Un-define fundraising

Published by Brock Warner on

I love fundraising, but recently I’ve tried to create some distance between ‘fundraising’ as a descriptor of what it is I do. It’s not because of how I feel about the term, but because of how the general public feels about it. Here in Canada, the most recent stats show that 23% of Canadians donate to charity. So when I refer to the general public, I’m talking about the other 77%.

The general public doesn’t like fundraisers, it tolerates them. However, there are exceptions. When Bill Gates asks Warren Buffett to give half his fortune to the Gates Foundation, is he a hero? You bet. When you send an acquisition mail pack, or an e-appeal, are you a hero? Nope. You are a nuisance.

So, it seems the general public only has a problem with professional fundraisers. From where I stand, it sounds like “fundraisers are great, as long as they aren’t asking me for money.”

You’re reading this blog, so you know firsthand that fundraisers like you do so much more than ask for money. You enable amazing programs in your community, country, or around the world. You inspire and spark social movements. You open doors for the underprivileged, underserved, or underrepresented. You ensure that doctors can heal the suffering around the world, or research life-saving cures. You are the conduit between a passionate donor and a worthy cause that without you may never have connected.

That’s what I want people to think about when I tell them I am a fundraiser. But, they don’t.

Fundraising as a profession has made amazing strides in formalizing and establishing itself as a legitimate career option. Certifications are an important tool for transmitting knowledge, placing value on experience, service and continued learning. Membership associations provide a strong voice for lobbying government, and creating community. Conferences transmit best practices and often have a great selection of pastries.

But do any of these features listed above contribute to changing the way that the other 77% feel about fundraising? No. We are still a nuisance.

I realize that many of you reading this will have agreed with me up to this point, and are fine with the path we’re on. The rest of this blog is for those that agree with me, and are ready for a change.

Seth Godin blogged recently about how the hardest account to invest in is often your own. Fundraising professionals need to take this to heart, and do a little PR of your own to put a dent in those troublesome preconceptions that ultimately are harmful to the beneficiaries of our causes.

We don’t need to redefine the fundraising profession, because we understand the scope and value of what we do. We need to un-define fundraising for the 77% who think they know what it is all about, then fill that gap with what we already know to be true. Inspire them, and ignite an interest in the fundraising process.

Industry associations are no strangers to this. Below are a few recent examples for Realtors (Canada) and Chartered Accountants (Australia). Neither of these professions is sexy, but they are vital for our economies, and the better they are at their job, the stronger our economies are for it. Fundraising is no different. A great fundraiser influences a strong economy, effective and well-funded programs, and efficiently-run charities. This is what the other 77% needs to be exposed to.

I’d love to see fundraising associations investing more in marketing the societal value of fundraising professionals to the general public, and less time marketing the benefits of membership. Moving the needle on the public trust and perceptions of fundraising only stands to benefit the sector, and one would hope, create a lift in charitable giving.

I’m proud to be a fundraising professional, and I know that you are too. We’ve come a long way, and there is exciting potential for even further growth. This is what I see as the next big step for our profession, but if you disagree or have other ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Leave a comment, or you can get in touch at brockwarner (at) gmail.com.

Chartered Accountants “million opportunities”

Canadian Realtors – howrealtorshelp.ca

Brock Warner

Brock is obsessed with raising money for causes he believes in. He is based in Toronto, Canada and loves to connect with other passionate fundraisers from all over the world. Follow Brock on twitter here: @brockwarner.


Christina Attard @GPtekkie · February 27, 2012 at 16:37

Agreed! Sad but true – used to say I was an “architect” like George Costanza used to do on Seinfeld at parties when I was much, much younger just to avoid having to explain what the title “Development Officer” meant over loud-music. (I promise, my ways have changed since then…)

My viewpoint: We need to become more like the commercial art world and less like old-skool used-car salesmen. Art is sold on relationship and status. It’s a positive, professionally-handled, experience. We want our supporters to “hang it on their wall” that they are associated with us. The new generation of car dealers I meet are awesome, but some of us still fundraise like the stereotypical smarmy shop that’s trying to push off lemons on unsuspecting buyers. That’s how I feel when I get lots of direct mail pieces that are coming off of a list that was bought from charities I have no relationship with and who don’t even include my name in the address line.

My dream would be for at least some entry-level certification into the profession – that’s happening with some of the diploma programs that are operating, but I think we need something a step lower than the CFRE for entry-level folks. I would also love to see an ad campaign from either CFRE International or AFP International like what the associations you showcase in this post are doing to raise public awareness about our profession.

My own branding (now that I don’t hide behind “architect”)? I’m an advisor in philanthropy. I help charities “Ask Better” and donors “Give Smarter” – my work is in advocating for donors in understanding their options and supporting charities in their work to build relationships with the people who care about their mission.

Thanks for this post.


    Brock Warner · February 27, 2012 at 17:56

    I agree entirely Christina! I intentionally didn’t call out any specific associations and urge them to action, because if a PR campaign like this is to ever happen, it will absolutely take partnerships. To my knowledge, no one membership organization has the capacity to do this on their own, nor any time soon.

    Let’s not forget the network of suppliers in all facets of fundraising that would have an interest in a sector full of proud, ambitious, and forward thinking fundraisers.

Sally Hilton · February 27, 2012 at 17:32

Great post. Not all of us have enlightened colleagues in our own organisations so let’s start with them and making them fundraising advocates as a means of reaching the 77%. The way forward has to be with fundraising membership organisations but it’s too easy for them to back off at the moment and focus on bottom line membership because of the financial climate.

    Brock Warner · February 27, 2012 at 17:59

    Thanks Sally! Starting internally is absolutely the first step. You would be hard pressed to find a fundraiser that enjoys being cut off from the Mar/Comm department, whereas that isn’t likely the case in reverse.

Paul Nazareth · February 28, 2012 at 06:18

What a perfect post to read after a day of being under the weather – needed a little good discussion to get my blood boiling again. Brock, Christina and many peers must share the discussion, at times the outright attacks around being a “fundraiser”. I’ve been tired of them for a while and would LOVE to see AFP do a spot like the Realtor Assoc. something like “I am a fundraiser”.

The challenges are that our profession is so diverse – law has many different parts but not actual different dimensions. A fundraiser can be someone who stands on the street, knocks on a door, calls on a phone, does research, makes plaques for walls, organizes events or sells raffle tickets for 50 cents or $500. It’s hard to cram all that in a nice little box and put a bow on it.

Like Christina, I’m happy to enjoy a little misdirection for now – maybe it’s time to put down our baggage and jargon and say yes to titles like “philanthropy” and “social-profit”. Maybe the answer was under our nose all along – people like Fraser Green, Jon Dushinksky and Simon Sinek would have you answer with your purpose, not your title:

“I am saving Canada’s wetlands”
“I help cure Cancer”
“I am educating the next generation of Canadian leaders”
“I give dignity to the elderly”

Either way, I’m with Brock – We need to do something to reclaim our professional brand. And soon.

Gabe · February 28, 2012 at 10:27

I think, unfortunately, that here in North America a lot of the problem in perception is that the individuals who make first contact tend to be the ones with least experience. With door knocking or calling, we see loads of wonderful idealistic young people who are a first touch point for many people’s experience with an NGO. While the majority of them are smart and passionate, very few have the experience or approach that seasoned professionals have, and can sometimes leave a bad impression. When an NGO outsources this work to an agency, quality control can become even more of a challenge. As the drive for ROI on any type of fundraising increases, pressure, stress, and performance minimums for fundraisers can increase while salaries and overall job attractiveness make the profession less attractive for high potential individuals. My personal opinion is that many NGO’s would be better off in the long run if they were to invest more heavily in entry level staff, promote long term growth and stability, and ensure that all fundraisers experiences with the “77%” were positive. Long term thinking with staff would, in my opinion, create long term thinking with donors and potential donors in a way that wouldn’t lead to an impression of fundraising as a profession where we try to get every dime we can immediately and instead build long term relationships.

    Christina Attard @GPtekkie · February 28, 2012 at 15:58

    And yet, Gabe, Starbucks uses a lot of similar people on their front line – young, enthusiastic, idealistic – and Barista isn’t exactly an executive position…but they seem to be able to deliver a great experience and they know how to make a bizillion different drinks – ie. they know their product inside and out. What are companies like Starbucks doing to invest in their people that we’re not? I think you hit the nail on the head in identifying that there is a need for developing people in the early part of their careers – I’m always impressed with Brock’s own work around the Young Non-Profit Professionals group in Toronto. How can we take that out into the every day of our work as Directors, Senior Development Officers, CEOs?

Carmen Clayton · February 28, 2012 at 16:26

Interesting article and discussion Brock. I read this on Twitter this morning, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.” @simonsinek As a mar/comm professional working to transition into the fundraising side of the NP world so that I can work hard for something I love, what Gabe & Christina say about building relationships makes a lot of sense to me. If you take the high pressure out of the equation and work to build relationships with the “77%”; connecting them to the purpose, you remove the resistance to the hard sell.

From a personal standpoint, the causes that have drawn me in to surrender my money over the years have done so by making me aware of what they do…telling compelling stories. I believe it will be important to “show not tell” how professional the profession is. Paul’s list of purposes (not titles) sparks the germ of an idea there in telling the compelling stories of the profession…great things are being accomplished and would not be accomplished without the efforts of Fundraising Professionals.

The Dragon · February 28, 2012 at 17:36

I have to admit that you are totally correct. In your analysis.
However the biggest problem is the title “Professional Fundraiser” we all know that “Professional” means to most people ” Thats your profession and your way of making a living” so when you talk about the othet 77% it is not that your a pest . 50% will allways think ” and
how much is really going to the cause and how much are you getting out of it” It is this mindset that has to be addressed. and the only way to do that is to not only concentrate on raising that “much needed cash” but also raise the awareness of the cause and how much help is needed in other ways . once you do that its surprising how quickly funding starts to flow by communicating and listening. instead of talking or giving a lecture etc.

Rickesh Lakhani · February 28, 2012 at 18:53

Great post, Brock, and insightful comments by all so far!

The term fundraiser has a lot of qualities that many of those 77% would place on us, perhaps some negative ones that have been associated with old school sales like Christina mentioned. It’s unfortunate that whatever name we give to our profession (yes, it is a profession, people!) will eventually inherit those same qualities – labelling theory in full effect.

When someone asks what I do, I have had to work hard not be a turtle gently peeking its head of its shell, concerned about the reaction, and instead burst out with the pride that I have for being a part of this great field. That confidence in what we do is also an important part of the equation, in addition to the education.

“I am a fundraiser!!…and to answer your follow-up question – yes, I am a full-time paid staff person.”

Paul’s notion of speaking to purpose instead of title also helps to elevate the discussion to why the heck we’re all doing this in the first place, and perhaps gives that boost of energy needed to weather any negativity and work towards changing perceptions.

Over the long-term, there is some real work to be done, and it’s tough work, around the re-definition. It will require a level collaboration of the entire industry on a scale never before seen – and of course will take some time. So-called competitors will become friends to advance the greater good and re-establish our public sense of purpose.

As we sit with rampant impatience waiting for this shift, we can continue discussions like this, build momentum, get others involved, and on an individual level, embody what we believe this is really all about by speaking with our actions. For example, treating people with respect and not as wallets, and communicating passionately about our genuine desire to make change. That’s where it starts.

My question is, given that this is such a broadly shared responsibility, how do we make this happen on a large-scale? What can we do to help?

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