How I got into fundraising - Gary Kernahan

26 May 2023
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In this blog, Gary Kernahan, Head of Interim and Senior Consultant at THINK and Trustee for the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, discusses how he got into a career in fundraising.

We often hear stories of how people ‘fell into’ fundraising and that very few people working set out with the intentions of being a fundraiser. I say very few people because from a young age it was my goal to pursue a career in fundraising.

I started fundraising at a young age and when I was 12 organised an event to raise funds for two causes, Cancer Research UK (then the Cancer Research Campaign) and the Scottish Cot Death Trust, that had a profound impact on my family.

Despite raising a relatively small amount (£64.50) the Cancer Research UK fundraiser, Edith Laidlaw, made us feel like we had raised tens of thousands. It was from what I later recognised as excellent community fundraising and stewardship that I became more and more involved with the charity.

My event became an annual activity, and my family began entering a team, every year, into the Relay For Life event. In my fifth and sixth year of secondary school, on a Tuesday afternoon we could either do double PE, attend college or do work experience. I was able to arrange, via Edith, a placement at the Cancer Research UK fundraising office in Glasgow, so every week for two years (plus the summer holidays) I would walk 3-miles from my school to the office to work alongside the Cancer Research UK fundraisers and support staff. I answered the phones, I opened the post, I fulfilled orders for fundraising materials, I sat in meetings, and I attended events. Essentially, I got the most amazing fundraising apprenticeship.

To anyone considering a career in fundraising, I’d say go for it but be prepared it’s highly skilled and its hard work.

As a teenager I learned about the possibility of a career in fundraising and learned about the skills required to be a successful fundraiser. It was then, probably aged 15, I decided that I wanted to be a fundraiser. So, I used everything I had learned and set off to gain the skills and experience required at university and through focused volunteering.

After graduating in 2004, I struggled to get an entry level role in Scotland. The whole experience was very demoralising. I started to look further afield (I applied for fundraising jobs in London, Belfast and Manchester) and also at non-fundraising roles. In late 2004 I had accepted a job as a Pensions Administrator for Abbey National but then secured the role as Community Fundraiser for Cancer Research UK in Manchester, so I told Abbey National I had changed my mind and then packed up life in Glasgow to move to Manchester. The rest they say is history!

As I approach two decades as a career fundraiser, I am delighted to see the growing recognition of our profession and the tremendous impact a career in fundraising can have. I’ve had a great career so far, I owe much of that to the three amazing mentors I’ve had (Edith, Rebecca and Mich) and to the incredibly talented people I’ve had the privilege to work alongside. To anyone considering a career in fundraising, I’d say go for it but be prepared it’s highly skilled and its hard work.

Gary Kernahan
Gary Kernahan
Head of Interim and Senior Consultant at THINK
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