By Sarah K. Nathan
This post was originally published in Advancing Philanthropy.
It is still common to hear fundraisers say they “fell” into fundraising or that they came to it “accidentally.” This phenomenon is relatively unique to fundraising.
You don’t hear a surgeon say she “accidentally” went to medical school or an elementary school teacher indicate she “fell” into the classroom. Ever so slowly, the notion of the accidental fundraiser is beginning to change. To help us document and understand this change is a growing body of research about the fundraising profession. My own career journey illustrates much of the emerging research in our field.
I’ll begin in the present. Although I am not a fundraiser today, I care very much about fundraisers and fundraising work. That’s why my role in at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is so special. Every day I am part of advancing the field by training fundraisers in our classrooms and understanding how the profession is changing through research. My colleague Gene Tempel and I conducted the largest survey of fundraising professionals since the mid-1990s.
Among our many discoveries was that fundraisers are coming to the profession younger, are increasingly learning the profession through formal education, and, at the same time, they desire more training and educational opportunities.
According to our research, the median age an individual takes her first fundraising job is 27, down from age 31 in the mid-1990s (Nathan & Tempel, 2017). I was a 19-year-old college student when I first started fundraising.
Phonathon was the highest-paying campus job and, feeling I needed more challenge, I added it to my weekly schedule. Turned out I was pretty good and I spent the following three academic years as a phonathon student manager. It also led me to a summer job in the alumni office where I was exposed to the comprehensive advancement program.
Was it an “accident” I got this campus job? Perhaps not totally, although at the time I had no idea just how much this “little” job would become my eventual career. Fast forward five years and I was the associate director of the college’s annual fund, responsible for the phonathon program and leading the charge for an automated phone center. Although I had been around fundraising throughout college, I still lacked formal training or education about the nonprofit sector.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know; nor did I know that professional development was something I could ask for. Despite what I learned on the job, I did not have the right vocabulary to advocate for my work internally or frameworks to think about my work strategically. If only someone had sent me to The Fund Raising School early on!
But I wasn’t alone as a young fundraiser. We have seen that more fundraisers are now learning how to be a fundraiser through formal education (21.1 percent) – an increase from only 10 percent in the 1990s. However, fundraisers learn the occupation in a variety of ways: mentoring (57.8 percent), conferences and workshops (70.8 percent), and through certifications (24.4 percent), to name a few.
Opportunities for academic and practioner-based fundraising training have grown tremendously over the last 20 years. And yet, fundraisers are eager for more.
In an analysis of the largest subgroup in our study—higher education fundraisers—participants reported that more training and education was among the most important things we can do to improve the profession (Shaker & Nathan, 2017). That desire to learn more is what first drew me to philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
I was hungry to understand the “why”—the human contexts—for our work. And it was here that I discovered that philanthropy education was my deepest passion. Just as I taught undergraduate students working in the phonathon about fundraising and about job skills, today I continue that work as an educator – in both academic and practitioner (training) settings.
Like many younger fundraisers today, philanthropy has always been, and will be, my life’s work. Just last week I saw firsthand a classroom full of graduate students who positively affirmed their desire to search for fundraising work as a result of their fund development course.
My story—from student phonathon caller to philanthropy educator—illustrates a career path that is quickly becoming an informed and intentional choice. This marked change in fundraisers’ career journeys can be seen anecdotally on university campuses across the country and is now documented through research.
As the profession continues to grow, it is my privilege to educate new fundraisers while contributing to the scholarly work related to it.