Is Fundraising a Profession?


I recently spent five days in New Orleans attending the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International Conference. It was an incredible experience, as it is every year.

The most provocative question echoing from our conversations is one also debated on the Rogare Advisory Panel I serve on:

Is fundraising really a profession?  

If it isn’t, I don’t know what I’ve been up to the past 25 years! But kidding aside, this deceptively simple question gets at the root problem with our sector.

When a nonprofit needs financial or legal assistance, who do they turn to? An accountant and lawyer, right? That those professions require specialized academic training and degrees elevates their standing. When their advice is sought, people heed it. Not so the case with fundraising.  More times than not, EDs, CEOs, and Boards don’t see a specific skillset distinct to fundraising as they would other professions. When a nonprofit needs fundraising support (as ALL do), its leadership too often believes anyone with good communication skills can fundraise.  In fact, development departments many times are seen as cost centers and not as pivotal players in financial sustainability. Underinvestment in development staffing and salaries leads to frustration, unmet fundraising goals, and high turnover.

The real deal:
Only fundraisers consider fundraising a profession.

Not considering fundraising as a “profession” and fundraisers, by extension, as qualified professionals with a specific skillset is fueling a workforce crisis.  Stark evidence of this nonprofit workforce problem is on full display in the UnderDeveloped report and a Points of Practice report on major gift officer recruitment and retention.

What’s driving more than half of top fundraisers to leave their jobs in two years or less, and 40% thinking of leaving the profession entirely? Why are more than half of Executive Directors/CEOs not finding talented development staff? Why do we see long vacancies of development positions when staff move on? Why does demand for fundraisers far exceed workforce capacity?  Issues of performance expectations and staff retention are rooted in how fundraising is regarded, or, rather, not.

How do we change this? There are a number of ways we can tackle this question, but for now, let me share these thoughts:

1.    Too many organizations think philanthropy just happens and anyone can “do” it. 

If fundraising is considered a dirty word, it will never be viewed as a profession with specific skills and qualifications. Fundraisers cannot spend more time on validation, buy-in, and self-defense than actually building relationships with donors and strategically planning for revenue growth. 

If there is no dedicated development team, or at least a staff position in place, huge red flag. If the development leader/team are not part of strategic organizational decisions—especially around planning and projections—you run the risk of having goals not based on an organization’s reality and setting the fundraiser(s) up for failure from the start. If the CEO and Board leadership leave fundraising to staff, no wonder there’s high burnout and misunderstanding of the time and effort it takes to create effective donor relationships. 

2.    People can’t be martyrs for the cause. Compensation is a factor.

Small to mid-size organizations feel this attrition of and competition for fundraising talent most acutely. Limited funding they have goes mostly to programs, often because donors expect that. As a result, larger, better-resourced organizations who can pay more attractive salaries appeal more to talented fundraising professionals. So do those who invest in professional development, demonstrating that they value skill-building.

Organizations of all sizes walk the fine line of figuring out how to incorporate competitive salaries while also being transparent in their “overhead v. program” costs. Dan Pallotta speaks extensively about this in his TED talk, and says nonprofits must accept human resources to be as critical as programs for long-term sustainability. EXACTLY.

Nonprofits simply can’t do their good work without funding.  Are EDs and Boards willing to pay for the expertise sustainability requires?

3.    We don’t always encourage and mentor professionals to pursue this career for the long-haul.

When I started in this profession (yes, I used that word intentionally), I didn’t have formal training, mostly because there weren’t many options back in the dark ages of the early 1990s. But I had the good fortune to work with incredibly talented colleagues, a few of whom were and are real mentors to me. I remain forever indebted to them for teaching and believing in me. 

Eventually, I built up my skill set through professional development opportunities. Now, two and a half decades later, I have my CFRE, regularly offer training workshops to nonprofits, serve in a leadership role in my AFP chapter, and attend many AFP chapter and national conferences to keep my saw sharpened. Over the years I’ve seen this field grow and become more “professional” through academic programs in fundraising and nonprofit management, certification, and an abundance of webinars and workshops.

So, the onramp to formal training for this profession is there.   

What are we doing to flood our workforce pipeline with trained, eager, and talented staff? And are we ensuring that fundraising professionals who have chosen to do this work have the ongoing skills-building, coaching, and support they need to stay long enough to become leaders in the profession over the long-term?

What do YOU think? Is fundraising a true profession, or is it just a job? I may be preaching to the choir so I hope you’ll share this with your ED or executive leadership to spark the conversation further.

I’m part of this ongoing discussion with my fellow members on the Rogare Advisory Panel. Feel free to join the conversation!

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