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 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.

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.