Retelling the stories of our career – Narrative therapy for nonprofit fundraisers.

I have been reading up on the concept of narrative therapy after an article on LinkedIn recently piqued my interest. Not only from a personal point of view – after all, understanding our experiences are our experiences and that our past has to be seen as a window rather than as a mirror – but, also how it might relate to a recent conundrum I have being trying to unpack, that being how we perceive ourselves as fundraisers in the sector.

As some would have seen, I posted recently across some channels (and also led with it on my recent newsletter), about the term falling into fundraising. The conversation came with an equal amount of support, but also some significant pushback due to my choice of words. For those that didn’t catch it, here it is:

Urgh – I saw it again. Another great profile piece on an accomplished fundraiser titled “Falling into Fundraising”. Look, the most self-degrading thing a fundraiser can say is that they stumbled into the world of fundraising and it needs to change. We as fundraisers, need to change it.

It really makes me sad when I hear that when talking to my peers. Building resources to enable organizations to do mission based work to improve the lives of others and lift up society is something that should be admired rather than admonished.

Apart from the role of CEO, there is no other more lonely position than those operating in grassroots nonprofit development – low budgets, sky high expectations and a unique pressure exerted by them from leadership to identify the donors and funds that will not only help keep the lights on but expand services, fund a new building and establish a seven figure endowment from scratch.

Remember, fundraising is the process not the job title. Just as a 501c3 is just a tax designation, not a business model. It’s time to change the narrative. Our shared narrative on what we do and how we do it. Because it’s all positive my friends – make no excuses for that.

As you might see, I feel so strongly about the need to change the external perceptions of charity work and better pathways into the profession that it elicited such a strong response, and caused me to use the term ‘self-degrading’. 

Someone pointed out to me that they disagreed that it’s self-degrading; and that they thought it’s just a way of saying ‘I hadn’t realized it could be a career. I discovered it, loved it, and now that’s what I do’. They went further in sharing that people who ‘fall into fundraising’ aren’t ashamed, they’re proud to do something they love that helps others.

And I fundamentally agree, I guess external perceptions are ultimately changed (and forged) in this instance through a more positive narrative, but how do we create one where the majority of fundraisers see themselves in it, because at the end of the day they will be the ones that share their work, both the inputs, the outputs and the very real stories of impact which they played a fundamental role in?

I feel that narrative therapy, or the principles of it at least might help us move the conversation forward.

Narrative therapy is a style of therapy that helps people become—and embrace being—an expert in their own lives. In narrative therapy, there is an emphasis on the stories that you develop and carry with you through your life.

As you experience events and interactions, you give meaning to those experiences and they, in turn, influence how you see yourself and the world. You can carry multiple stories at once, such as those related to you self-esteem, abilities, relationships, and work.

But how do we approach this respectfully to those that play key roles in helping build the resources needed to help build an even more dynamic & vibrant society – tackling the defining issues of our time and catalyzing the research that drives real societal progress?

It’s funny, because we actually have (and readily utilize) all the things we need to make this process a success. We are storytellers, we are connectors, we are knowledge brokers, we are advisors and we ultimately play a key role in securing the resources that enable our organizations to carry out our important mission driven work. 

We build cases for support for all of our work , campaigns and priorities so why don’t we apply the same skills and energy to helping lift up our profession – how we see ourselves in it and how we share that passion with the broader community. Fundraisers are equipped to help change the narrative, but it’s not that easy, is it?

Or is it?

I think a lot of this tension (or angst) within the sector will be solved through further professionalization of the sector, which in turn  will lead to better pipelines for staff wanting to become fundraisers.

According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey, 51% of fundraisers plan to leave their jobs by 2021. More alarmingly three in 10 respondents said they recently left or plan to leave the development field all together in the next two years. Further professionalization of our field will also go a long way in changing the sometimes transient nature of what is a critical position in our social sector.

The aforementioned survey highlighted that the main issues were too much pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals, coupled with too little pay and frustrating organizational cultures. I actually disagree with the pay concerns – in many instances organizations with small budgets sometimes overpay to secure talent and inadvertently warp the career trajectory for fundraisers – it’s just that it’s hard for individuals to uncouple the fact that when raising hundreds of thousands of dollars we look at the money raised first and not the full responsibilities of the role we were employed for. 

Now getting back to the crux of this little missive. This post was largely influenced by a recent post by EverTrue Founder & CEO Brent Grinna who shared the companies new mission statement after the recent merger of his company and ThankView.

“Our mission is to build relationships, inspire generosity and improve lives.

Our refreshed mission statement was recently crafted with input from our entire leadership team. Going through the process and being reminded of how much our team genuinely cares was inspiring.

And every single day, we see both anecdotes and data that demonstrate our mission in action. Relationships are built through a combination of data and software that leads to human connection. An authentic connection between fundraiser and donor, student and donor, academic leader and donor can be the difference-maker in inspiring generosity. And that generosity creates access to education and non-profit services that improve lives. I know, because my life has been radically improved by way of the philanthropic support from Brown University that sparked my entrepreneurial journey.”

This is a great narrative. It’s simple, authentic and relatable. Folks can see where the company is going, who it serves and ultimately see themselves in their future impact. I mentioned to Brent that it could also be used by frontline fundraisers as their own personal mission statement, and I guess that’s why EverTrue is killing it right now – relatability to the work & building solutions in tandem with the needs & demands of the sector, but I digress.

While this mission statement was hardly developed overnight, there is no doubt all the pieces were there and uncovered by listening to their staff (and the field). To that end, and with that obvious segue, I believe that there are a few things we can do now to start changing the narrative for fundraisers and the work they do, right now….

A comprehensive sector review: I would love for our professional associations & networks AFP, PEAK Grantmaking, YNPN, Community Centric Fundraising, etc. to come together and talk with the frontline fundraisers they represent to talk about their role, how they see it and their career aspirations. Just a salary review and an annual survey saying ‘how can we better serve you’ just doesn’t cut it.

Another good practice & approach might be looking at what the skills & industries of these fundraisers were before they became fundraising professionals – whether it was from business, politics or just a shift from nonprofit programs or marketing to fundraising. That will help us identify and build strong pipelines for further recruitment.

Finally, talking to nonprofit managers, recruiters, academics in this space and other relevant stakeholders on how they are seeing the industry trend will provide the data needed to sift through and inform how the sector moves forward. Even speaking with folks that have ultimately left the sector might give us inspired insight in how to retain & support those looking to make fundraising a career rather than a chapter within it.

A shared narrative on who we are & how we are seen – I would love for the sector to come to some sort of agreement on titles. I have written about how we can be creative about titles but fundamentally what do we do, are we philanthropic advisors, development professionals, advancement staff, or fundraisers? At a time when the sector has itself questioned what philanthropy actually means, we need to align our lingo so that there is no confusion with donors, organizations and the community at large as to who we are and what we do.

A sector wide campaign to recruit folks – we can be as creative as we need to be here, but why are we not turning up to job fairs, building links with chambers of commerce, and sharing flyers with workforce development & broader community groups? Again, a big problem is folks not even knowing fundraising is a career option and an extremely rewarding one at that. I mean it would be amazing to see a billboard put up in every major metro city encouraging people to become fundraisers!

More celebration of our successes – Is it just me, or are the major awards for Philanthropy all geared towards the donors, campaigns and volunteers? I agree, that these are all key people & roles within our profession but why don’t we celebrate fundraising excellence more, especially at the individual level. Why do we just give our fundraisers a pat on the pack for raising a major gift, when ultimately it was their research, outreach, stewardship and trust that helped facilitated the gift? I am not taking away the generosity of donors, all I am saying is that we don’t exactly help ourselves in lessening the power dynamics by just talking about the gift. I would love to see our fundraisers interviewed in organizations blog posts, magazines that go out to alumni & members and perhaps even interviews that discuss the gift with both the donor and the fundraiser talking about the process, not just the outcome. These stories of generosity can be all the more impactful if we show how good philanthropy is done, not just putting a line at the end of the article saying ‘for more information contact our advancement team on…’

I guarantee if we did this we would see an uptick on the tenure of development staff from the reported 16 months to ones of 3, 4, 5+ years. All timeframes that can really maximize impact and the return on a strong, authentic relationship with a donor. 

I also recently re-read the AFP Code of Ethical Standards. Personally, I don’t see anything saying that fundraisers can’t celebrate their wins. Lawyers do it all the time…’we secured $xx million on behalf of our clients’, so why don’t we. I have seen some friends and peers raise some big 8 figure gifts and simply reshared the big front page story of it on LinkedIn with a simple – “I was excited to be a part of this donation”. Look, if I raised $250 million for revolutionary new research into cancer treatment I would want to share that. Those stories are what will inspire new people into the field and reaffirm to our sector why we do it.

Board & Leadership Training – everyone in leadership roles should understand the importance of fundraising and their role in it. Period. 

Education & training – There is currently no specific degree in fundraising, with the principles and best practices enshrined within programs focused on nonprofit management, philanthropy and specialized certificate courses.

This is crazy to us especially given the rising demand for trained fundraising professionals. So what are the current options?

One of the biggest learning platforms LinkedIn Learning has a grand total of 9 minutes of relevant fundraising content (and an hour on how to make a fundraising video) from the over 5,000 courses on its platform, while Coursera has just one free course from UC Davis which looks into annual campaigns, major & principal gifts and planned giving.

Look, education is important as fundraising can be a very amateur endeavor indeed, with bad habits occurring and manifesting early on in their careers without the right guidance and training. I cringe every time an organization asks for my advice and when I ask who their top 10 current prospects are they just rattle off the top philanthropists they found in a Google search.

I previously worked for a regional association of grantmakers. The most common question we fielded was what grants do you have available? It’s had a confusing name, I get it, but come on, do your research.

There is an abundance of donors out there and with a little polish, even the greenest of development staff can be making impactful asks for the benefit of their cause.

That is why I continue to discuss groups that are looking to professionalize the sector and provide timely and relevant training that can lift up the sector and not use their tenure to push new products, books or paid webinars. Candid, Nonprofit Hub, AFP etc understand this and are to be commended for their efforts.

Talking about the future of work – AI and the automation of work is going to make a number of traditional jobs obsolete in the near future. Economic research reports are predicting much of this talent will be moving over to the service industry which is a terrific opportunity to recruit transferable talent into fundraising roles.

Look, at the end of the day we have work to do in selling our importance and worth in the sector (one that has it’s own problems with public perception), and while I know that there is a real energy to improve and elevate our work, it can’t be at the cost of those that do that work. As I said in my original post, “fundraising is the process not the job title. Just as a 501c3 is just a tax designation, not a business model. It’s time to change the narrative. Our shared narrative on what we do and how we do it. Because it’s all positive my friends – make no excuses for that.”

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