Is fundraising a profession?

Feb 2, 2016 | Executive Coaching Blogs, Life Coaching Blogs, Social Responsibility

This is the first part of an ongoing conversation between the artful fundraiser and Radiancy Coaching Partners. Get the latest post each week by signing up here and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jeremy makes me laugh and think every time we get together. Here he goes. . . .
Jeremy Hatch headshot


Thanks for inviting me to chat about the staffing and organizational challenges of the typical non-profit. I’ve been a fan of your work at Stefanie Krievins & Co. for a long time and your passion for social justice.

Where to begin? With something funny of course.

My favorite blogger (Non-profit AF ) breaks down the non-profit realities for us recently in tragic fashion. If there is a more accurate, amusing, and honest summation of our work in non profits I don’t know it. My favorite? The employee benefits program that involves taking home leftover cheese and half drunk bottles of wine from donor receptions. This is the truest of the true. At my last day job I lived off of donor cheese and Diet Coke for several months and my friends confided in me that my complexion was pasty and worrisome.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of fundraising as a profession. Fundraising as a career path is much like that of a basketball coach. Have some initial and early success in your work and you will be moved quickly up the food chain by either your organization (unlikely) or by the competition. Have a bad quarter, irritate one single board member, or get caught up in a staff transition plan by the new CEO and it is back on the job market.

And no one seems to mind. I see employers hire fundraisers who’ve left four jobs in five years. What to do you think is going to happen this next time around? That your candidate magically commits to you as stop number five?

So for most fundraising “professionals” in a management position, it is stay a year or two, at most, and then off to the next thing. Regardless of the economic conditions, fundraising tenures are holding steady at 18-24 months and have been for many years. That’s two years to establish deep and trusting relationships with donors, to learn an organization culture, to pursue ambitious goals, to be a change agent for the good of humanity.

That’s a joke, and it is not a funny one.

There are many reasons for this constant turnover, I grant you that. Often unrealistic expectations, shabby work-life balance, inadequate training and little professional development, as a start to a long list.

Is fundraising truly a profession? Increasingly, I am beginning to wonder. In considering our dialogue about the state of non-profits, I googled the term “professional” and the consensus definition is something like, “Person formally certified by a professional body of belonging to a specific profession by virtue of having completed a required course of studies and/or practice. And whose competence can usually be measured against an established set of standards.

A lot to unpack here. Are fundraisers consistently certified or credentialed? No, not even close. The baseline for evaluating fundraisers generally involves, “Would I like to drink a beer with this guy?” or “Will the board members enjoy hanging out with this attractive 20 something woman?” and simplistic, nonsensical interview questions such as, “What’s the biggest gift you’ve ever raised?”

No one knows when what questions to ask potential fundraisers in interview sessions. Why? I believe the staffing churn is so great and has been for so long that employers understand that they probably cannot count on long-term tenure and so see their fundraising staff as replaceable parts for the most part.

Whose fault is this?

If fundraising is a profession (and I am not convinced) then we as professionals need to stop jumping ship at every opportunity. If our work is about developing relationships and lasting impacts, the change needs to start with us as PROFESSIONALS.

As educated and accomplishment fundraisers, we are not victims to management. We can seek out strong organizations with compelling missions and we can develop the fundraising capacity over time. We can be change leaders in our organizations. We can be ambassadors in the community, building connections and relationships. If we are to grow fundraising into a true profession, with high standards of accountability and pride, this change must start with us.

Or we can keep our resumes handy and jump at the next shiny object, for a little more money and some better donor cheese.