Fundraising is the process not our job title: The Fight for professional identity

501 c 3 is just a tax designation, not a business model. Got it.

What if you just ran it like a business? Don’t got it.

When will the nonprofit sector push back against these lazy corporate tropes? When will the nonprofit sector stop others dictating what we are and what we can do? 

Our sector is being defined by those with the least amount of skin in the game.

LinkedIn is a horror show each and every time I open it. Venture capitalists and start-up founders are claiming the word fundraising as the process of raising capital which is starting to blur the definition.

Tech companies that are entering the market are ultimately redefining our own lexicon by working with their own corporate language and not understanding that of those their products are built to serve. Fundraising is basically sales. Oh yeah, ok.

Fundraising is not sales in the purest of terms. It just doesn’t scale that way. When you sell lots of iPhones, you can benefit from creating more at a cheaper cost. When your programs grow at a nonprofit you have to raise more money to build them out and hire more staff to keep up with demand. It’s quite perverse to be honest.

That’s not to say that can’t layer into the conversation of the work we do moving forward. But first things first, we need to do a bit of sector wide reflection and understand that to move through the nuance of our labels we need to get back to basics.

Look, it’s time for the nonprofit sector to reclaim the word philanthropy, and for fundraisers to claim it in their job titles too.

The sad reality is that the word philanthropy does not elicit that powerful positive response it used to and is fast becoming seen as a construct of an evil capitalist society. Yes it has flaws structurally. Yes it has been used as a tool to decrease taxes and build unsavory individuals’ reputations. And yes it has been widely used as a charitable transaction over that of a charitable act. But we need to realize this is our sector’s word, and we need to begin changing the stigma around it. Helping people understand that philanthropy is giving to your friend’s 5K fun run, that philanthropy is volunteering at your local food bank, and that philanthropy is sharing legal advice with a nonprofit pro bono. It’s time to not shy away from it and encourage others to lean into it as well.

To that end, our ‘fundraisers’ or those whole roles are on the development side of the house might need their own realignment especially with the true professionalism of the sector still a work in progress (I’m talking about education & training here which I sought to explain in a previous post titled PROFESSIONALIZING THE FUNDRAISING PROFESSION – A CAREER TO ASPIRE TO NOT ONE YOU FALL IN TO.)

I rarely refer to myself as a fundraiser, articulating that I am a philanthropic advisor when asked. A title at the end of the day is just a way of identifying a point person in what should be

a strong “fundraising culture” of an organization. There is so much that goes into an ask, and I have found that donations come predominantly as a byproduct of strong donor research, cultivation, and stewardship along with a killer case for support.

I love using this metaphor to explain fundraising leads, and of course it’s a sporting one…The individual managing a certain prospect can be likened to that of an American football quarterback studying the playbook, devising strategy with the head coach (CEO), and on game day executing the drive up the field and either scoring a touchdown themselves or passing to a receiver or giving it to a running back to make the score. At the end of the day, you select the best person to make an ask, whether it be a board member, the CEO, or an administrator sending out a membership renewal email.

Business cards in the fundraising space traditionally show fundraising, development, or advancement in the job title. However, research on the effectiveness of fundraiser job titles shows that director of advancement polls the lowest. So let’s be more intentional about which job titles make the most sense. It will ultimately help facilitate more immediate understanding of who is engaging with the donor and why. Tricking donors into conversation by not being honest about why you are reaching out in the first place is a recipe for disaster. Don’t be shy when asking to meet with a prospect – tell them that you make no assumption about the kind of relationship you might want to have with your organization, but be confident that your conversation would help to clarify that.

At the end of the day fundraising has and always will be the process of seeking and gathering voluntary financial contributions by engaging individuals, businesses, charitable foundations, or governmental agencies. Yet that’s always been a catch all. If we are to truly professionalize the sector and stimulate careers in development we need to provide more nuance to the roles that lead to an ask, especially in major gift fundraising.

For major gifts (at whatever level your organization deems them as) you need to account for the complexities of some gifts, hold yourself to high ethical standards and be donor centric. We are there to advise the donor, learn and understand what matters most to them, what impact the want to have, and what type of gift makes sense. We are not financial advisors, but we are philanthropic advisors, and that’s an important distinction to make.

I would encourage folks to raise these very points. This might be a great topic for your next staff meeting or simply a 1:1 with your boss. The timing is also great especially as we start to see more in-person donor meetings in the coming months and as we transition out of the COVID fog.

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