I’m awesome. You’re awesome. We’re AWESOME…aren’t we?

Published by Kimberly Mackenzie on

A few years ago, while discussing a learning opportunity, a colleague of mine said: “The last thing I need is to sit and listen to a bunch of fundraisers talk about how great they are.”

At the time I was pretty offended. Now I think maybe she was right. We (fundraising professionals) really do look to each other for validation. We build ourselves up, cheer each other on and even have award ceremonies for each other. We need to inspire and support each other because we are still a long way away from this profession garnering the public support and respect it deserves.

You have read about my mother in law in previous posts. Eileen, didn’t really want me talking about my job of fundraising in social situations with her friends. I remember one birthday party in particular when one of the guests disclosed that he ran a small foundation and suggested that I submit a proposal. This innocent, friendly, organic conversation resulted in a family scandal that lasted for weeks. Eileen just couldn’t understand how I could be so crass as to “solicit her friends”. I never did follow up on the lead. The personal strife simply wasn’t worth the donation.

On another occasion at a major donor cultivation event I somehow ended up on the receiving end of a lecture about how fundraisers don’t need to get paid. In fact they “SHOULDN’T” get paid. I set my immediate defensive instincts aside and tried to patiently justify my paycheck by explaining that I have specific training. I pointed out that since hiring me, my organization had started raising significantly more money for program delivery – the programs that she loved. I was dismissed with a wave of the hand and “Yes… well…you ALL say that.”

I’m not sure why I’m always so surprised by these attitudes. Perhaps it is because I am an accidental fundraiser. When I was a child, I never once claimed that I wanted to be a fundraiser when I grew up. I fell into this vocation – it called me. For many of us it was a passion to accomplish something useful and good for the world that led us down this path. We don’t want to raise money – we want to change lives, restore and protect the environment, build communities. Money is a means to end. We are not fundraisers – we are agents of change. Of course we have a long way to go before society at large thinks of us this way.

To make matters worse several times a year major news outlets seem to go on the attack. These news stories are usually out of context and full of untruths. They perpetuate the myth that we beg, steal and manipulate in order to raise money for our own personal gain. The reason we raise the money, the programs we fund and the lives we save are almost always ignored. Theses news articles leave the impression that somehow the charities can operate in spite of NOT because of the work we do.

The most recent occurrence was something I read this morning in a newspaper from Australia. It seems a reporter attended the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s national conference last week with the specific intention of writing about our behaviour when donors aren’t around. He accused the fundraisers of “meeting behind closed doors” – at a conference. Any laughter or sarcasm in the session on legacies was reported to be at the donor’s expense. Moves management of donor relationships was put in quotation marks – the implication being that we are manipulative and unethical, paying outrageous sums of money (conference fees) so that we can secretly strategize how to rob old and dying people of their assets.

I have attended that particular legacy masterclass. I know the speaker and have laughed at his jokes about death. Jokes about taboo subjects are funny. Laughter gets good marks at conferences. But, would our donors laugh at these jokes? And if they wouldn’t, should we?

Obviously this reporter already had a very low opinion of this profession. His reporting was irresponsible to say the least. His method of sneaking into the conference undercover as a paying delegate was unscrupulous. I have deliberately refrained from linking to the article to limit the exposure. However, the damage is done. Once again professional fundraising has been publicly shamed. This time I can’t help but wonder if we are somehow responsible.

Yes, we need to keep developing networks of peers and supporting each other. We need to keep patting ourselves on the back and giving out awards for excellence and “badges of AWESOMENESS”. However, I think the time has come for us to do more. We need to stop looking within our own sphere of influence and start looking outside to our organizations, families and community groups. We must start to do more to change the negative public perception of this profession.

With the recent passing of the iconic George Smith in the United Kingdom I can’t help but think of the legacy he left behind. Mr. Smith had a profound impact on our sector and how we communicate with donors. The outpouring of emotion and sentiment from fundraisers all around the world has been heart wrenching. Of course one can’t help but start thinking about what kind of legacy will be left behind when one dies.
What kind of imprint will I have on this sector? What kind of imprint will YOU have? Can we improve the public perceptions of this profession? I’d like to think we can.

While I don’t know exactly how to do it, here are some things I’d like to try for a start:

  • Eliminate the phrase “moves management” from our lexicon. Donors are not pieces on a chess board. Instead we ought to think about ways we can increase engagement in our work and our mission.
  • We need to constantly imagine that our favourite and most generous donor is on our shoulder. Watching us. All the time. Our behaviour shouldn’t change because a donor or a reporter walks in the room. We must strive to operate with the highest degree of integrity ALWAYS.
  • We must stop talking about the money we have raised as benchmarks of success. Instead let’s talk about the programs we have helped to fund. The new nature reserve, the children that have been fed, the seniors who live with dignity, the lives that have been saved.

This list is just a beginning. I hope you will add to it in the comments below. Let’s start a movement of change. Let’s help the world see what an honourable, important and valuable profession fundraising is to the fabric of society.


Perhaps one day our donors, our community or maybe even the media will give us the “Badge of Awesomeness” and we won’t have to give it to each other anymore.

What do you think you can do to improve perceptions of our vocation?

Kimberly Mackenzie

Kimberley is passionate about building the capacity of the third sector and works with a variety of organizations to advance a culture of philanthropy for their important work. For over 16 years she has been transforming fundraising programs and delivering double-digit growth. Kimberley also serves as Editor of Canada’s leading weekly fundraising resource Hilborn’s eNEWS, is a member of the Advisory Council for the Rogare Think Tank in Plymouth University, UK, is the Director of Education for the Planned Giving Council of Simcoe County and is currently writing her first book called The Authentic Fundraiser: How get transformative results for you and your organization.


Paul Nazareth ( twitter @UinvitedU ) · March 6, 2012 at 16:45

The only thing that doesn’t make this blog more of the same is that as usual Kimberley you put your action where your mouth is – THANK YOU for starting the conversation and giving us some concrete stuff we can do to counteract this terrible culture.

I had a strong response to my first Association of Fundraising Professionals Congress in 2001 because for the first year I was in the profession friends, family and even the staff of my charity branded me with a mark of shame. I was once told to dress down in between donor meetings because I was “scaring the staff” – like I dressed in a suit because my job was to beat people up or something. It had a great effect on my volunteerism in the profession – like you I’m on a mission to make this profession acceptable not at the executive level but the dinner table.

So! My constructive submission? The fundraisers coming up at Humber & Georgian Colleges, Ryerson and York Universities in professional programs need role models in today’s leadership. They are in danger of being more of a target because unlike us, this wasn’t an accidental calling or soul-discerned vocation it IS a job and the media is going to pick up on that more.

I’d like to see AFP, our international leader on this make videos like the “I am Canadian” that display to the public not our awesomeness but our love of mission, our humility and ability – our humanity. That we are needed and worth what we’re paid because no one asks what nurses and homeless shelter staff are paid – and yet we garner the funds that makes their work possible. We are an honourable needed part of the process.

As always Kimberley, your courageous voice is of value to our community – yes, I’m saying you’re awesome – but your vulnerability and openness is an attitude that will save our profession.

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:26

    Dear Paul,

    You make a very important point that new generations of fundraisers who graduate from formalized training programs are creating a shift. I think this makes your suggestion of some kind of public awareness campaign even more urgent.

    I would LOVE to see a video produced as you suggested. It could be: I am an Agent of Change or something… We have creative passionate smart people all around the world who are capable of doing such a thing. Let’s just do it!

    Thank you once again for your compliments. You are very generous with them and are constantly making me blush! One of your special charming skills no doubt.

Andrew · March 6, 2012 at 19:29

Are you part of Anonymous? Is that why you’ve got their logo at the top of the page?

Ligia · March 7, 2012 at 00:58

Thank you for putting it ALL out there Kimberley. I completely agree with your list of things to change. I have often voiced my great dislike (read disdain) of being evaluated based on the money I’ve raised. It’s probably in the millions by now. I don’t know and I don’t care. I hope charities care more about the relationships we’ve built with donors, the stories we’ve shared, the laughter and the tears that have built our communities (locally and internationally).

With more government-recognized programs in colleges and universities across the country, I can only hope that in a few years, when there are more cohorts graduating, that it’ll bring that added credibility to the profession. Because YES, it is a profession. In the meantime, we have a personal and professional responsibility to continue educating our supporters and the nay-sayers.

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:30

    Thanks Ligia,

    Changing perceptions will be a slow steady burn. On we all need to be intentional about influencing.

    Like you I have kind of stopped counting money I’ve raised. However, until CFRE and future employers stop asking us I’m afraid we will need to be prepared to answer. I guess we could respond with: $2.3 million which enabled my organization to…whatever.

    Great comment – thanks for participating.

Ilja De Coster · March 7, 2012 at 09:35

Thanks for this Kimberly,

Indeed an important issue, we all face in fundraising. That we face it in the general public I might a little understand with a lot of empathy – but we face it within the charity sector as well with porgram staff (payed as well, by the way) and board members. It might be usefull to start with educating them…

I do however have the feeling that we fundraisers to have to start with ourselves, taking our profession much more seriously. This by studying more the great academic research that exists and by submitting us to certification (the European Fundraising Association has a nice model in place now. But as well we as a profession have indeed to stress more the cause the social role we play in democratic societies. We do have indeed to position ourselves more as change agents.

too much fundraisers now are diehards technicians looking too limited to some techniques and tricks in fundraising.

Lot’s can be said on this issue, but I would strongly recommend you all to read the chapter “The Fund Development Professional: Choosing your road – organizational development specialist or just another fundraising technician” by Simone Joyaux in the third edition of her book ‘Strategic fund development’ (you should actually read the whole book)

If we what you change public perception on our profession, we have to start with ourselves. We have to keep explaining issues, and not just looking at the quick wins of simplistic fundraising communications.

By the way, on the comment in the Austrial journal after Richard Radcliff’s masterclass. I know Richard’s presention style – it is funny indeed. A member in the general public may be shocked but it is typical in any professional group – for sure if the have to deal with stress. Did you evere heared cynic jokes about patients by doctors? Or about crime and killing by policy men? Compared to that Richard’s jokes are really soft…

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:40

    Dear Ilja,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I have indeed studied Simones Joyaux’s second edition of Strategic Fund Development. Although I confess that it has been years since I picked it up. I’ll look for the chapter you refer to. Perhaps it is in my version.

    You make an excellent point about other professions poking fun at clients. An I know blowing off steam like this is one of the great values of professional conferences for everyone. It keeps us united and inspired. My father used to drag us all to real estate conventions. They are a very wild bunch! I cringe to think what might happen if a bunch of fundraising consultants got together on their own. I’m sure they would need to find some kind of humour at the expense of practitioners to get them through. (that blog is formulating)

    I think that we need to be more aware and perhaps rise above the temptation. I may be a bit of an idealist but I think our risk is too great. We have such a long way to go to shift perceptions. It isn’t that we have a higher degree of responsibility than doctors or lawyers, but our profession is still so new we still need to prove our worth to society.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Sandy Rees · March 7, 2012 at 16:27

Great stuff Kimberly. I agree that we must strive as a profession to help the public understand what we do and the honor in the profession. At the same time, we have to discourage unethical practices by some of our bretheren. It’s conversations like these that help raise awareness and light the path for those who need it.

Sandy Rees

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:41

    Hi Sandy,

    You are absolutely right! When we see our colleagues being disrespectful to donors and beneficiaries let’s absolutely call them out.

    Great point.

Stephen Pidgeon · March 8, 2012 at 18:25

Super stuff Kimberley, as ever. The episode at the FIA has made me think more clearly about what I say in conference sessions. And I need to change!

An interesting idea for any charities discussing programmes for their supporters. Someone in the room should be designated as ‘Supporter’ – a sort-of supporters’ champion with the sole responsibility in that meeting to contribute a supporters’ view of the discussions.

If they are good at their job then it alters the whole structure of the discussion….for the better.

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:45

    Hi Stephen,

    How wonderful to see you rethinking your approach. I’m sure many of us are at the moment.

    The suggestion of designating someone to represent donors in brilliant. I recently did an in-house workshop with another charity and in addition to various tools and toys I also brought along Dallas the donor. Dallas is a three foot puppet who sat at the table with us. Same idea but the live version could actually heckle when we go astray.

    Look forward to seeing that in action at your next conference session.


Ann Rosenfield · March 9, 2012 at 03:33

While the Australian article was ridiculous, it is also true we create some of our own troubles.

Some of that IS our language but also, like every profession there are some crappy fundraisers.

So, one of the things we need to do is when a article appears that exposes a bad charity practice, we need to support it.

If we never praise the truthful articles, then we can’t expect the public to know that we differentiate between bad practice and bad reporting.

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:49

    Hi Ann,

    Excellent point. Although I must say that I don’t feel exactly qualified to know if the reporting is accurate or which article is truthful. I truly value and depend on the Association of Fundraising Professionals Toronto Chapter for this kind of rationale balanced response to articles in Canada. I’ve often used the statements submitted by them as a way to respond to inquiries when negative articles appear in Toronto papers.

    One of the many benefits of professional associations I think.


Maryann Kerr (@M2Kerr) · March 9, 2012 at 05:03

Great work Kimberley…it wasn’t me that made that comment about fundraiser’s patting themselves on the back was it? It could have been. I actually stopped attending AFP events for a long time because I couldn’t stand the self congratulatory nature of the interactions. That said, I understand the need for networking and support in a largely misunderstood profession.

I’d like to make this suggestion. Along with taking the words moves management out of circulation – let’s move towards a more intentional and thoughtful approach to the language we use to describe our work. No more “hired guns.” No “pitch” packages…and please stop “selling” your charity. Let’s inspire our donors; engage in appreciative inquiry and provide donors with an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to missions that matter. Our language needs to express the love for humanity that is at the core of what we do. Thank you for starting a wonderful and much needed conversation.

    Kimberly Mackenzie · March 10, 2012 at 15:52

    Hi Maryann,

    :-) no it was not you, but thanks for the confession. I’ve also been frustrated about how insular we can be at times but then remind myself that is exactly what conferences are for.

    Your suggested language changes are excellent. We could probably write a book! Or at least a really useful article. Looking forward to “Intuitive Fundraising” how is that project coming?

Jevan Williams · April 16, 2012 at 20:09


I agree with the gist of your article and think you raise many valid points in the ongoing battle for professionalization. I’m on your side. But (you knew a “but” was coming…)

I want to quibble with you – why do you think that a person paying to attend a conference is “sneaking” in? Is your position that what happens at the conference stays at the conference? Or that the only people qualified to report what happens at an event are those “professionally engaged at the event”? Or that reporters must announce their presence in order to be ethical? Imagine all the stories that would never see the light of day. So I vote in favor of “sneaky” reporters!

So, as a fundraising professional (CFRE, etc.) who is biased in favor of investigative journalism, I’d like to look at what was actually printed, so I disagree with your decision to not link the article – daylight is the best disinfectant and how can your readers analyze if the (either your version or the reporter’s) depiction is accurate?

The media has a job to do, and the headline “Fundraising Conference revels charity professionals are hardworking and ethical” might be what we would write, it may not grab attention like they want.

Thus: “TRUST is the essential – and priceless – asset of any charity” Well, we don’t disagree, do we?

Okay, yes, “A behind closed-doors Conference” is a bit of hyperbole but not inaccurate. But what about the rest – is that a reasonable version of how a layperson would view our world? Sure, I would love to sit down with the reporter and explain it to them, but it probably wouldn’t matter, just as if I was assigned to “sneak into” a conference of surgeons, I would end up reporting that they are devising new ways to hack people up. If the reporter went to a marketing conference they would hear similar things about “emotional manipulation, psychological profiling and deliberate and sustained pressure”.

But we hold ourselves up to the highest standards, I don’t think that anything that was reported was wrong (from my point of view as a professional, but not present), just like many things, requiring more context, but neither the reporter nor most readers are qualified to provide that. To me, having the highest ethical standards means that we must welcome to media into our meetings (“sneaky” or invited) and accept what they say for what it is.

Really, really do love your blog, and especially your list!

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