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.

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