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!