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Taking the lead: professional development for fundraisers

Fundraisers find it hard to prioritise professional development but as Jenny Garrett reveals, strategic advancement of your role will have knock-on effects for productivity


Fundraisers in small organisations have little room for conversations about the value of leadership development – the day-to-day operations take precedence and any support that is available is more often than not geared towards survival. As thousands of non-profit organisations are being asked to adapt to the Big Society agenda, fundraisers are bearing the brunt and taking on increasingly difficult and challenging targets.

Boards and governing bodies have yet to fully grasp how to support fundraisers and the fundraising function. New ideas around how to negotiate and build partnerships with other organisations are on their agenda, yet the funds to teach leadership in this new way of working are often missing from the fundraiser’s operational budget.

Some fundraisers we spoke to said that they naturally integrated development from a myriad of resources into their fundraising practice. Pim Baxter, deputy director at the National Portrait Gallery reflected upon the fact that senior fundraisers now have a lot more than fundraising to think about. “They need to be strategic, leadership qualities are developed within them, and they take their leadership lessons as they go along.”

Others in smaller organisations confirmed that professional development around leadership skills was not necessarily a part of the fundraiser’s toolkit and that fundraising to meet targets is an overriding factor. Peter Morgan formerly with Groundworks and now business development manager at Sporting Equals, a non-profit organisation that promotes diversity in sport and physical activity, observed that: “Once an application is submitted it is often many weeks before the outcome is known. When either good or bad news is received, it is invariably at a time when you are fully engrossed in other activities or funding applications, so there is little time to reflect, celebrate or commiserate.” A fundraiser’s job did not leave much room for personal self-assessment or evaluation of one’s own leadership goals, with those of the organisation taking priority.


We agree that the complexity of how the function is perceived and how individuals are able to seek any kind of development opportunities adds an important dynamic to the story. This added to the reality that so many fundraisers are volunteers in micro-organisations, working in teams or on their own, some are external consultants, and others work within larger complex multi-structure organisations with several other variations of the above. However the question of raising income in the difficult and changing socio-economic context has put enormous pressure on all of these individuals to diversify their funding streams and to explore new territories.

Hester Cockcroft, director for the independent charity Awards for Young Musicians, whose key focus is to achieve challenging targets to fill the large gap in music education provision in the UK, reflected that the role of a fundraiser is often “an isolated one and due to the nature of what is involved, has a degree of caution and privacy”.


In the past, this may have precluded lots of collaborative approaches. The need for small organisations to pool resources, ideas and people to raise funds has increased significantly since the cuts in government and public spending. Hence fundraisers are beginning to recognise that taking charge of transforming their leadership style could be a good investment and start to provide dividends.

We have found that there are at least four clear and compelling reasons for fundraisers to develop transformational leadership skills:


1. Fundraisers are being asked to deliver more with less.

For many it is the survival of the fittest, so those working at all levels in the sector need to seek creative and collaborative ways of doing things.


2. Space and time are imperative to understanding what funders want.

Reacting to an endless sea of tasks leaves little time for strategic thinking and the important learning that comes from reflection. 


3. Fundraising can be isolating and challenging.

Support is crucial to ensure that fundraisers achieve their vision but don’t buckle under the pressure.


4. Transformational leadership will nurture a workforce and motivate volunteers.

The very best fundraisers will be in demand, while those who are non-transformational are more likely to be under threat.



The old adage, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, how can you get there?’ appears to hold true. Keeping up with fundraising strategies, understanding your organisation, following the changing political agenda and policy-making within your sector will help you to deliver against fundraising goals, but how much time should fundraisers spend considering how they would like their role and career to develop?
One charitable organisation we spoke to told us that they had ambitious goals over the next four years to reach ten times the number of beneficiaries and to increase income four-fold. What else is missing from the numerical targets? Added to that vision could be: “I see that the fundraising within this organisation will grow through me being an authentic influential fundraiser and our donors reporting back high satisfaction”.


  • How much time you spend planning and forward thinking and how much time you spend fire-fighting and completing tasks? 
  • Is this balance going to achieve what you are looking for and if not, what needs to change? 
  • Where’s the space for learning if you are continually challenged and moving on to the next project or activity? 

Vision is a good first step but alone it is unlikely to be enough.



Fundraisers have to achieve higher targets with diminished budgets, address collaboration with former competitors, consider merger and acquisition opportunities, deliver an increased focus on the return on investment and respond to donors who are asking for more for their contributions.


  • Do you set yourself, alongside your boss, stretching targets and personal development plans to achieve the aims of your role and career goals? 
  • If not, how might it help? 
  • When might it be appropriate to start having these conversations?
  • The combination of vision and challenge is a useful, however knowing where you want to go and then being challenged to get there alone, creates a sink or swim situation.



This factor enables you to face the challenges and fulfil the mission. Support sounds like the easiest to achieve but is often the most difficult. It is the area that slips first when other priorities come along and so needs to be carefully planned in so as not to be neglected.
You may already be gaining support through internal networks, through your sector colleagues and perhaps training courses that you have attended. However are you taking advantage of other tools to strengthen your leadership role?


  • Joining up with other charities to tap into training opportunities or collaborate in other ways
  • Working with a mentor and/or coach to help you navigate your way, set your goals and focus on taking steps to success.
  • Utilising your organisation, trustees and volunteers more. Your boss may also be a source of support for you.
  • Connecting with sector peers.

Jenny Garrett is director at Reflexion Associates


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 13, January 2012

The right mix: the 4 key components of professional development for fundraisers

1. Vision and challenge: the fundraiser knows where they want to go and is challenged to get there but has no support to help them along the way.


2. Vision and support: the fundraiser feels more secure but without challenge, there are no consequences if they don’t achieve.


3. Challenge and support: the fundraiser faces no end of changing agendas, but may feel that the direction of travel is unsafe.


4. Vision, challenge and support: enables transformational leadership, under which fundamental positive change can happen.

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