I’ve always loved a good learning adventure. But when I chose to do the one year IoF Certificate in Fundraising course I hadn’t fully anticipated where that particular learning adventure would take me. If I’m honest, it was the most testing of terrain but looking back I can now see how pivotal it was in shaping all I have become since. That time of real highs and lows somehow then took me to the top.
Back then, in 2012, I was the Development Director for Plymouth Music Zone. We had just received Catalyst funding from Arts Council England with the aim of increasing the sector’s capacity to develop Individual Giving pathways. The obvious high at that time was being excited to have a funded opportunity to do a chunky Institute of Fundraising qualification as part of that Catalyst programme. The quickly ensuing low, however, was when our director unexpectedly resigned before the programme got underway.
With one person down, our Trustees agreed the 3 Senior Management Team members would step up to share responsibilities via a Co-directorship arrangement which they wanted to pilot. This in itself was also a great learning opportunity for me but adding a new substantial training opportunity to that equation did have a rather dramatic impact on my workload. I felt as if I had just had triplets! - and was forced to hone my time management skills to perfection in order to survive. Luckily, I did.
In hindsight, that was one of many handy consequences that somehow resulted from that rather intensive year. That labour of love of my commitment to learning certainly showed evidence of a few unintentional stretch marks of growth gained along the way. A year later, I had successfully completed the IoF Certificate in Fundraising and gone on to have enough confidence and skills to apply for the top job that had then gone out to recruitment just as my course finished.
With 5 years under my belt as a CEO I can now look back at that IoF Certificate in Fundraising course and reflect more clearly on what some of those key areas of growth were:
Perhaps an obvious area of growth gaining more knowledge about the world of fundraising but, surprisingly, I found it immensely empowering to find out names and terminology for things that we were often already doing eg finally knowing what a ‘Case for Support’ was called. The course did go into great depth and can be very academic but I soon realised this is a profession with a growing evidence base and that can make your practice far more robust. I also realised what I was already doing well which gave me a boost.
With the help of that new knowledge I was able to more holistically understand gaps across my organisation, so it was like an audit in action. I realised my analytical skills had taken a growth spurt with a newly discovered depth and sophistication of understanding of fundraising dependencies and organisational development. This increased my desire to role model what an effective charity was. I became much more interested in the bigger picture.
Being surrounded by fundraisers from other sectors was one of the key benefits of the course for me. Being able to share learning with others with stronger charitable cases for support was a real eye and mind opener. Whether they were hospice fundraisers or those who raised money for animal charities or international development, I realised how much the arts sector could learn from these other charities. Plymouth Music Zone has worked cross sectorally to great effect ever since and built broad and powerful networks of learning as a result.
This course was tough. Very tough. I already had a Degree, Postgraduate Diploma and Certificate course under my belt but somehow this was one of the harder courses I’d ever done (Obviously, not helped by my general increased workload!). I did really love the residential element and face to face contact with peers but the 4 key Assignments did require a lot of study and the feedback and marking was very strict. I hadn’t been that challenged in years - and at times almost hated it - but I do now see the benefits of that robust and sometimes unforgiving approach. I constantly had to confront my own assumptions and limitations and that has certainly stood me in good stead strengthening my reflective muscles.
When I finally finished that course I immediately felt as if I had so much time on my hands I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. It was like my triplets had at last flown the nest! Suddenly, nothing felt daunting. I had survived intact and done well. I felt stronger as a result and more determined than ever to make change in the world. Inspired to do more.
Following that year, I began to realise that all those painful areas of growth stretch marks had somehow combined beautifully and powerfully. So, by the time the CEO position in my charity finally went out to recruitment I realised I had something of greater value to offer - something I may not have believed just a year earlier.
That learning adventure had made me braver and bolder. The course had certainly made me into a better fundraiser but it had also turned me into a CEO with core fundraising skills and knowledge that now formed a key foundation to my wider toolkit and commitment. Somehow, it had given me a renewed sense of belief that the learning adventure that is leadership is really worth every stretch mark we inevitably collect along the way.
Debbie Geraghty is the Executive Director of Plymouth Music Zone, an award winning charity that uses music to reach out and enhance the lives of some of the most vulnerable or marginalised groups in the community, especially during their toughest times.