Career culture shock: moving to a very different organisation

Career culture shock: moving to a very different organisation

Career culture shock: moving to a very different organisation

Changing to a different fundraising sector can immerse you in a whole new world. Here’s what I learned, and how I coped, moving into to a university fundraising role

By Roy Biddle


“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign,” claimed Robert Louis Stevenson, in an uncharacteristically passive aggressive moment. True perhaps… but little consolation when finding your feet in a workplace that can seem very much like another country.


Starting out as a university fundraiser was always going to be a bit of a culture shock. After 15 years in the voluntary sector, I knew that university fundraising was going to be very different. I knew the university was a vast and complicated organism. In fact the breadth of it – the range of things you have to get your head around – was exactly its appeal.


Finding your feet on new terrain


The ‘being part of a huge institution’ thing really takes some getting used to. I work for an organisation that employs nearly 14,000 people: many times more than any of the Scottish charities I worked for. Within the university, there are college and schools, services and offices, centres and groups, with all of their particular cultures and systems. Along with the principal, there are vice principals, assistant principals, heads of school, heads of college and heads of department, directors and executive directors.


So far, so organogram. But the way these roles fit together, and who you need to get project approval from, is far from intuitive to a newbie, although it may appear self-evident to those who are immersed in the system. Fortunately people have been patient. Or possibly just polite.


Within universities, fundraising teams work differently. Roles are more delineated. There are small teams of people who do the prospect research, and others who do the stewardship, that are integral to the role of a voluntary sector fundraiser. And it’s no longer all about the Institute of Fundraising. CASE (Council for Advancement of Support of Education) is the central point for standards, benchmarking and the annual industry shindig, I mean conference.


Some differences only emerge over time


Six months of induction and I still seemed to be in a foreign land. The more I learned about it, the more differences between university and voluntary sector fundraising emerged. The distinction, for instance, between philanthropy and other grant giving never seemed to exercise anyone much in the charities I worked for. At the university it determines which trusts you can approach, and which ones would result in klaxons sounding.


A year on and, finally, it is starting to feel a little more like home. One sign of familiarity (let’s not say institutionalisation, it’s a bit early for that) is a passable fluency in university-specific terminology. Gratifyingly, when new colleagues now ask questions about the university, I can usually say something more helpful than “Have you tried asking Morag [or anyone who isn’t me]?”


The joy of learning something new


While it has been disorienting at times, getting to know the university has been stimulating and enjoyable – like other learning experiences. Despite having to absorb so much about the job, working in a learning environment has fired an interest in further study. I have found time to do some of the free online courses that the University offers the public, on subjects ranging from the EU referendum to a history of philosophy.


For those of us who have been working in the same area for a long time, there can be a fear of getting stuck. It’s good to know that even if you have been doing one kind of fundraising a decade or more, it doesn’t mean you can’t switch to something completely different – quite a liberating realisation. Travelling to foreign lands has a great deal to recommend it.


@Roy Biddle is development manager, trusts and foundations, at the University of Edinburgh 

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