OPINION: The cases for and against graduate entry into fundraising

In response to the NonGraduatesWelcome social media campaign, Ian MacQuillin looks at the arguments for and against graduate recruitment into fundraising and asks whether NonGraduatesWelcome risks falling into the trap of anti-intellectual populism.


What do you need to know, and what skills do you need, in order to become a fundraiser? At one end of the spectrum there is a body of opinion that provides the answers ‘nothing’ and ‘none’ to these two questions – everything you need to know and all the skills you need can be learnt on the job.

At the other end of the spectrum is…what? While some people (me included) believe there ought to be a knowledge-based entry route into fundraising – as there is for almost every other profession or emerging profession, save for perhaps journalism and PR – such an entry route doesn’t yet exist.

Yet many person specifications for fundraising roles will list that holding a first degree – a bachelor’s degree or equivalent – is essential for the fundraising role being recruited for.

David Burgess, founder of the NonGraduatesWelcome campaign.

Is a degree – any degree that is – really ‘essential’ or relevant to a job in fundraising? Fundraising consultant David Burgess thinks not, and has started a social media campaign called Non Graduates Welcome (on Twitter, check out @NonGradsWelcome and #NonGradsWelcome).

NonGradsWelcome’s core contention is that the requirement to have a university degree is not relevant to a role in fundraising and should be removed from all such job recruitment materials.

So in this blog I want to look at the arguments around graduate recruitment into fundraising. I’ll stress that I am not arguing for graduate recruitment (and thus against the aims of NonGradsWelcome). I’m agnostic on this issue: I haven’t done enough research or thinking to have a fully formed, defensible, opinion. Perhaps NoGradsWelcome is 100 per cent right; perhaps there are some flaws in their argument; or perhaps they’re completely wrong.

This blog therefore aims to examine the case for graduate recruitment into fundraising, not to advocate for it, but to contrast it with NGW’s (I’ve just decided on this TLA so save me writing it in full henceforth) position.

  1. I’ll start by making a case possible for graduate recruitment into fundraising by looking at the skills and knowledge graduates might bring to fundraising
  2. I’ll look at the reasons why nonprofits and charities might stipulate they want to recruit graduates
  3. I’ll examine case against graduate recruitment in to fundraising
  4. Finally, I’ll look at NGW’s arguments and how they stack up alongside the cases for and against graduate recruitment, and discuss whether NGW could cause harm if their position is mistaken.

1 Why recruit graduates? The case for graduate recruitment

The case for recruiting graduates is that they have skills or knowledge that a nongraduate won’t have.

1A Graduates possess specialist knowledge

What they studied to degree level at university has direct relevance to their job they are applying for. You’d want a lawyer to have a law degree. You’d want an architect to have studied architecture. OK, so those two are fairly low-hanging fruit. Professions such as law, medicine and architecture have a clearly defined body of knowledge that practitioners must – absolutely must – know. If they don’t, innocent people will go to jail and buildings will fall down.

But there are other roles where are the specialist knowledge acquired in degree study might also be considered ‘essential’, even though knowledge could also be acquired on the job or other contexts outside of a university setting. Business studies, marketing, PR, and degrees in hospitality management and tourism might fall into this category. But while you may not need a marketing degree to become a marketer (see s2A below), it sure doesn’t do any harm to have one.

1B Graduates have acquired the skills to analyse and organise knowledge

Studying for a university degree requires a particular approach to analysing and organising knowledge. It is more than just understanding and comprehending.

The UK’s Framework for Higher Education Qualifications sets out the types of skills required for different levels of qualifications. A-levels for example are considered to be a level 3 qualification while a first degree (bachelor’s or equivalent) is level 6 (a masters is level 7 and a PhD is level 8).

“Studying for a degree provides more than just specialist knowledge; it also provides a grounding in how to critically reflect on that knowledge in order organise and analyse it and synthesise new ideas from it. These skills and attributes are not dependent on the discipline being studied, but are transferable between disciplines.”

The holder of a level 6 qualification will have acquired several skills and ways of thinking – see s4.15, p26 of the FHEQ document, which lists the following skills and abilities among others:

  • evaluate evidence, arguments and assumptions, to reach sound judgements and to communicate them effectively
  • have the qualities needed for employment in situations requiring the exercise of personal responsibility, and decision-making in complex and unpredictable circumstances
  • critically evaluate arguments, assumptions, abstract concepts and data (that may be incomplete), to make judgements, and to frame appropriate questions to achieve a solution – or identify a range of solutions – to a problem
  • deploy accurately established techniques of analysis and enquiry.

You can get a good summary of the higher education levels (4-8) here.

Studying for a degree provides more than just specialist knowledge; it also provides a grounding in how to critically reflect on that knowledge in order organise and analyse it and synthesise new ideas from it. These skills and attributes are not dependent on the discipline being studied, but are transferable between disciplines.

1C Studying at university encourages the development personal skills and aptitudes

Many universities promote the life skills that graduates will acquire in a university environment. These skills and aptitudes include leadership, team working, time management, problem solving, and others. You can get an idea of this by taking a look at these pages on the websites of Loughborough University (particularly the graphic) and Kent University.

Loughborough University’s ‘personal best wheel’, indicating the skills and attributes graduates should expect to acquire during their degree study.

So a degree is designed to equip students with the types of skills, attributes and knowledge described above.

However, some important caveats. It doesn’t necessarily follow that if someone hasn’t studied at degree level that they will not have these skills. A nongraduate could easily possess specialist knowledge, because they have studied the topic through lay interest and have great critical thinking and knowledge organising skills.

Neither does it necessarily follow that a graduate will have all of these skills and attributes. The are many perfectly useless graduates in the jobs marketplace.

So why would organisations, charities included, stipulate graduate status in their job recruitment?

2 Why do organisations hire graduates?

2A Graduates’ specialist knowledge makes them better employees

Very simply, as outlined above, the employer wants employees to start work with specialist knowledge they’ll need, especially if they are a new entrant. You don’t want to have to spend time equipping someone with knowledge of the law or medicine or architecture – that’s what higher educations is for.

“It doesn’t necessarily follow that a graduate will have all of these skills and attributes. The are many perfectly useless graduates in the jobs marketplace.”

Then are some occupations where the knowledge you acquire studying may not be considered essential in gaining a first job. For example, one study found that only 25 per cent of employers require applicants to marketing roles to have a marketing degree, while more than half don’t require any kind of degree. However, for those 25 per cent that do require marketing degrees, those people enter the role with a sound knowledge base for the chosen profession. It’s not possible to argue that those employers requiring applicants to have marketing degrees are in any way wrong about that requirement: the job is marketing role after all, and it’s their call if they consider university-level education in marketing to be essential for the job.

A relevant degree signals that a person possesses (at least some of) the knowledge they need to perform in their role.

What is a relevant degree for fundraising? There is currently just one bachelor’s degree in fundraising available in the UK, at Chichester University. But the academic disciplines with the closest affinity to fundraising are marketing and public relations, so degrees in those two subjects would be relevant to a fundraising role, while degrees in subjects such as behavioural science will become increasingly relevant.

But even knowledge not related to the subject can have some benefits. A study has found that graduates with liberal arts backgrounds do particularly well at medical school because they are good at the ‘art’ as well as the science of medicine, particularly psychiatry; they are particularly good at discussing issues and building relationships with patients (though the authors stopped short of claiming a ‘liberal arts effect’).

People with liberal arts degrees do particularly well at medical school, especially in the field of psychiatry, as they are good at the ‘art’ (discussing issues with patients) as well as the science of medicine.

In respect of fundraising, it’s also possible that a degree in a topic relevant to the cause may be considered essential. An art history or museums studies degree may be deemed essential for a development role at an art gallery or museum. A science degree may be deemed essential for a role where fundraisers will need to translate scientific research into funding applications to research councils.

Many people in fundraising prioritise passion for the cause over knowledge of fundraising as the most relevant attribute in assessing applicants for fundraising roles. What better way to demonstrate a passion for the cause than that you studied it for three years at university, at your own expense (see s2C below)?

2B Graduates’ knowledge organising skills and personal attributes make them better employees

As argued above, graduates will have been schooled in the skills and attributes that come from obtaining a level 6 qualification, as well as personal attributes such as leadership. And employers value this.

A major study into the ‘employability’ skills of graduates – conducted by the University of Glasgow and published in 2011 –  identified these skills/attributes as “particularly relevant” in graduate recruitment, among others:

  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Leadership
  • Interpersonal and communications skills.

Further to this, the Future of Jobs Report published by the Word Economic Forum consistently shows that the skills, attributes and aptitudes favoured by employers around the world include complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and many others that will be fostered in and by a level 6 learning environment (see also this WEF blog). And young people understand this. According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Study, 33 per cent of Millennials see critical thinking as an essential skill that employers are looking for, on a par with ethics and integrity, and just behind interpersonal skills (36 per cent) and confidence and motivation (35 per cent).

Having a degree is again a signal that an applicant possess the skills, aptitudes and attributes that employers are seeking.

NonGraduatesWelcome’s argument is that if charities want these specific skills and attributes, then they should list them precisely, to allow anyone who may possess them to apply.

If they want critical thinking skills, then say they want critical thinking skills.

If they want statistical numeracy in problem solving, state that.

Indeed, that is an argument. I won’t get into the HR procedural issues of how one assesses applicants’ claims to possess these skills during the recruitment process, as I have little knowledge of HR processes. However, having a degree can serve as a proxy for these requirements. Someone with a first or 2:1 (in the USA a grade point average of 3.3 or above) in philosophy or political science is almost certainly a capable critical thinker; someone with similar grades in economics is almost certainly statistically numerate.

Further to this, a good degree also shows that applicants do well in a learning environment. As they will be entering fundraising with little or perhaps no knowledge of how fundraising works, they will need to acquire all that knowledge on the job, and quickly. You therefore want to make sure the person you hire is going to be able to acquire this knowledge and apply it. Possessing a degree is another signal to employers that the applicant can do this.

Degrees are therefore proxy signals that applicants have the skills or aptitudes employers require for a role, without the need to assess each skill or aptitude in depth.

2C Studying at university signals something about the person’s commitment to your organisation

There is another kind of signalling at play in hiring graduates. In this case the degree is not signalling anything about the skills or aptitudes that a person has, but it is signalling something about the person themselves, about their character and personal qualities. This is something that has been discussed by Nick Mason on the Critical Fundraising Forum. In this case, the graduate is signalling that they have incurred the time and expense in studying for a degree and doing well at it (assuming they do). They have acquired – at their own expense – knowledge and skills that will benefit you, their prospective employer. As the Deloittes study shows, Millennials realise that employers want critical thinking skills, and so some of them are paying out of their own pocket to acquire those skills to make themselves more employable to the employer. Some other potential employees however, haven’t expended similar of their own resources to make themselves more attractive to you as a potential employee.

2D Inertia in the recruitment procedure

All the above is very kind to employers. It suggests they know what they are looking for, make a considered decision that they need a graduate to fulfil this, and then set out to recruit one who ticks all the boxes. However, David Burgess has said that discussions with organisations that have specified that a degree is essential have revealed the requirement is often only there because it always has been: it’s in the JD template they used or they copied it from the previous job, or ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it’. In these cases, the requirement for a graduate is there only because of some kind of inertia in the recruitment process and, no-one has considered (or recently reviewed) whether graduate skills really are necessary for the role in question.

3 The case against graduate recruitment into fundraising

The case against graduate recruitment into fundraising can be made in direct answer to the arguments in favour of it laid out above.

Specialist knowledge is not relevant or required

The knowledge acquired in studying for a directly-related degree, such as fundraising/charity development, marketing or public relations – is not relevant or necessary for becoming a fundraiser. Instead, any knowledge you require can be learnt on the job through continual professional development, either formally (such as studying for the CFRE or IoF qualifications) or informally (by attending conferences and learning form colleagues).

This seems a dubious argument. If it is conceded that knowledge acquisition is needed, then it is better to acquire some of it before you enter the profession. Unless that is, one is of the opinion that the type of knowledge that you would acquire in university study is not relevant to the practice of fundraising: that studying academic donor behaviour models, strategic marketing tools such as the Boston Matrix or portfolio analysis, theoretical models of emotional engagement or relationship building (the latter being fundamental to the academic study of public relations), and the like, are all ‘overthinking’, and what fundraisers should just be doing is getting out and doing their jobs.

Adrian Sargeant’s and Lucy Woodliffe’s model of donor behaviour from 2007. You’d study this on a fundraising degree and as part of the IoF Diploma. Is this the kind of knowledge you think is helpful to professional practice? If not, you probably won’t think you need to study it, either at university or ‘on the job’ CPD.

Level 6 skills and aptitudes are not required

Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and the like are not needed for a fundraising roles, so there is no need to specify the requirement for a degree as a signal of possessing these skills.


That in a nutshell is the core of the case against graduate recruitment – that none of the skills and knowledge claimed by graduates is necessary for a fundraising role. And because it is unnecessary, there is no requirement to only recruit graduates.

But there is a halfway house.

And this is that those skills and knowledge are important, but that being a graduate is not the only way to acquire these skills. And so organisations should remove the requirement to have a degree to allow all those who may have those skills and aptitudes to apply. Essentially, this is moving the requirement to have a degree from the ‘essential’ to the ‘desirable’ column. Or it might actually mean removing it all together, it isn’t clear exactly what NGW wants (see s4).

However, the problem with all of this is that we don’t actually know what kinds of skills and aptitudes employers want from their fundraisers, since, as far as I am aware, there has been no study (as opposed to a survey) to assess the employability skills for entrants into fundraising.

Do charities want critical thinking skills in their fundraisers? Do they want problem solving and leadership skills? If they don’t, there is no need at all to specify graduates. If they do, and these skills are considered to be ‘essential’, then for reasons of educational signalling, then perhaps – perhaps – specifying a graduate is the way to go.

It is possible that for some types of fundraising role, being a graduate is at least highly desirable, while for others its absolutely irrelevant.

But right now, I don’t think we have enough information to answer the question either way.

But there are also arguments against graduate entry that are not in response to the case in favour. Chief among this is that graduate entry is élitist and runs contrary to diversity principles. The argument seems to run that many people are not able to study at university (and of course, many choose not to), and so from a point of fairness and equity (and indeed diversity) those who cannot or choose not to study at university deserve equal access to the job opportunities that graduates get. However, there are huge numbers of people studying for degrees now. In 2018, around 28 per cent of 18-year-olds in the UK were accepted on to an undergraduate degree at university. This is an issue around which I am sure there is a lot of published information and evidence which we’ll need to assess in coming to any conclusions regarding graduate entry into fundraising.

4 NGW and the cases for and against graduate recruitment into fundraising

It is not that clear what NonGraduatesWelcome actually stands for or what its objectives are. It is social media campaign conducted almost exclusively via Twitter, and one that is only a few weeks old. It has no website that lays out its objectives or a manifesto with a vision for the future of recruitment into the emerging profession of fundraising.

As it is called NonGraduatesWelcome, the most fundamental rationale is that it aims to open up entry into fundraising for nongraduates.

This is how it describes itself on Twitter:

Trying to make charity job descriptions more accessible. Join us & make the requirement for “Educated to degree level” a thing of the past.

However, I’m not sure whether it wants to do this because it considers that the specialist knowledge and the level 6 skills and attributes obtained by graduates are not relevant for fundraising, or that it thinks they are relevant, and that nongraduates should be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that they also have them.

If it considers graduate skills and knowledge are not relevant, is NGW as well as being a campaign to give nongraduates access to recruitment to the profession, also a campaign against graduate entry: is NGW also arguing that we ought not have graduates in fundraising? Some of the social media traffic around and in support of NGW suggests this is how some of its followers feel. (And although one mustn’t read too much into this, NGW’s Twitter logo certainly implies this – GraduatesNotWelcome, it’s saying.)

NonGradsWelcome seems to be taking the blanket position that the requirement for a non-specific first degree is not required for any fundraising role whatsoever (though it is unclear where its stands on relevant degrees). Yet it is doing this without a clear mission statement setting out its objectives, nor describing the theory and evidence for or against graduate entry into fundraising or synthesising this into a coherent argument to support their claims why degree level education should become a “thing of the past”.

In an early Tweet, NGW said that if anyone could provide a good argument in favour of the stipulation for a first degree, they’d stop what they were doing. I haven’t yet heard them make a convincing argument against it. When I have challenged some supporters of NGW, the response has simply been a reassertion of the heartfelt conviction that you don’t need to be a graduate to be a good fundraiser, which is no argument at all.

Yet despite this, NGW is beginning to exert an influence. By contacting organsiations and requiring them to justify or change their recruitment procedures, NGW is trying to hold organisations to account. In effect, it is setting itself up as a self-appointed watchdog, but without the theory and evidence to underpin what it is setting out to change (and don’t we get mightily pissed-off when self-appointed watchdogs start doing this in regards of overhead costs?).

I said at the start of this (very) long-read blog that I was agnostic about whether one needs to be a graduate to become a fundraiser. My view is that one probably doesn’t, but that being a graduate would be very helpful for many roles. The requirement for a first degree should thus be ‘desirable’ rather than ‘essential’. Even so, there may be some roles where it is essential. Yet there may also be other roles where it is completely irrelevant. We need to do this research into employability skills in fundraising so that job descriptions don’t continue –­ through HR inertia – to specify graduate education for jobs where it is not required, but going forward, fail to include it where it is required.

I am not, however, agnostic about the need for level 6 skills and attributes in a professionalised fundraising workforce: we need many more independent critical thinkers. Whether these are graduates or not is beside the point, though being a graduate may signal that people have these skills.

“If by removing the requirement for degree level education, we end up with a workforce diminished in skills such as critical thinking, NonGraduatesWelcome risks doing enormous harm to emerging profession of fundraising and will perhaps contribute to retarding that emergence.”

Neither am I agnostic about whether having relevant knowledge is essential for being a fundraising. We need to start building a knowledge-based entry route into fundraising.

Degrees in marketing and public relations (and of course, fundraising) provide (some of) that knowledge. If a nonprofit stipulates that a marketing degree is essential for a particular role, that gets no argument from me, in exactly the same way there’d be no complaint if a job description specified the successful applicant would hold the IoF’s Diploma in Fundraising. In future, as the profession of fundraising in the UK moves towards chartered status, more fundraisers will have to show they possess relevant knowledge to become chartered fundraisers and one of ways to do this will be by qualification, perhaps by first degree in a relevant subject.

Roll up, roll up! Get your next generation of fundraisers here!

If NGW get their campaign wrong, if it is perceived as an anti-graduate campaign as well as a pro-non-graduate campaign, or if by removing the requirement for degree level education, we end up with a workforce diminished in level 6 skills such as critical thinking, NGW risks doing enormous harm to emerging profession of fundraising, and will perhaps contribute to retarding that emergence.

This is why it needs to set out a manifesto describing its objectives, and build mechanisms to engage in constructive debate with it over those objectives, before it starts holding organisations to account for how they recruit fundraisers. It is simply not enough just to believe you are right.

If NGW does not do this, it risks being bundled with a whole host of ideas and attitudes – those that hold that all graduate degrees, even in PR and marketing, have no relevance at all for any fundraising role, will brook no argument on the matter, dog whistle about university study being ‘élitist’, and veer towards that idea that any formal education in fundraising is irrelevant and even undesirable since it can all be learned ‘on the job’. In this case, NGW risks coming across as Govean anti-intellectual populist claptrap. After all, we’ve all had enough of experts, haven’t we?

This is from the first paragraph of a new American book on fundraising:

“This book is…an act of reclamation. We aim to take back fundraising from the professionals and the degreed class, with their impenetrable jargon and their fetishized algorithms and extortionate fees and return it to its proper owners: Catholic-school moms, CEOs of smaller nonoprofits [not the bigger ones, you’ll notice] , symphony orchestra development officers, idealistic think tankers…the people who are the heart and soul of American civil society.”

There you go. You don’t need a knowledgeable professional with a degree to do your fundraising; what you need is a Catholic mum. Obviously one who never went to university.

  • Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank.

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