Guest Post: Fundraising As a Vocation, Not a Job

After I read this post by Lynne Wester, I e-mailed her about re-posting it here for all of you and she graciously agreed. Please feel free to leave comments here or in Lynne’s original post.


There are two types of people that work in nonprofit fundraising. Distinct and telling differences emerge when you examine those two types of people. Many times I am often asked why I do all I do in addition to my full time employment. My first answer usually revolves around insomnia, my second answer strikes at the core of who I am, fundraising is my passion. I fully feel that there are two types of people working in our field. Some who feel it is their day job and the rest of us that feel it is our vocation or calling.Growing up, I was the kid who never knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Among my lifelong dream careers were the first female NFL referee, the next Ernest Hemingway, and a  restaurant critic. Growing up, never did I say I wanted to be a donor relations professional. After trying many things from a boat captain to a pastry chef to a teacher and a bartender, when I found philanthropy, something in me changed.  We now have the opportunity to teach others about our profession, to hire the kinds of people that inspire us to do better.So why am I on this vocation kick? Because I meet people who are just in it for other reasons and I’m baffled. You won’t become rich working in nonprofit fundraising, but boy is your heart full. The dictionary defines vocation as “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.” The first time I heard vocation it was in 8th grade when I had to take a series of all of the vocations, including wood and metal shop, agriculture, home economics (am I dating myself?), typing, and auto shop. But I am now convinced more than ever that fundraising is my vocation. I chose higher education as my specialty for a deeply personal reason that I won’t go into in this blog (let’s just say it involves my Dad) but one day if you catch me at a bar over a glass of Malbec I’ll try telling you without crying.The folks I tend to do business with, those whom I admire, and those whom are my mentors all are in this profession and see it as their vocation. I actively choose not to spend my time on and with those who see it as another job or a means to an end. They exhaust me. As some might say, they don’t
“get it”.

A job is defined as, “the work that a person does regularly in order to earn money” this designates a few differentiations from a vocation. The first is that the end goal is money, anyone in nonprofit will tell you the benefits are great, the pay is not that fabulous. The second thing about a job is that it seems to have a finite end and purpose, I just cannot say that about a vocation. My vocation consumes me at times, for better or worse.

Maybe I can relate it in philanthropic terms. People who work in nonprofit fundraising as a vocation are donors, and those who see it as a job are non donors? Is that too bold a statement?

As I wax philosophical, I would love to hear your thoughts. What drives you in your career? why do you do what you do? Is it a vocation, a job, what? How do you define what you do and who you are to others?


How long should you stay in your job?

I recently attended an event with the founder of a national search firm that manages many fundraising searches annually.

One of the interesting things that he advised was to stay in a fundraising position for a minimum of 3 or 3.5 years.  In his opinion, results from your first two years of any position are predominantly a result of things done by a predecessor (unless of course it is a new position or there are other mitigating circumstances to consider) and that it isn’t until your third year on the job that your own ideas and initiatives begin to produce results.  While I don’t totally agree with this assertion, I do understand it.

Do you agree or disagree with this assertion?  I’m very interested to hear your thoughts.


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The Importance of Professional Development in Fundraising

After attending the Association of Donor Relations Professionals New York City Regional Workshop last Friday, I am feeling a bit refreshed and full of new ideas to try in the next year.  It’s one of my favorite times of the year, as the conference season is getting under way.  I say it all the time and will say it again — fundraisers need professional development opportunities (and many other things) to stay sane and effective.

There are many reasons that professional development is critical for fundraisers, but here are my top three reasons:

  1. Time to recharge — We all can benefit from some time away from the office, which allows us to see the bigger picture and return to our work refocused.
  2. Source of new ideas and inspiration — Conferences and workshops are always full of the latest and greatest ideas and strategies.  As Lynne Wester reminded us at the ADRP Regional Workshop, we can all learn from each other and borrow ideas  that will help our fundraising efforts.
  3. Expand your network — Being able to pick up the phone or send a quick e-mail to a few fellow fundraisers with a question or issue is absolutely priceless.  Professional development events are the best place to make these connections and you should capitalize upon these opportunities to meet and get to know your colleagues.

What professional development events and associations have been useful in your fundraising career?  What events will you be attending this year?

For your information, I’ll be attending AFP’s International Conference in Vancouver next month (which I’ll be writing more about very soon), the New York Philanthropic Planning Symposium in May and Fundraising Day in New York this June.  I look forward to sharing some of the lessons I glean from these upcoming events with you.

Fundraising Mentee Profile: Leticia John

As National Mentoring Month 2012 draws to a close, I wanted to profile a young fundraiser that I have been mentoring.  I have had the pleasure of knowing Leticia John for probably about three years or so.  Leticia is the Development Officer at The Whitby School in Greenwich, Connecticut, with prior experiences at Iona College, Youth, I.N.C. and Changing Our World.  We first met while she was studying at our shared alma mater, The Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.  I have been and continue to be proud to help her in any way that I can as she builds a career and grows in the wide world of fundraising.

How did you get into fundraising?

Entering my first year as a graduate student at NYUWagner, I joined the Youth, I.N.C.’s  staff as an intern.  My program of study was a Master of Public Administration in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy.  I was thankful to obtain the position at Youth, I.N.C. because the organization worked with many small youth-serving non-profit organizations to help build their fiscal and managerial capacities to be successful in fulfilling their missions. Thus, I had a firsthand opportunity to work directly with executive directors, participate in trainings that focused on management, board development and of course strategic fundraising among many other topics. Working at Youth, I.N.C. was an invaluable experience, where I was able to learn the essentials of supporting start-up/small NPO’s and how to raise funds through one-on-one solicitations, direct mail solicitations, events and board development.

I decided to stay within the fundraising field because I realized it was an essential skill to have in the non-profit sector. Furthermore, there is always a demand and need for individuals to take on the responsibility of soliciting funds, whether through fundraising events or one-on-one interactions.  I also believed that I would develop a skill set that would be transferable in many other professions (e.g. policy and campaign management, program and event management, communications, executive leadership positions in public and or non-profit organizations and the like).  To the same extent, I really enjoy my daily activities as a fundraiser because it fits my personality — I get to plan events, meet new people, do research and make a real difference that has an immediate effect. Closing and stewarding a $10,000 gift and what that $10,000 can provide for an organization gives you an awesome feeling.


Based on your experience at Iona College, what are some pros and cons of higher education fundraising?

I’m not sure if my answer will be unique, but typically institutions of higher education have larger and more dynamic fundraising programs and capacities.  One of the biggest opportunities is that you have a larger pool of people to solicit.  It’s a great arena for someone to start their career; you can test materials, events, approaches, etc.  An obvious con is that higher ed (in my experience) is more bureaucratic and there may be too many “cooks” in the kitchen (for example, Vice Presidents, Assistant Vice Presidents, Directors, Associate Directors, Campaign Managers, etc.) with roles that can be very segmented or overly cloudy.  Some may also suggest that it’s harder (depending if you are raising unrestricted or restricted funds) to build a case and/or illustrate the impact of funds raised.

Nevertheless, I loved my experience at Iona because it was dynamic and there were so many opportunities to develop my skill set as a fundraiser.  The catch to any fundraising program is assessing if it has sufficient capacity and enough resources to effectively take advantage of those opportunities.

I think a larger conversation can be had on the pros and cons of working for a small or large fundraising team, though it really depends upon what you want to accomplish in your career as a fundraiser.


In your non-fundraising life, what are you passionate about?

Oh, this is thought-provoking!  I make an earnest attempt to just enjoy life.  I am very social and truly enjoy interacting with people.  There are so many beautiful places, tasty foods, fun adventures to experience — why not be passionate about experiencing it all with friends and family.


Where do you see the future of fundraising in the next 10 years?

I think the field is on an upward trajectory. However, I believe that raising/soliciting money is also becoming very personal.  We all know that people give to people, but donors are becoming much more strategic in the organizations they support and supporting organizations that are personal to them, have meaning to them, relate to them, and have an effect on them.  As a result, fundraising has to become more creative and interactive.  It will be interesting to see if nonprofits with similar missions will compete or collaborate as they grow to make impact.

I also think that fundraisers who are in senior leadership positions are more inclined to stay in their positions than ever before.  I imagine this will have a negative impact on junior and mid-level fundraisers who are trying to advance their careers.  Nevertheless I think fundraisers will always be in demand and they will become an invaluable source to an organization the longer they are there raising funds.


If you didn’t have a chance to read last week’s Fundraising Mentor Profile, check it out here.

Do you have any questions for Leticia?  Has your fundraising career been similar to hers?  Do you see the future of fundraising in the same way?

Fundraising Mentor Profile: Michele Minter

Since January is National Mentoring Month, I wanted to take this opportunity to profile one of my fundraising mentors, Michele Minter, the former Vice President of Development at The College Board and former Director of Development at Princeton University.  Michele is currently working as the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity & Diversity at Princeton.  I first learned about Michele from her father, a former community foundation leader, and have had the pleasure of knowing her for the last few years.  I hope that you take something away from her distinguished career in our field.

How did you get into fundraising?  Why did you build a career in this field?

I spent the earliest part of my career as an administrator for performing arts organizations, and it was natural to learn about grantwriting and special event fundraising in that context.  During the same time period I did some consulting for the National Endowment for the Arts by serving as an evaluator for proposals.  I was intrigued by the decisions that faced organizations as they planned their fundraising priorities and applied for funds: did they really have a clear understanding of their mission and strengths?  How much were they prepared to adjust their plans to conform to the agendas of funders, and why?  I thought the questions were fascinating and decided to consider development as a full-time profession.  Once I had made the transition to major gifts fundraising, I was deeply impressed by the thoughtfulness and commitment of both donors and fundraising volunteers.  Those relationships added another dimension of fulfillment to the work.


What has been your greatest fundraising success?  And your greatest fundraising challenge?

Although I’ve raised individual gifts at the eight-figure level, my proudest fundraising work involved Princeton University’s Women in Leadership Initiative, a program that I launched (with the help of extraordinary volunteers) to engage alumnae donors.  It has helped to build a generation of alumnae leaders for the University through a series of cultivational and stewardship activities and communications.  After more than ten years, the Women in Leadership Initiative is still thriving, still raising money successfully, and still serving as a national model and a model for other programs at Princeton.

My greatest fundraising challenges have involved federal grant competitions.  Federal proposals require huge mobilization of cross-functional teams and all-out efforts to meet tight deadlines.  At the end of the process, failure to get the grant can be deeply disheartening even though it is always a risk.  Major gifts fundraising can also involve a lot of pressure and the potential for disappointment, but even a solicitation that is declined can move the relationship forward.  Federal grantwriting is far more impersonal and the possibility of a “no” at the end is much more stark.


In your non-fundraising life, what are you passionate about?

I do a lot of volunteering in my community.  One of my passions is the Fund for Women and Girls at the Princeton Area Community Foundation, where I co-chair a giving circle that brings together local women to raise money to support the needs of girls in Trenton, NJ and the surrounding communities.  I’m also passionate about my family, and especially my two endlessly fascinating (and confounding) kids.


Who have been some of your fundraising mentors?  How did they impact your career?  What did you learn from them?

My first boss at Princeton University, the then vice president of development, taught me virtually everything I know about working with donors in the field.  His coaching on strategy, his example of how to handle conversations effectively, and his skill at follow-up were the best possible training that I could have had as a young fundraiser, and he has continued to be a resource and friend ever since.  I was fortunate to have had that opportunity to learn the ropes from a senior colleague who took such a personal interest.  I also learned a lot from the Princeton alumni volunteers with whom I worked on soliciting their classmates.  In many cases they had a depth of knowledge and experience of fundraising that surpasses that of professional development officers.  Working with so many alumni volunteers and watching their different styles taught me how to be nimble, read cues carefully, and be prepared to adjust strategies on the fly!


Now that you are no longer actively working in fundraising, how are you remaining engaged in the field?

This year I chose to make a transition out of professional fundraising in order to focus on Higher Education administration more broadly, but I am still deeply committed to and involved with philanthropy and the advancement field.  I’m co-editing a book for CASE on donor education, which will be a resource for advancement professionals who want to understand better how to organize a family philanthropy program, a giving circle, or activities that will help donors become more confident, informed and effective in their philanthropy.  I also serve on the Leadership Council of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and as a steering committee member for the Women’s Funding Network’s “Millions Give Back: A Black Women’s Philanthropy Campaign” project.  And I try to keep my development skills from getting rusty by doing some fundraising for local causes.


Stay tuned for next week’s profile, which will be of an impressive young fundraiser that I have been fortunate to mentor over the last few years.

Do you have any questions for Michele?  Did anything in Michele’s experience stick out to you or resonate with you?  How have you benefited from mentors in your fundraising career?

Why Fundraisers Should Use Twitter — Reason #1: Prospecting

Every now and then, I will share a quick anecdote that can serve as a reminder to all of you wonderful fundraisers out there why you should be taking part in the ever-expanding community of fundraising and non-profit professionals on Twitter.  Here’s my first one, so please do enjoy . . .

When I first joined Twitter almost two years ago, I really had no idea that other fundraisers were using it, let alone how they were making use of it.  Now I never imagined that I could end up using Twitter as a source of prospect research, but it turns out that I did earlier this year.  While checking the latest tweets of the day, I stumbled upon a link to an article from Bloomberg Markets magazine entitled “Hidden Billionaires: Eight Really Rich People You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.”  Now if you know me (which some of you dear readers do, if only through this blog, LinkedIn and/or Twitter), you know that I see this sort of list as a bit of a challenge; when I see things like this, I always check the names on the off chance that someone is in our alumni database or is perhaps related to someone who is.  Occasionally I find a connection and this was one of those great times — it turns out that one of the billionaires on this list is married to an I-House alumnus.  Now I can say with great certainty that there is very little possibility that I would have stumbled upon this information at a later date, because we did not even know that this alumnus was married.

I say all of this to strongly encourage you to join Twitter, to start following your fellow fundraising & non-profit professionals (along with those news sources that interest you), and to join this dynamic community!  And when you join, be sure to tweet me @dan_blakemore.


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Leaving Your Mark As a Fundraiser

While completing a major stewardship mailing last week, I recalled that I needed to document the production process for this mailing (one that I first introduced last year to provide an annual report of sorts to all of our donors).

As someone who is a tireless cheerleader for the fundraising profession, I know firsthand why it is important to document these processes and assure continuity for our organizations.

Institutional memory is a critical part of the foundation of all organizations, but especially for non-profits and most especially for the development office in non-profit organizations.  When this memory is lost through staff turnover, the organization’s fundraising message can get muddled, relationships that were being actively managed can be squandered and overall fundraising efforts can become stalled indefinitely.

Smooth transitions among fundraising staff can significantly reduce the amount of time that a new staffer needs to get up to speed with the usual workings of an organization.  In my current role, I have been the beneficiary of well-documented work processes and it has made all the difference, especially when it came to executing major mailings and reports for the first time.  In addition to documenting processes, I have found it helpful to remain available for your successor (ideally in situations where you have left your position amicably) as he/she begins to pick up where you left things.  After leaving a past position, I willingly responded to queries from my successor for months and did so out of respect for the organization and my contributions to that fundraising program; now everyone is not as over the top as I am and I don’t expect them to be, but these realities of transitions are rarely discussed.

I sincerely believe that it is a vital part of our duty to our organizations as fundraising professionals to do all that we can to assure that they can go on in the future without us; I believe that the best way to assure this is to leave a clear record of how things were done in the past.

How are you documenting your work in your current position?  Have you benefited from your predecessors documenting their work processes?


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7 Ways to Learn About Fundraising

After Rory Green asked me on Twitter yesterday about the best ways to learn about fundraising, way too many ideas came to mind that I could not get them all out of my head and into 140-character sections to answer her question.  In an effort to make it easy for you, dear readers, I have compiled a list of the top seven ways to deepen your fundraising knowledge:

1.  Do the work: If you are currently working in non-profit fundraising, the best way to deepen your knowledge is to take on stretch assignments.  Not only will you demonstrate your value to your boss and co-workers, but you will also have something substantial to add to your resumé.

2.  Engage with mentors: An easy way to build up your knowledge of fundraising is to identify and engage with a few seasoned fundraisers as mentors; these professionals will be able to help you develop professionally, serve as a sounding board for ideas you may have and generally help guide you through this work.

3.  Join a professional association/networking group: Whether it’s the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Association of Donor Relations Professionals, the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, or a Meetup group, you should take full advantage of opportunities to engage with fellow fundraisers.  You never know what you may learn and who you could meet.

4.  Volunteer: Some say that the best training is through trial by fire.  If you volunteer with a group that you are already involved in to help out in fundraising, you could end up learning about more grassroots fundraising, how to craft sponsorship proposals for the business leaders in your community or anything else on the fundraising spectrum.

5.  Read industry publications: As you build a career in fundraising, it is absolutely imperative that you stay up on the current trends and happenings in the field.  A great way to do this is to subscribe to and regularly read at least one of these publications: The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fundraising Success Magazine, Advancing Philanthropy (a subscription to which you get as a member of AFP), Planned Giving Today, and The Non Profit Times.

6.  Attend workshops & seminars or enroll in formal certificate/degree programs: A few times a year (time and registration costs permitting), you should be sure to attend a workshop or seminar related to your area of fundraising; these are usually a good combination of professional development and networking.  If you are in the Greater New York area, my two favorites are the New York Philanthropic Planning Symposium and Fund Raising Day in New York, sponsored by the local PPP and AFP chapters respectively.  If you live near one of the regional offices of The Foundation Center, they consistently offer interesting sessions on diverse topics in fundraising and philanthropy.  To take this a few steps further, you could also consider a graduate degree or certificate program in fundraising, philanthropy and/or non-profit management (in a later post I will share why I pursued a graduate degree and how it led me to my career in fundraising).

7.  Engage on social media: To take your learning to the next level, you should be actively participating in the conversations occurring on Twitter and the multitude of blogs and websites focused on fundraising (like this one!).  I am continually surprised and impressed by all of the people that I have been able to engage with and learn from through these media.

I hope that you find these strategies useful and that you will put them to use in your career.

Does this list reflect your experience?  Did I leave anything off my list?

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Quick Tips for Managing a Career in Fundraising

At the end of a very interesting NYU panel discussion last month, the panelists offered some great quick tips for managing a career in fundraising and philanthropy, which I am pleased to share with you below:

  • Stay immersed in the current topics in your field (the specific issue area in which your organization works AND fundraising/philanthropy overall).
  • Think reflectively on the skill sets that you possess and what others may be necessary in the sector.
  • Assure that you are fluent in the various parts of fundraising, as you should find it easier to be more of a generalist and have the flexibility to comfortably work on different pieces of the puzzle.

Do you agree with these tips?  Have you used them in your own career?  What other tips would you suggest for managing a successful fundraising career?

If you did not read my recap of last month’s NYU panel discussion on how fundraising and philanthropy are faring as the American economy recovers, check it out here.

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