Recently, I woke up to an inbox full of resources that aim to improve the “doing” of fundraising. At first glance, this made me smile.
Just 10+ years ago, I had to dig deep into cyberspace to find insights like the ones that came in like clockwork on this particular morning. Think: winning major gift strategies, proposal budgeting tips, mid-level giving mastery, donor retention via text, year-end strategies that sell, and so many more!
There is, remarkably, no shortage of tactics in our field.
As the day progressed, however, and after multiple exchanges with fundraisers, consultants, and leaders, I began to feel unsettled. A big rock nudged its way into my gut and an even bigger elephant made its way into the room holding the day’s fundraising conversations.
Maybe even more than one elephant!
I began to wonder: behind the smokescreen of winning tips and tactics that transmit the impression of a profession, what is it that we are NOT saying? What messages are not being delivered?
Ever since the Chronicle article came out, more people in the fundraising field are openly acknowledging that they are “fed up.” This is brave and necessary. Many are also grasping for the last straw that will inspire them to stay put.
I hear it, I see it, and frankly, I share in it. They want solutions. We do. I do. The kind we don’t often see in our inbox at the start of the week.
So, I have harnessed the courage to say it straight: I believe our profession has swung so far to the side of “doing” (overdoing, overeducating, over commodifying ways to “win a gift”), for no other reason than to validate or authenticate our existence. And, through it all, we have lost sight of our reason for being (who we are, why our work matters, and what we stand for).
Taken together, this has wedged fundraisers into a paradox – teetering between what our stakeholders believe is possible and what we know works; what they perceive as our central purpose and what we believe to be true. In many ways, we have lost our voice! Or maybe we never had it in the first place #inquiringminds.
I have included two examples for input:
First, a fundraiser can DO EVERYTHING RIGHT—make all the right *recommended* moves—and a donor may NOT be ready to give. And the converse is also true, a fundraiser can do NOTHING and walk straight into a six- or seven-figure gift (I have seen the latter at least a dozen times!).
So how do we as fundraisers make sense of this – if there is no guarantee – and especially if the timing or good fortune plays such a significant role? Does that make our careers extraneous – our field superfluous – if people simply give when they want to? Or is this an invitation for us to rise up?
Truth be told, I am continually witnessing a fundamental disconnect between how fundraising is being “sold” (to boards, faculty, deans, CEOs, and even young fundraisers) and how it actually happens. I am continually hearing what organizations believe we do misalign with why we exist. So, what then?
Who is, in fact, responsible for changing our story? Them/ Us? Who is responsible for the new narrative ala: “Yes, fundraising can be lucky and it can be a long game.” #both/and
Who is willing to stand with me when I say it requires a holistic mindset –that what fundraising is is far greater than how we do it?
The stakes are high, people. I unapologetically believe this disconnect is contributing to the fact that fundraisers are leaving this field in droves. Droves. And to no surprise, we have an epidemic in the sector too. Fundraisers are hurting, yes hurting!
More often than not, I hear from fundraisers feeling burnt out, misunderstood, and unsupported. The talk far less about tools and more so about leadership and not being seen or valued. Here’s the thing (to no surprise!):
Second, people do not leave missions that serve humanity, they leave inhumane people or systems (i.e., bad bosses /systems that overlook bad bosses). This may seem harsh. And, per the above, I don’t actually blame bad leadership entirely for the crisis in our field. They too are fighting for existence in their own right. Still, there is no question that it’s quite the epidemic.
According to multiple sources, the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs is that they do not feel recognized, appreciated, or valued. Where does said appreciation or value come from? From the top, the side, the bottom? All? Is it built into the culture?
And to pile on, in a field like ours that has operationalized recognition for donors through stewardship programs and events, what is our excuse?
Why are we standing for this appreciation drought? Who is holding our own people accountable? Who is setting a standard that leadership in our field requires a whole lot more than experience? That it requires innate open-heartedness, radical listening capabilities, and bravery – the kind of person who convenes a new conversation around what it means to be in and do this work?
In the spirit of doing, I have been researching quite a bit about solutions for an upcoming talk on how to empower fundraisers to address turnover and burnout. I don’t have all the answers, that I know. I have more questions.
So, what do we DO? Do we DO everything?
Maybe the better question is: Who do we choose to BE? How? And why?
My final probe: If we begin to intentionally move the dialogue from “doing” fundraising to “being” in fundraising, will that make a difference? Will it cultivate greater self-awareness and courage in leaders who feel ill-equipped to intercept pervading mythology of what fundraising actually is and resultant fuel greater giving?
Upon finishing this piece, the rock in my gut dissolved and the elephant shuffled into someone else’s room. Per usual, I relish in these benefits of what I call “writing for health.” But, most importantly, I am currently savoring the fact that we can really, truly live the questions ala Rainer Rilke. Or as Jim Collins says, we can “lead with questions, not answers.” Brené Brown too, says in, “Dare to Lead,” we must, “question our contributions and our commitment.” At the end of the day, that’s my only charge – to question our contributions in service of healthier selves, healthier teams, healthier donor relationships…and healthier communities.
What do you think? I look forward to your input here or via email: email@example.com.
Jennifer Harris is a San Diego-based fundraising and communications entrepreneur who has spent nearly two decades working across the social sector. Her consultancy, JH Collective, Inc., leverages a holistic mindset to bolster fundraising, messaging, and strategy for nonprofits, universities, and health-related organizations.