’s easy to fall for the illusion that the world is safe. But really, it never has been. Previous generations have had to deal with the uncertainty and danger of the World Wars and the Cold War. Extreme poverty and disease are still a reality for many. Even we in our safe Western homes can be reminded of our frailty by natural disasters, disease or bereavement.

The world can be scary. But recognising its past dangers and uncertainties can make the uncertainty we face now easier to accept – and help us appreciate beauty and joy where we find it.

What does this mean for those of us who work in charity?

Most charity workers don’t work for environmental charities: this sector is very small. However, we are all fighting against forces that sometimes feel insurmountable: whether it be the mysteries of a particular disease, the extent of poverty or disaffection, or the cruelty of others.

The mass mobilisations that helped end World War Two, and fixed the hole in the ozone layer, could not have happened without on-the-ground activism (although the underlying threats that could lead to similar events have never completely disappeared). Whether that activism is political, or simply takes the form of spreading kindness, we are all trying to bring out the best in people, form loving communities, and prevent future suffering.

Throughout my late twenties and early thirties, I put climate change to the back of my mind. I still recycled and tried to be a good citizen, but was relieved to focus on other matters that felt less insurmountable.

But the recent news, coupled with my new role as a parent, have brought my concerns crashing back to the forefront of my mind. It’s pointless to try and hide away from the world’s realities, and I would be doing my daughter a disservice if I tried to shield her when she is old enough to understand them. But although the human race faces serious risks and challenges, there is plenty to be optimistic about.

There’s nothing particularly new or original about my viewpoint, but I hope sharing my thoughts, and my hope, may help others in all their vital work.

How will quitting social media affect my professional and personal networks?

I’ve left three major social media platforms, which were my main methods of interacting with others online, other than via email and this blog.

Why? Lots of reasons, most of which you can probably guess.

The real catalyst for making this decision, though, was reading Jaron Lanier’s book: Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

I realised I was staying on social media mainly because it was hard to quit, which in itself isn’t a good reason to stay. So I’ve taken the plunge.

This is very much a personal decision, and just because it feels right for me doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be right for others. Nor do I intend to implicitly criticise the important work charities do on social media to reach donors and beneficiaries. Social media is a reality of the world we live and work in, and it makes sense to harness this reality to do as much good as possible.

I am by no means withdrawing from the world, and I absolutely want to continue to be part of the professional fundraising community. I think the Internet is a fantastic tool and will continue to maintain an active presence on this blog. I’m interested and excited to see how this decisions affects my relationships and creativity and may write more about this experience in future.

Ten things I’ve gained and learned from nearly a year of blogging

I started this blog in January this year because I enjoy writing and wanted to take it more seriously. I also felt that I had something to add on topics that weren’t being covered anywhere else.

The experience has been rewarding, exciting and unexpected:

  1. Interviewing my fundraising peers has developed valuable and insightful relationships with colleagues across the profession.
  2. The blog helped me develop an online portfolio of writing, which will support my ambitions as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
  3. It’s directly led to a paid commission in the charity trade press.
  4. I’ve been involved in influencing policy at the Institute of Fundraising.
  5. The fact I have an online platform of my own has made it easier to quit social media – something I’ll be writing more about in future.
  6. It’s given me something to think about and work on while on maternity leave.
  7. When writing a blog, it’s important to have a unique angle. I have plenty of opinions on GDPR, for example, but didn’t feel like I had anything new to add to the existing conversation.
  8. I’m grateful to my employer for being supportive of my writing, and am glad I discussed this with them at an early stage. In addition, it’s important to maintain a distinction between my writing here and the work I do for my employer.
  9. It’s led to surprising outcomes. My writing on blockchain was picked up by a Reddit thread that’s critical of Bitcoin (r/buttcoin) and led to hundreds of non-fundraisers viewing my site. And it turns out I was quoted on Breitbart over a year ago (I only discovered this yesterday, not being a regular reader of Breitbart for reasons which are hopefully obvious, and I’m not going to link to their article!). Thankfully, though, no trolls.
  10. The fundraising community is incredibly friendly, supportive and civil online.

So, if you’re thinking of writing and adding to the conversation on fundraising, charities and/or life in general, I would definitely encourage you. I’m excited about how my work as a fundraiser, my writing, and my ambitions in general develop over the next year.

A different way to think about fundraising career paths

This blog post caught my eye recently. It focuses on the dilemma faced by software engineers who want to develop their careers but see management as the only way to gain increased salary and status. Many of them hate the idea of becoming people managers.

I think many fundraisers probably feel the same.

The blog posits the following statement:

“Management is not a promotion; management is a change of profession.”

Whenever I’ve moved into a management role or seen a colleague do so, I’ve interpreted it as a promotion. It’s hard not to, given that it usually comes with a pay rise, and often access to a higher level of status and formal influence within the organisation.

However, I agree with the statement. A good fundraiser will not necessarily make a good manager, and all new managers need training in management skills.

I’m not saying that managers don’t merit their privileges; they have a high level of responsibility and expectation placed upon them. But what about the individual contributors who don’t want to manage people? Shouldn’t there also be a track for them that also leads to higher pay and formally recognised influence?

How can we develop the careers of fundraisers who don’t want to be managers?

In my experience the standard fundraising career track goes something like: officer–>senior officer–>middle manager–>head of department–>director.

This means that excellent individual contributors–such as expert major donor fundraisers–will see their careers reach a ceiling far sooner than those who are suited to the management track. It feels inevitable that the most ambitious of these individuals will get frustrated and either move into a different field or progress into a management role for which they are ill suited. (This is a point that has been persuasively argued on the Veritus Group blog).

This seems to me to be a tragedy – especially given the sector’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining excellent fundraisers.

Dual career tracks: a lesson from the tech industry

Several software companies have recognised this problem and built dual career tracks for managers and individual contributors. Employees can achieve equal status and salary regardless of the track they choose, up to a certain level.

Good examples (where the companies have made their frameworks publicly available) are Rent the Runway and Songkick.

Although these are from a very different sector and cultures they raise several points that I think we as fundraisers should consider:

  • Leadership isn’t just for managers: individual contributors are expected to show leadership in terms of developing junior employees, and to be able to communicate clearly to non-technical stakeholders.
  • At the highest level, individual contributors are expected to demonstrate thought leadership through verbal presentations and written work.
  • For those on the management track, management skills are categorised as technical skills.
  • Managers should have the same technical abilities as a high-level contributor. This is vital for the manager’s credibility (although it’s acknowledged that after a certain point of seniority this detailed knowledge is no longer practical).

There is still a ceiling to those who do not progress to management, as it’s unlikely that an employee could reach Director or CEO level without selecting the management track.

However, I particularly like the fact that these frameworks view management as a discipline in its own right. It requires its own set of competencies and specific training. I also like the fact that these frameworks present management as a discipline that’s equal, but not superior to, individual contribution.

The career “pendulum”

The Charity.wtf blog I referred to at the start of this post suggests an alternative career pathway: the “pendulum” through which an individual switches between contributor and manager posts throughout their career. The benefits outlined by the author include:

  • Managers always have recent technical experience, which makes them better at their job and maintains their credibility.
  • Contributors gain management skills such as influencing, building consensus, and having a better understanding of how organisations work. These skills improve their performance.

I think this is a fascinating idea, but wonder if our cultures would allow for this back-and-forth. Would charity hiring managers view this type of CV with interest or would they worry that it demonstrates a lack of commitment?

Why not be more flexible with the career paths of fundraisers?

I think we would all agree that all fundraisers are invaluable, regardless of their role or seniority. We need the Community & Events Fundraiser just as much as the Head of Direct Marketing. But do our frameworks–and our expectations of how fundraisers will develop–always reflect this? What more can we do to ensure that we keep our best and most ambitious fundraisers without forcing them into inappropriate management roles?

I would love to know if there are any fundraising organisations with dual career tracks; please get in touch if so!

How can charities help new mothers? Increase paternity leave.

I gave birth to my daughter a couple of months ago (hence the hiatus in blogging). I received a generous amount of paid maternity leave, well over the statutory minimum, from my employer (a pregnancy charity). My husband also received six weeks of paid paternity leave from his private sector employer, which is extremely generous in the context of UK statutory provision (two weeks’ leave at statutory pay – approx £145 per week – or at 90% of salary, whichever is lower).

Throughout my pregnancy we had both been looking forward to this extended time together. Now we’re out the other end and he’s returned to work, I’m glad to say that we did enjoy this time immensely. I’d also argue that a long paternity leave provides an essential way to support mothers, fathers, and children, but I haven’t seen this discussed at length within our sector.

My experience

My birth plan went out of the window pretty quickly due to various complications, and I ended up having an emergency c-section. I was well cared for in the hospital (where I stayed for three days), but a c-section is full-on surgery and recovering women are advised to rest for six weeks, avoiding lifting anything heavier than the baby.

I also lost nearly a litre of blood, so felt very tired and couldn’t move or do much at all. Having my husband around for the full recovery period meant that I had someone to keep the household running and I could focus entirely on my recovery and looking after our daughter.

Why six weeks of paternity leave is good for the mother

These are some of the benefits I gained from my husband’s paternity leave:

  • Practical help with cooking, grocery shopping and cleaning, as explained above. Many women have c-sections, and those who don’t may still have recovery periods from a range of complications. Being able to fully rest is vital. We don’t have any other children, but I can also see how the partner’s presence would make a huge difference in making childcare manageable in these first weeks.
  • Support in building my confidence – I was able to go on short walks after about five weeks, and my husband was with me for the milestones of first bus ride, first train ride, first trip to the shops with the pram etc. By the time he returned to work I felt confident in getting around. Although I would have managed, I would definitely have felt anxious about being alone after two weeks.
  • Accompaniment to medical appointments – as most new parents do, we had a few concerns in the early weeks, and having company at appointments helped to provide a different perspective and someone to talk things over with. There was so much going on that at times it would have been difficult for me to remember all the details and maintain a sense of proportion about the challenges we were facing. My husband’s presence made that a lot easier.
  • Maintaining good mental health – I was lucky enough not to experience any of the severe mental health problems that can follow childbirth, but it is an emotionally vulnerable time. My husband’s presence meant that I had someone to talk things through with. Combined with all of the above, this definitely bolstered my resilience and helped me feel good about myself and more confident about my abilities as a mother.

What do charities generally offer in terms of paternity leave?

My cursory survey of other charities’ paternity leave policies indicated that two weeks at full pay tends to be the most generous offer (one fundraiser told me about a charity that provides four weeks at 90% pay, but this appeared to be an outlier).

I don’t think this is enough. I think it’s a shame that our sector lags behind the more enlightened parts of the private sector on this issue.

However, charities can currently be market leaders by providing two weeks of fully paid paternity leave, and additional provision would be costly, so why should they do any more?

In my view, it’s a continuation of outdated social norms that have led to an acceptance that fathers should receive so much less. There does seem to be consensus within the charity sector that mothers deserve better than statutory; many charities offer generous maternity leave packages.

Surely charities (or at least those with sufficient resources) should be leading the way in improving benefits for fathers, as we ought to be (but yet are lagging) with the diversity argument?

Why should charities do more for fathers?

There are many compelling reasons, in my view, why charities should have more generous paternity leave provision:

  • To benefit the wellbeing of the mother, as explained above.
  • To benefit the wellbeing of the father, including bonding and building confidence with the baby. Moreover, when he returns to work after an extended leave, he is likely to be more comfortable with the new routine, and a better employee as a result.
  • To benefit the wellbeing of the baby; extra time is more likely to lead to a calm, peaceful household which can only improve the baby’s start in life.
  • To benefit family cohesion overall. A household which is given plenty of time for all family members (including other children) to adjust to the new arrival surely has a better chance of maintaining strong relationships and good mental health all round. This has a host of knock-on positive effects for society, which charities should surely support.
  • If more fathers are as likely to take several weeks’ leave as mothers, this will reduce the likelihood of discrimination against women.
  • It may help us attract more men to a largely female-dominated fundraising workforce, improving our sector’s diversity.

Obviously, many mothers have partners who do not identify as male, or don’t have a partner at all. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t extend these same paternity leave rights to a nominated secondary carer.

Many fathers would love to have more time with their new children, and new mothers would benefit hugely from this vital additional support in the early weeks. I hope that those charities that can afford it will consider going significantly beyond what is normally offered to fathers.

How important is “passion” for a fundraiser?

I recently read Jason Lewis’ excellent book: The War for Fundraising Talent. I was particularly interested in his exploration of “the passion predicament”.

Lewis describes meeting a number of young, ambitious fundraisers. He writes, “As they introduced themselves, I was hoping someone would say their decision to be a fundraiser wasn’t solely based on passion for a cause. No luck. One after another, each participant espoused an affinity of some sort.

Why was Lewis disappointed to find such a single-minded focus on the “cause”? Surely we want all fundraisers to be passionate about this?

Lewis, however, links the young fundraisers’ attitudes to the fallacious career advice to “do what you love”. This advice centres on the idea that we all have a deep well of passion within us for a particular cause or discipline: if we can unlock it, we will achieve “career utopia”. However, this concept is unrealistic and unhelpful for both individuals and their employers.

The wrong kind of passion can lead to burnout

Many fundraisers have a deep connection to the cause they work for. However, there’s always more work to do, and without checks and balances – such as finishing work at a sensible time – burnout can occur. This helps no-one, not least the charity that may have to cover long-term sick pay and manage high levels of staff turnover.

This Harvard Business Review article explores “the dark side of passion”. Through researching entrepreneurs, the authors identified the different impacts of two types of passion. “Harmonious passion” leads to a healthy absorption in work and high productivity. Crucially, this type of passion allows for balance and variety in individuals’ lives and careers.

“Obsessive passion”, on the other hand, is characterised by emotional dependence on work – often for reasons of status or identity. This type of passion is linked to a high risk of burnout. Although the HBR study focused on entrepreneurs, it is easy to see the relevance to fundraisers. If we label ourselves as “passionate” about one cause or role, feel that one particular job is our “dream job”, and base our identity on it to the detriment of the other parts of our lives, we are also at risk.

Inflexible passion can be career-limiting

If you define purely as someone whose mission is to help the environment, what happens if you can’t access the right career development opportunities? There are only a small number of environmental charities that can afford to employ fundraisers. What if the right role isn’t available at any of them?

Similarly, inflexible passion may hold back aspiring fundraisers. If you are fixated on international development – a field which many, many graduates want to work in – what do you do when you can’t get an interview?

The requirement for passion can give a licence for exploitation

In too many instances, passion and the advice to “do what you love” can be used by unscrupulous employers to justify exploitation. Look at the low salaries in “glamorous” industries such as the arts. It’s also far easier to justify unpaid internships if, alongside the work itself, the employer is selling self-actualisation in a so-called “dream job”.

And, as the writer Miya Tokumitsu says in this interview at the Atlantic, “if you make passion a work requirement, you can’t complain about your workload”.

Passion can be selfish

The idea of “doing what you love” is overly focused on meeting the needs of the self. It also implies that it’s possible to feel consistently good and fulfilled through work. While this should be possible at least some of the time, it’s not realistic to expect continuously in any job – whether you’re a receptionist or a rock star. I’m not sure I’d even want this. Surely the most rewarding moments at work are when a challenging, demanding project reaches fruition? The moments of satisfaction are meaningless without the accompanying difficulties.

Rather than exhorting young people to “do what you love”, we should be encouraging them to ask “Where am I needed? How can I use my unique skills and talents to make a difference in the world? How can I cultivate a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness that may lead to opportunities that I have not yet considered?”

A balanced approach to passion is possible 

“Passion” is defined in the dictionary as “a very powerful feeling“. It’s a strong word – and there are many causes I care deeply about – but in my experience it’s simply not possible, nor desirable, to experience “very powerful feelings” every minute of every working day.

There are causes that I feel more naturally drawn towards, but I’ve found it far more helpful to remain open-minded about the specific cause and prioritise finding the right roles in well-run organisations which have a strong fundraising infrastructure.

My current role is at a charity which funds research to prevent pregnancy loss. Many of our donors have lost a baby: not having been in that situation myself, I cannot share the full extent of their deep feeling for the cause. But I can find “harmonious passion” through working for a charity that I am confident is using its money well, and helping donors to find reward through making a difference.

We should be passionate about fundraising as a discipline

Lewis argues that fundraising itself can and should be cultivated as a passion. I agree: the cause itself is crucial, but focusing on that to the exclusion of fundraising delegitimises our profession. We should take pride in what we do: after all, excellent fundraising can make a huge difference to what an organisation is able to achieve in its mission.

He recommends that:

  • we develop a new generation of fundraisers who “don’t question the legitimacy of their roles”; and
  • we ensure that new fundraisers are inspired by more than their passion for a particular cause.

There is great joy and reward to be found in a fundraising career – through serving and delighting donors. I hope other ambitious fundraisers can find passion in the work they do every day that goes beyond the cause itself.