“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When you were in first grade, I bet you didn’t say, “I want to be a fundraiser!”
Me? I wanted to be Matlock.
For so many of us a fundraising career is something we fell into, or perhaps as a “second act” after our first career didn’t work out exactly as we planned.
That’s exactly what happened to me. After law school and three years as a litigator, I knew that I needed to make a change. With that in mind, I replied to a job listing I found in a paper copy of the New York Times (now I’m really dating myself) and sent my cover letter and resume to the Planned Giving department at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
A few interviews later and voila, I was a fundraiser. How did that happen?
And even after you get your first fundraising job, the path forward can be a little fuzzy. While the field of fundraising has been around a very long time, the career track for a fundraiser is nowhere near as established as with other professions.
Recently, I was asked this question:
“If you could give one piece of advice to your younger fundraising self, what would it be?”
I thought a lot about that. I came up with a whole lot of specific advice – how to best craft pitch letters – stuff like that (thankfully my earliest pitch letters are in a version of Word that no longer exists.)
But then I decided the most important advice I could give my younger self isn’t so low level. Rather, it’s about how to shape a fundraising career.
So without further ado, I hope you’ll join me as I make like Marty McFly, jump in my DeLorean, and flux capacitate to the past with the advice I wish I had back in the day.
THE KEYS TO BUILDING A FUNDRAISING CAREER
If I could tell my younger self the most important thing about building a fundraising career it would be to follow the three ‘Ls’:
- Learn it all
- Look ahead
- Live in the fundraising moment
While fundraising careers are as diverse and different as the thousands of people who make up this noble profession, I think the three Ls offer lessons that can help all of us.
Learn It All
Like so many attorneys who move into fundraising for planned giving, with its focus on estate planning and very dense regulations for life income gifts, this was a natural fit for me. I love planned gifts and I am so grateful for all that I learned about how donations can leave a lasting and powerful legacy.
But if I only focused on learning about planned giving at PPFA I would never have found out how much I love asking for outright gifts.
And just as likely I would have had a much more difficult time advancing in my burgeoning fundraising career.
Instead, I talked to the major gifts team, did my best to learn about foundation and corporate giving, and tried to learn all I could about direct response solicitations (not to mention the universal importance of gift processing.)
I also read books (yes, this was in the infancy of the web), and got as much training as I could about all different kinds of fundraising.
Did I learn it all? Of course not. Even after all these years, I still learn new things all the time.
But here’s the lesson: While a specialty in one form of fundraising can be extremely helpful, a singular focus on only one form of raising money does not serve a fundraiser well.
The days of staying in one job, or at one organization, for our entire career are over.
While some fundraisers move more than others, all fundraisers must be prepared to move on to a new position.
Hopefully, you will be the one who initiates the move. But nearly every person I know has had that decision made for them at some point because of family needs, layoffs, personnel changes, or because their current position just wasn’t a good fit.
How should a fundraiser look ahead? Focus on:
- Keeping up with philanthropic trends
- Making sure your tech skills are up to date
- Passively reviewing job descriptions for development positions you might be interested in to be sure your skills exceed the requirements.
While knowing how to make a big ask is so important, fundraising is an increasingly technical field. Don’t wait until you have to find a new job before realizing you really haven’t kept up with your skill set.
Live In The Fundraising Moment
Good fundraisers always have their eyes on the next ask, the next event, or next month’s revenue goal.
But the advice I really wished someone told me was to enjoy the moment. I wish that I knew earlier on to:
- Enjoy the fact that I am helping move forward a cause that is important to me.
- Truly feel the enormous satisfaction available to a fundraiser who works with a donor to help her fulfill her philanthropic goals.
- Make sure to celebrate successes.
Like so many other fundraisers, I have spent so much of my career working crazy long hours to bring in as much money as possible. I truly wish I could tell my younger self to enjoy the process and to take the time to feel the real happiness and sense of accomplishment that being a fundraiser can bring.
What is your advice to your younger fundraising self? What are those words of wisdom you wish you knew when starting out? Please let me know in the comments below, and in the future I’ll write a post incorporating all of your sage words.
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