The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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Flying high: how to reach the top in fundraising

Ready to take your career to new heights? Catherine Miles, fundraising director at Anthony Nolan, explains how to spread your fundraising wings.


The fundraising profession is becoming ever more sophisticated with a host of passionate and skilled fundraisers working for some great causes.

Having spent my whole career in the voluntary sector, Iíve developed some thoughts about what fundraisers need to reach the top. In this article, Iíll share how I built my career Ė and the advice I give my staff to help them develop theirs.

As a starting point, itís important to note that reaching the top means different things to different people. Climbing the career ladder inevitably means our roles change from being hands-on fundraisers to being managers and then leaders. This requires a very different skill set, and itís not for everyone. Some of the best, most successful fundraisers prefer focusing solely on donors and would never want to be a director. So the first questions to ask yourself are: what level would you like to get to? What type of role would best suit you? When have you been most successful? And, most importantly, when have you been happiest in a job?


Moving on up

If you decide you want shoot for the more senior roles, one question youíll probably want to ask is: how do I build my skills and knowledge?

Whether you work for a large or small charity, we work in a sector where there are many opportunities for personal development. A useful tip is to regularly step back and assess your own strengths and weakness. Ask yourself: when have I been most successful and why? When have I had less good results and what were the reasons for this? What skills, experience or attributes do I need to develop to be more effective in my current role and reach the next level? Asking yourself these questions at intervals throughout your career will enable you to write short plans, setting out the personal development areas you want to work on.

Using a mix of formal training courses and on-the-job learning can also help with your career development. For formal training, the Directory of Social Change courses are a good introduction to best practice, particularly for assistant/officer levels. If your charity can afford places, attending the Institute of Fundraising Convention is a good way to pick up current trends and network with peers. Target courses or networking session where a funder themselves is speaking: there is no substitute for listening to donors.

While formal qualifications are valuable, they need to be undertaken at the right stage of your career Ė ideally when you have some experience under your belt, know which areas of fundraising most interest you and have ideas you want to explore. I did a Certificate in Management course while I was at Shelter, which was great as it enabled me to focus on management, team development and leadership skills at a time when I had some experience of leading a team, but was about to lead a larger one.

Observing and picking up the best attributes from senior colleagues is a great way of building your knowledge and skills. You can learn a lot from donors and colleagues. At CPRE, I attended many donor meetings with the chief executive at the time, Fiona Reynolds, and learnt a huge amount from her on how to build relationships with funders and skillfully bring the meeting round to the key issues we wanted to discuss.

You can now learn a huge amount about fundraising trends, products and donor attitudes from social media. One of the best things about social media is that it makes personal development free and accessible, which is great if you work for a small charity or have a limited training budget. There are lots of great fundraising bloggers and tweeters sharing latest thinking on best practice. Top tweeters worth following include @pauldegregorio, @SOFIIisHOT, @ifundraiser and @frdetective, [ed Ė and of course @fundraisermag!] alongside the main trade press feeds from publications like Third Sector. Itís also great to follow the hashtags from sector meetings or conferences Ė #nfptweetup is always good.


Sizing things up

Thereís no right or wrong answer to whether itís better to work for a small or large charity. But itís important to get as broad a range of experience as possible within your area of fundraising. If youíre a corporate fundraiser, try to work on both new business and account management. If you work in individual giving, try to spread your experience across a range of acquisition channels and media. In all roles, try to gain a working knowledge of other areas of fundraising: volunteer to do a shift on a street collection; cheer at the marathon; read some trust proposals. This will help build your knowledge of the wider fundraising world and pick out whatís relevant to your discipline.

Iíve benefited from working in both small and large charities. As a small charity, CPRE was great for me at assistant and officer level. I was part of a fundraising team of six and was the only corporate/trust post. This meant I was given a lot of responsibility at an early stage in my career. I got to work directly with the chief executive and worked on a range of proposals that I would never have been able to do in a large charity.

Later in my career, working for a large charity like Shelter helped me to achieve my goals. Shelter had the size and reach to be able to undertake a fundraising appeal, which I led on, and the budget to employ US appeal consultants from whom I learned an enormous amount about major gifts best practice and theory. A smaller charity would not have had been able to provide such opportunities.

So the most important questions to ask are: can my charity give me the opportunities I need to grow and develop? And, if not, what sort of charity could?


Benefits of coaching

Personal coaching is also something worth considering. Iíve found it invaluable in making the transition to being a fundraising director for the first time. It can help you understand the different skill set needed to be an effective director, where persuasion and negotiation skills are key to secure the necessary investment and internal buy-in for fundraising. Not all charities have the budget to provide coaching; but if you are offered the opportunity, do give it a try.

If you canít get access to coaching, having a mentor can be a great way of building your skills and knowledge. Luckily, we work in a sector where senior figures are very willing to meet for a coffee and give advice. If you admire a certain charityís fundraising, try to find out who leads that area and then ask them to meet for a chat.


Key qualities

You donít have to come from a particular fundraising income stream or have a particular personality type to be a fundraising director. Directors come from all kinds of backgrounds, including data analysis, community fundraising, corporate fundraising and direct marketing backgrounds.

But there are some shared characteristics among the fundraising directors that I know: a love of fundraising and passion for our profession; a commitment to the causes they work for; enthusiasm; drive; persistence. A good head for figures is also essential. fundraising directors tend to think big picture and on an organisational level. Discussions frequently centre around an organisationís brand, service delivery, position in the market or strategy.

If I were to give one piece of advice to someone hoping to become a fundraising director, it would be this: understand as much as you possibly can about your donors.

As a sector, weíve organised ourselves around products (events, regular giving acquisition channels, corporate proposals) rather than people. However, if you know who your main groups of supporters are Ė what motivates them, the impact they want to have on your charityís issue or beneficiaries, how best to communicate with them Ė you will be able to build a successful fundraising programme.

Our main responsibility as fundraisers is to act as brokers between the donors and the beneficiaries: weíre the conduit that enables them to make a difference.

Find out more

For more insight from Catherine Miles, follow her tweets @Cadders68 or check out her blog on

This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 24, December 2012

6 steps to becoming a successful fundraiser

1. On course:

A mix of formal and Ďon the jobí training will give you a variety of skills

2. Size can matter:

Large and small charities have different development opportunities to offer so work out what you want before you choose

3. People power:

Finding a mentor in your chosen field is a great way to access skills and experience for free

4. Insider info:

Understanding your donors will give you the essential insight you need to get the edge

5. Peer pressure:

Watching senior colleagues you admire in action lets you learn from their successes Ė and mistakes 

6. Love, actually:

The more passion and energy you bring to the job, the more likely you are to succeed

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