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.

How can we bring face-to-face fundraisers into the fold?

In my last post I explored some of the career barriers experienced by face-to-face fundraisers. I argued that more attention on this group could help the sector overcome some of the difficulties it faces – particularly related to diversity, talent and negative perceptions. This post examines potential solutions, drawing on suggestions from a number of senior fundraisers who began their careers in face-to-face. 

Helping face-to-face fundraisers view fundraising as a long-term career option

Many of the senior fundraisers I spoke to recognised that F2F fundraisers are frequently unaware of the opportunities available in charities – let alone the broader challenges and concerns the sector is facing. One reflected that they may not even know about jobs websites, such as Charity Job, that are familiar to the rest of us.

I heard ideas for straightforward solutions including:

  • Subsidised attendance at Institute of Fundraising events such as the annual F2F Conference, and Convention – a nominal fee of around £20 might be appropriate, especially given that a F2F fundraiser may need to take annual leave or unpaid leave to attend.
  • Subsidised IoF membership rates – again this could help to connect F2F fundraisers with peers and enthuse them about the possibilities within the broader sector.

Identifying and retaining talented face-to-face fundraisers

The turnover rate of F2F fundraisers is so high that identifying and developing talent is challenging. One individual observed that the demographic of F2F fundraisers is changing: many are school leavers without degrees, and may have been referred by the Job Centre. How can we nurture and retain the most talented?

Suggestions included:

  • Proactive outreach and development schemes. I spoke to some senior fundraisers who are making admirable efforts to improve internal progression at their own charities (where the face-to-face teams are in-house). It was also clear that many agencies are excellent at promoting from within, but a sector-led initiative may have more impact than relying on these individuals and teams.
  • Outreach efforts should not only focus on fundraising: other roles within the charity sector may be attractive and make relevant use of transferable skills. We should also offer pathways into campaigning, or roles where they are directly supporting beneficiaries. This is especially relevant to F2F fundraisers who would prefer not to be desk-based.

Addressing the problem of perception

My last blog post explored some of the perception problems that still affect F2F fundraising as a profession – both internally within charities, and in the public eye. Suggestions for improvement included:

  • The need for F2F fundraisers – both the individuals and the teams – to be recognised in sector awards.
  • There could be a role for more rigorous training and accreditation.
  • Charities need to be more proactive in defending F2F fundraising, although they probably need to get better at defending themselves in general. Hopefully we are seeing a move in the right direction, given the robust responses of RNLI and Dogs Trust following recent media attacks.

Working with agencies

When working with agencies, there was a feeling among those I spoke to that charities tend to keep the agencies at arm’s length. If we, as charities, are benefiting from the income and donors brought in by F2F, we need to own this relationship and the responsibilities that come with it.

Many senior fundraisers working in the sector today developed their F2F skills within these agencies, rather than charities. Closer working with agencies could therefore encourage more movement of talented individuals into charity roles.

There is obviously a tension here, as the agencies will understandably want to keep their best staff. However, closer working with the charity sector would offer more career options outside of F2F and may encourage those who may have otherwise left fundraising to consider progression.

It’s worth adding that more movement of F2F staff into non-F2F charity roles will provide more internal cheerleaders for the discipline, which can only improve the problems of perception among charity staff. This in turn could benefit the agencies by improving working relationships.

Innovation

Much of the current negative attitude within charities towards F2F appears to be based on the fact that the market is challenging and is delivering a decreasing return on investment.

However, one individual highlighted the lack of innovation in F2F fundraising, which has generally focused on a regular giving request i.e. signing up for a monthly gift. Why not explore other options, such as awareness campaigns or charity lotteries? More creative, dynamic uses of F2F could broaden fundraisers’ skills and reduce the prevalence of some of the unfair and negative attitudes. Who knows? They could even surprise and delight the public.

What next?

Exploring the question of whether F2F fundraisers face a “glass ceiling” has opened up many, many more questions and potential routes for investigation. It’s a complex and fascinating area which I hope others will also be interested in investigating .

F2F fundraisers are the public face of our profession and are representing us every single day; we really ought to make sure they feel valued and can themselves be represented throughout the charity sector.

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.

Fundraisers, stop saying you’re bad at maths

I hear it from fundraisers more frequently than I’d like:

I’m terrible at maths!

Maths really isn’t my strong point.

For some reason, it’s socially acceptable to claim to be bad at maths. However, this is particularly worrying when it comes to fundraising, given that we deal with numbers every day.

Dyscalculia is a real problem for some people; however, if you have ever made the above statements yourself, the more likely scenario is a lack of confidence working with numbers.

Stop it!

Do you hear your colleagues in Finance say things like “oh, I’m terrible with words. I can barely read”? No. (I hope not, anyway.)

It would make it difficult for anyone to take them seriously. Similarly, statements such as “I’m bad at maths” will damage your credibility. And if you have any position of authority within your organisation, those looking to you as a role model will also adopt this attitude.

We can’t ignore the gendered aspect of this problem

When considering the above, it seems to me no coincidence that fundraisers are predominantly female. If they have a degree, based on my observations it usually appears to be in an arts subject as opposed to STEM.

Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a male fundraiser state that they’re bad at maths.

There’s a potent cocktail at play here, comprising anxiety, lack of confidence, eagerness to please by participating in supposedly harmless banter, and gendered expectations. The good news is that I don’t think this is a difficult problem to overcome.

Fundraisers don’t need to know high-level maths

Luckily, you don’t have to be a maths genius to do well in fundraising. All you need is some basics. Here is a list of some maths skills / maths-related pointers that I think all fundraisers need to know:

  • The really simple stuff: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You’re probably fine with this.
  • How to calculate a percentage.
  • How to calculate percentage increases and decreases. And make sure you understand the difference between a percentage change and a percentage point change.
  • Basic understanding of balance sheets.
  • Ability to work with budgets, and, if you write proposals of any sort, remember to check that the budget adds up. It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this neglected.
  • How to calculate ROI (return on investment).
  • Confidence using the basic features of Microsoft Excel.
  • When hiring a fundraiser, make sure you test their numeracy at some point during the interview process.
  • Stop saying you’re bad at maths! Instead, try doing the sums yourself and ask someone else to double-check them if you’re unsure.

This has broader implications

This is not a problem confined to fundraising, or to charities. Others have written about these attitudes have a negative impact on business and, worryingly, how they can affect our children.

After all, our female-dominated, often feminist-identifying workforce would rail against T-shirts like these, wouldn’t it? Let’s not perpetuate these harmful stereotypes through our own actions and attitudes.