NEWS: What’s the best way to get into fundraising? Who can say?

What advice would you give a kid who asks you the best way to become a fundraiser? Not an easy question to answer. Ian MacQuillin outlines Rogare’s new collaboration with Cause4 and Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy to research entry routes into fundraising

Imagine an idealistic 17-year-old. She’s passionate about social justice. And she thinks the nonprofit sector is the place for her when she leaves permanent education. More than that, she thinks fundraising is the career for her.

[OK, so this is pretty unlikely. Probably any 17-year-old who wants to work in the charity sector sees themselves as a campaigner or delivering front line services rather than writing direct marketing appeals. But just bear with me for the sake of a good dropped intro. So back to our idealistic, 17-year-old wannabe fundraiser.]

She goes to her school’s careers advisor and asks her how she becomes a fundraiser? Does she need a degree? If so, in what subject(s)? Is there an apprenticeship scheme she can take part in? Does she have to study for any professional qualifications?

“Search me,” the careers advisor replies.

This leaves her feeling disappointed and frustrated. But help is at hand. She also knows you work as a fundraiser (let’s say you’re a family friend). So she comes to you for advice? What would you tell her?

“One of the best strategies for entry to the fundraising profession appears to be to spend 10-15 years pursuing a career in commerce or some other sector (such as the military) to acquire the transferrable skills needed to crossover into fundraising.”

If some kid were to ask you how they could follow in your footsteps into fundraising, what would you tell them? What could you tell them?

And what knowledge and skills do they actually need. Could you tell them that? And how to acquire that knowledge and those skills?

As it stands, there are no reliable recommendations you can make, because there is no accepted entry route into fundraising, nor is there any generally-accepted set of skills or knowledge someone needs to have to become a fundraiser. 

Becoming a fundraiser

Research by Beth Breeze in the UK and Margaret Duronio and Eugene Tempel in the USA has shown that only around 10 per cent of fundraisers actually embarked on an intended career in fundraising or whose first job was in fundraising (and while this figure is increasing in the USA, it’s still about 10 per cent in the UK). The rest either fell into fundraising by accident, or intentionally transferred from over from other careers, in fairly equal proportions (about 45 per cent each).

Beth Breeze’s research has shown that only about 10 per cent of British fundraisers had intended to become fundraisers. The rest fell into ‘by accident’ or transferred from another sector.

These numbers suggest that one of the best strategies for entry to the fundraising profession is to spend 10-15 years pursuing a career in commerce or some other sector (such as the military) to acquire the transferrable skills needed to crossover into fundraising.

And that’s a genuine, serious suggestion. Don’t bother working your way up through the fundraising ranks (for which you need a bit of luck to fall into by accident anyway), but come in sideways later on at a more senior level (and probably having already made a lot more money than you would have done as a junior fundraiser).

But it’s not really a sustainable strategy for the sector as a whole.

For those who actually want to be fundraisers (not wait around and let if fall into their laps by chance, or spend half a career doing something else first), what are their options?

One option that is often touted and recommended is to spend time volunteering as an unpaid intern to get the experience you need. Yet this is a highly unsatisfactory, and discriminatory, entry route into fundraising, and the charity sector in general, since only certain demographics will be able spend time working for free (people who can draw on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ for example, who are less likely to have grown up in inner city council estates).

But why are we even recommending that people work for nothing to gain experience. Why don’t they come along and present the credentials they have gained though required academic or professional study and be judged on those, as they would for most other professions? Because there aren’t any.

This is a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to continue if fundraising is to become a true profession. There need to be entry routes that provide a level playing for everyone who wants to become a fundraiser. These should present our idealistic 17-year-old with a number of options – for example, degree study, an apprenticeship, or on-the-job professional qualification – and let her choose the one that best suits her.

What might these entry routes be? At the moment, we can’t say for sure. But Rogare is about to start work on a project with Cause4 and Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy to research entry routes in to fundraising to try answer these questions and make some recommendation.

Researching entry routes to fundraising 

Rogare’s collaboration with Cause4 will look at entry pathways to other professions – and the evidence in favour of them – to recommend similar routes into fundraising that will give everyone the best chance to choose fundraising as a career, rather than just ‘falling into it by accident’.

Some of the areas we plan to look at include:

  1. Current entry routes into fundraising
    • What’s the current advice being offered to people who want a career in fundraising
  2. How do other professions structure their entry routes?
    • Particularly marketing and public relations, these being the two closest in terms or practice and academic knowledge
    • Apprenticeships
    • Chartered status
    • What can we learn from a two-tiered profession such as the law, with fully qualified barristers/solicitors and paralegals qualifying to a lower level?
    • Are any of these applicable/transferable/adaptable to fundraising?
  3. Qualification and credentialing for fundraising
    • What options are available in different countries, such as IoF Academy, CFRE, EFA qualifications, NVQs and occupational standards etc.
    • What is the take up of these options?
    • What store do employers put by having a qualification and what advantage is it in the job market, what skills do employers actually require of people entering fundraising roles, and do qualifications adequately demonstrate those skills?
    • How do people with qualifications feel it has improved their skills as a fundraiser, and what evidence already exists that education and/or CPD improves a fundraiser’s skills? For example, some research conducted by Adrian Sargeant, Amy Eisenstein and Rita Kottasz in 2015 ago found that every piece of CPD undertaken by American major gift fundraisers was worth an extra $37,000 to the nonprofit they worked for.
  4. What does the academic literature tell us about best practices in entry routes to professions?
Could entry to the fundraising profession be modelled after the two-tier system of the legal profession, which has separate entry requirements for barristers/solicitors, and paralegals?

While it is important not to second-guess what this project will tell us, our aim is to recommend entry pathways to fundraising that provide requisite knowledge/skills acquisition for individual fundraisers and serve to professionalise the whole collective endeavour of fundraising

For example, we might – might! – recommend the two-tiered approach analogous to the legal profession: middle and senior level roles were required to obtain necessary qualification or credentialing, or demonstrate transferable skills; whereas entrants at junior level (such as direct marketing assistant or database assistant) would acquire knowledge through CPD or an apprenticeship, but have no formal barrier to entry.

This might require restructuring the available qualifications so that they delivered specific knowledge for these specific objectives – is the IoF’s Certificate in Fundraising suitable both for full members of the profession (‘barristers’/’solicitors’) and junior members (‘paralegals’) or do they require different courses based on different levels of required knowledge? This is an open question to which we do not have an answer. But to adequately answer this question probably requires a fairly robust skills audit for fundraising.

As I said, it’s important not to second-guess what we might come up with once we start getting stuck into this topic.

But one thing is certain – fundraising needs some system of entry routes, because waiting for the best talent to fall into our laps by accident is just not sustainable for the future of our profession.

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

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