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March 10, 2009


Now that you are inspired to raise and/or give money for your favorite cause, it's important to understand some of the challenges you are likely to face. So before researching how to get hired, here are a few words of caution to keep in mind.


High demand, steady work, pressure to deliver. In many ways, times can't get much better for the fundraising professional. Nonprofit organizations of all sizes are in perpetual need of smart, experienced fundraisers, and they rarely fire one. After all, the organization's operating revenue is on the line. Fundraisers today largely have their pick of opportunities, even with just a few years of experience. They are in fact some of the highest paid in the nonprofit sector and can often negotiate for more, including flexible work hours, telecommuting, and additional vacation time.

That said, the pressure on fundraising professionals is intense. After all, they are responsible for bringing in the money that keeps the doors of the nonprofit open. Deadlines for submitting proposals and meeting fundraising goals never go away, and it can feel like a never-ending grind with little time to enjoy the rewards. Unfortunately, fundraisers are often victims of their own success, especially at organizations that grow quickly without addressing the need to build infrastructure for that growth. Fundraising goals may increase year to year and the number of staff to handle requests for information, membership mailings, proposal submissions and donor visits does not. The result is long hours, frustration and burnout for many fundraisers. Turnover in the field is high; the average length of stay for a fundraising is only two years.

Philanthropic giving

Exciting opportunities, but few and far between. What could be better? You are working to give money away to worthy causes. You regularly interact with the pillars of the nonprofit community, as well as academics, politicians and the very wealthy. And you are paid well, in most cases far better than you would be if you worked for those nonprofit organizations. What's more, there are new and exciting opportunities in philanthropic giving, including social venture philanthropy, giving circles and funder collaborations. Land a job at the right institution, and you can be working at the cutting edge of the field.

And there's the challenge--getting that job. It's actually a small field of players. The vast majority of foundations do not employ professional staff. And while growing in numbers, social venture groups are a tiny piece of the larger philanthropic picture. Those philanthropic giving institutions that maintain a staff, employ the best and brightest with extensive training and experience. As a director at one of the top foundations in the country advises, "you don't wake up one day and have a career in philanthropy." For the largest and most prestigious foundations, you will most likely need a doctorate in a particular field of interest and at least five years work for nonprofit organizations. The training and experience needed for other philanthropic jobs is equally rigorous. As one giving advisor managing endowment funds for nonprofit organizations puts it, "Would you give your $20 million endowment to a 24-year-old?" A job as a philanthropic giving professional is a long-term goal, and one that will take a lot of work to achieve.

The Cause

On the one hand, you are working for a cause. On the other hand, you are working for a cause. Most fundraisers and philanthropic giving professionals will tell you that there is immense satisfaction to be found in their work, for everyone has a story of success about an initiative which they helped fund that made a difference. For one fundraiser, nothing beats the high of a donor responding to a thank you for a gift with, "no, thank you for all the wonderful work you do and for helping make the world a better place for all of us."

But keep in mind that social change is slow, steady work fraught with conflict and disappointment. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem." There are always people in need. There is always another damaging piece of legislation or an unsatisfactory compromise among policy makers. And there are always people who will disagree with what you are doing; it's not unheard of for fundraisers to receive death threats when an organization is engaged in a particularly controversial issue.

The front line of social change is therefore rewarding and draining. Some decide that they don't ultimately have the stamina for it, especially given the pay, as well as a general lack of infrastructure to support the work.

The function and dysfunction of nonprofits organizations

Every organization is different, but there are some unique characteristics of the nonprofit world that some people love and some hate. Those drawn to the nonprofit sector tend to be passionate, opinionated and determined--all wonderful qualities that inspire fundraisers and giving professionals. Unfortunately, passion and commitment does not necessarily translate into professional behavior or effective business practices. Some nonprofit leaders are openly resistant to professionalizing their nonprofit organization, believing that focus on administrative and organizational matters takes time and resources away from the cause. The result can be disastrous--low pay and stingy benefits, high turnover, poor management and unethical practices. Most fundraisers complain about unprofessional attitudes at nonprofit organizations. As one fundraiser put it, "The amount of time spent navigating or fighting through issues (from better internal controls to major ethical violations) takes far too much time away from direct fundraising activities." Moreover, planning for the future often takes a backseat to the crisis of the moment, and that's a real problem for a fundraiser attempting to secure long-term commitments from donors.

Another perk (or drawback) can be the more relaxed atmosphere at nonprofit organizations, especially for those who come from a corporate environment. The dress code is usually loose (environment groups are notorious for the shorts-and-sandals look in the office), and there may be more flexibility in setting your work schedule. Yet this is largely a result of the fact that staffers are paid less than they would be in the for-profit sector and there simply aren't enough resources for fancy offices and up-to-date equipment. And be aware that a large, national nonprofit group may operate more like its corporate counterparts. You are likely to be better paid and have your own office, but there may be a dress code and you may work longer hours.

Please bear in mind that these are generalities. Many nonprofits today adopt the business practices of the for-profit world, including long-term strategic planning and management training for supervisors. Moreover, nonprofit managers increasingly recognize that adequate compensation and benefits are critical to retaining staff. As previously noted, most executive directors believe it is especially important to recruit and retain experienced fundraising professionals, and salaries reflect demand. While you will never become a millionaire, you can work your way up to a six-figure salary as an experienced fundraiser and/or consultant. Large, private foundations tend to pay their employees extremely well (in fact, there's been some concern from Members of Congress about compensation for foundation staff at the largest foundations). And those on the for-profit side of the philanthropic giving business (financial advisors and community development officers) have all the compensation benefits of working for a corporation or investment firm.

You can avoid some of the unpleasant aspects of the fundraising and philanthropic giving business by carefully researching the nonprofit organization or giving institution where you wish to work. In the next section, some of the key resources for your research will be described, as well as some of the probing questions that you should ask at any interview.


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