Do street fundraisers face a “glass ceiling”?

This is the first of two posts investigating issues related to the career progression of face-to-face fundraisers. In this post, I’ll focus on identifying some of the challenges; the second post will explore potential solutions.

I began my career as a face-to-face fundraiser (in a charity in-house team in 2006-07), and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done work-wise. At the time I was young, idealistic, and determined to make a career for myself in charities. As I’ve written about before, however, there was no straightforward way for me to develop my fundraising career from this entry point.

I was curious to know whether other fundraisers had similar experiences and whether the situation has improved over the decade since my time as a street fundraiser. As a member of the IoF’s Expert Diversity Panel, I was also keen to explore whether helping street fundraisers to develop could be a way of addressing some of the diversity issues faced by our industry.

I discussed my thoughts with several senior fundraisers who began their careers within face-to-face fundraising (street or door-to-door, working in-house at a charity or for an external agency). There were no straightforward answers to my questions, but these conversations have helped identify some themes that the fundraising community could certainly explore further.

How did other former face-to-face fundraisers develop their careers?

Several of those I spoke to started out working for an agency, and worked their way up within the company. Some made the sideways move to a charity, but others preferred to stay agency side. One found his way into face-to-face after seeking a career change. Following that, he got a “break” into an office-based charity role thanks to an open-minded recruiter who was intrigued by his CV.

My sample is by no means scientific, but it appears that moving up the ladder may often be easier within an agency than at a charity. Otherwise an ambitious face-to-face fundraiser may be relying on meeting the right person at a job interview who is willing to give them the chance.

Face-to-face fundraising undoubtedly develops relevant skills

Everyone I spoke to was a passionate advocate for the skills and potential of their face-to-face colleagues. They agreed that the work on the “coalface” of fundraising develops skills that could kick-start a long-term fundraising career. It doesn’t teach you everything you need to know about fundraising, but it’s a great starting point.

Flow Caritas’ report in 2014 made a similar argument, setting out a strong case for investing in and supporting street fundraisers as the future of our profession. Rory White, Flow Caritas Founder and Director, wrote that [street fundraising] “can no longer be dismissed as an adjunct to the fundraising profession. It’s actually the source of some of the best and brightest young fundraisers in the sector.”

He was acknowledging a need to defend street fundraisers. Why was there a need to defend them in 2014? And is this need still there?

Barriers to progression

Everyone I spoke to agreed that face-to-face fundraisers face barriers to long-term career development within charities. These included:

  • Face-to-face fundraisers are looked down upon by many people within charities. “I think people see it as an undesirable job, and therefore assume only people who are unskilled or uneducated do it.”
  • Face-to-face fundraising as a discipline is often looked down upon – if not by other fundraisers themselves, then by other charity staff. More than one person described it to me as “the sector’s dirty secret“. There was also a general feeling that charities did not do enough to defend face-to-face fundraising when it was attacked in the press – although one respondent acknowledged that charities’ lack of self-defence is a broader problem, which is perhaps accentuated by the public nature of face-to-face.
  • Face-to-face fundraisers do not see charities as a viable career prospect and are likely to be unaware of the wider sector’s activities, and the opportunities within it.
  • Most face-to-face fundraisers are only in the job for a short amount of time, which makes identifying and developing talent a challenge.

The fundraisers I spoke to also shared examples of excellent practice in helping face-to-face fundraisers progress in their careers. However, these examples mainly appeared to be due to the admirable work of passionate individuals, and therefore, presumably, if these people move on, their good work may well leave with them. I could not find evidence of systemic charity sector initiatives to help develop face-to-face fundraisers.

Has the situation changed in recent years?

I heard a range of opinions about how attitudes towards face-to-face fundraisers, and the discipline, have changed.

There was a general feeling that face-to-face is more recognised as a career path than it used to be. The increased focus on regulation and compliance in recent years has probably helped, through making it a more professional and accountable channel.

However, many charities appear to be more sceptical about the financial viability of face-to-face. The market has shrunk, with insufficient agencies to meet demand, and ROI has decreased. Agencies operating on tight margins are also less able to invest in staff development or innovation.

I was not able to gain a broad picture of the demographics of face-to-face, but one respondent made an interesting comment. He has observed that face-to-face fundraisers were initially middle-class – often university students or recent graduates (like me) – but this has changed in recent years. Now, the people on the street or knocking on doors are often school leavers, and may have been referred by the job centre. There is undoubtedly talent within this pool of people, but there may be additional challenges involved in helping them stay within fundraising, or the broader charity sector.

Why is this a problem?

“So many ideas that come out of London-based charity offices simply fail – because they exist in a London bubble. The lack of diversity (and diversity of thought) can be overwhelming… If you’re a street fundraiser who knows what will work in Oxford Street, what will work in Skegness, and what will work in Mansfield…you’re far more likely to understand how ‘the person on the street’ thinks, rather than if you’ve only ever relied on consumer insight or creative agencies.” 

We already know that there’s a diversity problem in fundraising, and that this affects our ability to do the best job possible. The fundraisers I spoke to generally agreed that more attention on face-to-face fundraisers could help the situation, although it won’t be easy as the issue links to many broader and complex challenges faced by the sector. To me, however, it appears that we’re missing opportunities to do things better.

In my next blog post I will explore potential solutions to these challenges.

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