OPINION: An intelligent design for tackling fundraising’s skills gap

Claire Routley 2We’re told we need to recruit fundraisers who have more passion if we are to reverse the impending leadership crisis. Claire Routley discovers that we might be better off seeking out intelligence.


The recruitment and development of talented fundraisers is a hot topic in our sector. Opinion leader Tony Elischer has argued that there is a people and leadership crisis in fundraising, Civil Society has reported that a lack of skilled fundraisers has had a stifling effect on growth across Europe, and research from Penelope Burke has estimated the direct and indirect costs of recruiting a replacement fundraiser at $127,650.

The academic literature on recruitment also points out the importance of recruiting high performing people: one review of research found that a superior manager or professional produces output 48 per cent above the average for those jobs.

Given the importance of recruiting the right people to fundraise for our organisations, I took a deeper dive into the research literature to investigate what factors are likely to make a great fundraiser and which recruitment tools could be most effectively used to find people with these skills.

So what attributes make a good fundraiser? I was expecting to see a list of factors like those exemplified in the following two quotes:

“When I ask fundraisers about what makes a great fundraiser, the answers I get always include a combination of the following: passion, commitment, communication skills, personable, curiosity, honesty, common sense, reliable, good ethics, creativity, etc. Skills are easier to teach than it is to change someone’s attitude.”

Noam Kostucki, Resource Alliance website

“I believe that organisations can grow leadership, but this has to be balanced by spotting the right ‘DNA’ in people. Looking for openness, determination, energy, maturity beyond years and raw talent, no matter what format that comes in.”

Tony Elischer, 101Fundraising

What the academic literature actually said surprised me.

In two studies ­– a seminal article published in 1998 and a follow-up in 2004 – psychology professors Frank L Schmidt of the University of Iowa and John E Hunter of Michigan State University reviewed 85 years of research into personnel selection in a wide-ranging meta-analysis, and found that general mental ability (GMA) predicts both occupational level and job performance better than any other trait. They theorise that this is because people with higher GMA acquire job knowledge more quickly and acquire more of it. They say (Schmidt and Hunter 2004, p167):

“If one worker learns faster than another, the same amount of experience will produce a higher level of performance in the fast learner than in the slow learner. It is GMA that turns experience into increased job knowledge and hence higher performance.”

GMA – in other words, intelligence – is 59 per cent more successful in predicting work successes than the most important of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, conscientiousness, which Schmidt and Hunter argue also leads to higher levels of job knowledge, with conscientious people exerting more effort and spending more time on task.

So, based on the academic literature, how should we recruit excellent fundraisers?


An inconvenient and uncomfortable finding

Schmidt and Hunter argue that the most effective method of recruiting for any post is to use a test of general mental ability combined with a test of integrity or conscientiousness.

The singular importance of GMA is not an idea that always sits particularly comfortably. Schmidt and Hunter recognise that lay people generally believe personality to be a more important determinant of job performance: after all, they point out, we can probably all recall instances where personality clashes have led to challenges at work. And the importance of GMA might be particularly uncomfortable in our sector where we often discuss the importance of traits like passion for the cause, empathy with the donor or excellent communication skills. I suspect many people will balk at the notion of recruiting people by IQ test.

This is a somewhat inconvenient finding for a post where I’d set out to explore cutting-edge methods of recruiting people with just the right combination of character traits or soft-skills to be a future fundraising leader. But that’s the pain and also the joy of academic research – it doesn’t always reveal the results we want to find! And sometimes the most insightful results are those that run counterintuitively to our expectations.

The research in this matter is telling that, if there is a skills/leadership/people crisis in fundraising, we’re less likely to solve it by – however counterintuitive this may seem ­– recruiting more ‘passionate’ fundraisers; what we need is an influx of conscientious, intelligent fundraisers.

  • Dr Claire Routley is a legacy fundraising consultant and course leader on the Institute of Fundraising’s Diploma in Fundraising.



2 thoughts on “OPINION: An intelligent design for tackling fundraising’s skills gap”

  1. I’ve never understood the supposed prerequisite that, to be successful, fundraisers must be ‘passionate’ about their cause – a claim that often seems to be made in contradistinction to passion for the job itself.

    Of course, it probably doesn’t do much harm to have a passion for your cause (though I have heard stories about fundraisers who were ‘too’ passionate) and it would probably help enormously. But it doesn’t mean that without it you would necessarily fail.

    Passion for a cause can be acquired or learned, and I think what your post is suggesting, Claire, is that the more intelligent and conscientious people are, the easier it will be for them to acquire passion for the cause.

    I liken this to an episode from my career as a journalist. For five years, I edited a magazine for the waste management industry. I was never ‘passionate’ about waste management – or even environmental issues generally – before I took the job. But I was passionate about being a magazine editor and doing a really good job. And because I was a passionate (and intelligent and conscientious) professional, I acquired the deep understanding and knowledge of my subject matter which, when I engaged in debate about it, certainly had all the appearances and trademarks of ‘passion’ (because that’s exactly what it was – though a passion that has now faded).

    In fact there was one magazine I edited that I absolutely hated and the reason that I did an excellent job editing it was because I was a professional journalist. In that case, professionalism trumped any passion for the subject matter, because there was none.

    I don’t believe that ‘passion’ for the cause is a necessary condition of fundraising success and to keep saying that it is a wee bit demeaning to those professional fundraisers who are able to do a great job while still being able to switch off at 5.30.

    If fundraising is a profession, then we have to realise that being a fundraiser means possessing a portfolio of professional skills that are transferable between jobs and causes. You can’t be equally passionate about every charity or cause you work for. But you can be equally professional and conscientious in how you perform your role.


  2. None of us knows about all causes …. hence we cannot be passionate about a cause we don’t know…. while applying for a job. But we can grow passionate about the cause.

    Yes, indeed, there is a knowledge base… a set of skills… a set of competencies (skills and competencies are not synonymous)… and an attitude towards learning — that is necessary in any profession, including fundraising. And we fundraising professionals have to be passionate about that.

    Then we can grow the passion about a particular cause.


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