The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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Professional development: how to take your fundraising career to the next level

Want to get ahead in the charity sector? Jenny Ramage looks at how fundraisers can get kitted out for career progression


Good fundraisers are like gold dust. Look at the anecdotal evidence from recruiters, and the sheer number of senior fundraiser posts being advertised, and it appears there just aren’t enough of them around. Why?

Bruce Tait, chief executive of third sector recruitment specialists Bruce Tait Associates, has noticed that senior fundraising vacancies are getting harder to fill. While he cites several possible explanations for this – a tendency for people to stick in their current jobs in a recession, for example – he thinks that lack of investment in learning and development by charities is a big contributing factor. “I don’t see a lot of organisations offering people management training”, he says. “It’s not something recruiting charities offer very often as part of a package, that they will support you in your first steps in management. An appropriate package of support and training would definitely help.”

With the sector spending an average of just £121 per year on training and developing its staff, it’s easy to understand the view that some charities just aren’t taking L&D seriously enough.


Arrested development

Paul Marvell, director of professional development and membership at the Institute of Fundraising (IoF), thinks a sticking point is that organisations suffer from “a lack of a strategic approach” when it comes to training. And the recession hasn’t helped to improve attitudes, he says. “When budgets are tight, the training budget is always the first thing that gets cut. For me, that’s very short-sighted. If you want to retain the people you’ve got and develop their skills, you need to spend a bit of money”.

The well-known fundraising academic and consultant Adrian Sargeant also believes organisations aren’t investing as much in fundraisers’ professional development as they should. “Charities have a problem with retaining fundraisers and it’s because organisations on the whole don’t invest in them enough’, he says. “Charities need to see fundraising as a profession and hold it in higher regard. Fundraisers deserve the same opportunities as other charity professionals. If you’re not prepared to invest in the ongoing training and development of your team, then they are going to go elsewhere.”

It’s no coincidence, says Marvell, that organisations that successfully retain and train their staff – such as British Red Cross – continue to do well despite the recession. Their positive attitude towards staff retention and development “means fundraisers can develop the skills and relationships they need in order to do a really good job before they move up to the next level”.


Taking control

While it’s important that organisations seek to develop their staff and get the most out of them, equally responsible for the skills gaps are fundraisers themselves. “People shouldn’t wait around for their organisations to take action; they need to take responsibility for their own professional development”, says Marvell. “They should, preferably with their organisation, put together a personal and professional development plan that takes them through the steps they need to make in order to get to where they want to be, what they want to learn and how they are going to learn it”.

There are several ways to establish where there might be room for improvement in your skills: self-awareness and analysis; seeking feedback from colleagues and managers; you could even do an ‘insights profiling’ exercise (a bit like the Myers Briggs test), to identify your predominant thinking and behaviour style at work, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

Once you know what you need to improve on, the question then is how to go about doing it. You should consider what professional training and qualifications might be relevant for you. The IoF, for example, offers lots of courses, conferences and workshops, its flagship offering being the Diploma in Fundraising, which, says Marvell, “is aimed fairly and squarely at those managing teams and departments”. The Directory of Social Change (DSC) is also a big player, running a range of practical, hands-on courses and conferences and producing materials to help develop fundraisers, in particular those at the beginner and intermediate levels.

Others might opt for personal coaching – a method favoured by Anthony Nolan’s fundraising director Catherine Miles: “I found personal coaching really useful, particularly at the level where you make the transition up to head of team level and even up to fundraising director level”.

However, for many charities – even those that take the professional development of their fundraisers very seriously – many of the paid-for activities out there are simply beyond their budget. With the IoF’s Diploma in Fundraising costing around £2,000 and its Advanced Diploma, due to launch in November, set to be in the region of £3,000, the costs will be prohibitive for many.

Yet, says Marvell, “these days we are finding more people are prepared to invest in their own professional development, perhaps by meeting half of the cost themselves or in some cases paying the whole cost. I think people are realising the benefits of gaining professional qualifications if fundraising is the career they are committed to”.


On a shoestring

Let’s face it, though: whatever the long-term returns, many fundraisers struggle to find the money to embark on such courses. Thankfully, there are also a multitude of free and low-cost L&D tools out there, which all fundraisers can take advantage of. The DSC offers a series of low-cost, bite-sized fundraising workshops at fairs and ‘Focus On’ days, reaching out to smaller organisations as well as empowering many medium-sized and large charities. Meanwhile the IoF runs a government-funded training programme for small charities, and hosts a series of regional groups and special interest groups, all for free or at very low cost. For example, its First Thursday event, where you get to network with other fundraisers in your area, includes a 20-minute masterclass from top sector experts – not to mention a free dinner (who said there was no such thing?).

The fact is, there are all sorts of ways that people can develop themselves without it actually costing a penny. Go online and you’ll discover that there’s simply loads of free material on offer. “The internet has really levelled out the development opportunities and made things a lot easier; you can pick up an enormous amount online and there is just fantastic stuff being collated and shared for you”, says Miles.

The availability of information on Twitter in particular is fantastic, she says. “If you can’t afford to go to a sector conference or course, or you just don’t have the time, actually just by following the Twitter hashtags you can pick up a huge amount of information.”

Lianne Howard-Dace, community and events fundraising manager at RLSB, believes social media is a powerful tool to have in your professional development toolkit. “It can really give you an edge”, she says. ‘It’s all about being linked in to the best content. People are sharing and directing each other on Twitter to the best information out there. You can use Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news and trends in the sector, learn about what other charities are up to, and find the best blogs and stories written or recommended by trusted sources. It helps you filter everything that’s out there, and get to the best content as quickly as possible. And you can dip in and out and fit it around what you’re doing.”


On the job

Unquestionably, you can’t beat practical experience gained within your own organisation. Caryn Skinner, co-director of boutique leadership consultancy Sharpstone Skinner, believes that while formal learning is an important part of professional development, “what’s more important is that fundraisers are mentored and coached within their own organisations, as it’s there where we get most of our learning from. Being exposed to things, being allowed to have a go at something, shadowing somebody, and being let into the strategy of what’s going on will broaden your mind in a way that is going to be more meaningful for you”.

Skinner believes that effective on-the-job learning is best facilitated in an environment that actively encourages people to get into the leadership mindset. “It would be good for the sector if more leaders and managers saw coaching and mentoring in the workplace as a very clear and conscious part of their toolkit. It costs nothing, and it’s incredibly powerful.”

Miles strongly encourages fundraisers to get experience in other income streams. “It could be something as simple as going out and doing a street collection with the community team, or volunteering to help on a marathon with the events team. The more areas of fundraising you can get experience of, the better – and you can do that just by volunteering to help your colleagues out”.


Opening up

It’s perfectly acceptable to look beyond your own organisation to get support from peers, too. “If you spot a piece of fundraising or a campaign you really admire, get in touch with the people who work on it, tell them you think what they’re doing is great and ask if they would they be interested in having a coffee”, says Miles. “People are actually really willing to chat, and to share their experiences, and that can be really valuable.”

By asking for help and support, both internally and externally, and reciprocating by giving your own time to support others in their learning and development, you will become a great relationship builder – another essential skill for great fundraising and strong leadership. “Leadership is about people skills”, says Skinner. “A lot of the training that’s out there currently is all about money, techniques and policy and procedure. But the really effective leaders I come across are those who are really skilful with people.”

Skinner’s conclusion? “Stay curious, be fascinated, see learning as continuous and available around every corner”. The best thing you can do for your beneficiaries is get better at your job, because if you raise your game, you will ultimately raise more money.


6 smart ways to develop your career in fundraising

1. Take responsibility

Work out what you want to achieve in your career, and what path you need to take to get there. Make a plan; work out the steps you need to take to develop your skills and your profile. Articulate your needs to your organisation, and ask for their support in helping you meet them.

2. Be self-aware

Analyse your strengths and weaknesses, ask for feedback from peers and managers, look at what you were doing when things went well, and when things didn’t go so well, and ask yourself what you need to do differently next time.

3. Choose your tools

Think about where formal training or professional qualifications might be relevant, and take advantage of the wide variety of free or low-cost training opportunities out there.

4. Be nosy

Volunteer in other departments to gain experience of other income streams, shadow someone who heads a different team, widen your knowledge to all corners of your organisation and learn how it all fits together.

5. Make friends

Ask colleagues to help you get to grips with areas you’re not so good at. Find a mentor, internally or externally, and be willing to share your own learnings with others. Be a people person – build relationships with colleagues, peers, donors and other key influential people in the sector.

6. Get with the picture

 Get online, check out the fundraising blogs and, if you’re not on Twitter already, do it today. Use it to stay up to date on trends and to access all the highest quality and most relevant material, and start contributing to threads as a way of networking and building your profile.


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