We need to stop viewing fundraising as a separate function from front-line delivery or advocacy

15 August 2019
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Fundraising can and should not exist in a vacuum, says Dr Lesley Alborough, whose research has led her to conclude that we need to move away from training that only focuses on fundraising techniques or making the ask.

In July I attended the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council Conference at CASS Business School which brought educators from across the globe together to think about how non-profit managers and leaders are educated. Two things really struck me at this conference – one was that I was one of the few UK based educators there, and the other that I was one of the even rarer individuals interested in the education of fundraisers. Where fundraising was discussed, it was as one of the many technical skills that charity managers may need, rather than as a highly skilled practice in its own right.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised. As fundraisers know, it is a profession that is largely misunderstood. Continued debates about the regulation of and ongoing media criticism and scrutiny about charities’ fundraising practice continue to point to a general misconception about what fundraisers actually do and can achieve. This, I believe, stems from the instrumental view of fundraising as the practical application of a series of technical tasks to raise money that are the sole responsibility of fundraisers. Hence, the limited need for those who are not fundraisers to engage in or be educated about the practice.

Successful fundraising involves beneficiaries, organisational staff, and donors

In my research, I talk with fundraisers, their non-fundraising colleagues and donors to understand what it is fundraisers actually do. My research reveals that successful fundraising not only meets the financial needs of the non-profit organisation, but also involves the active participation of beneficiaries, organisational staff, and donors alike.

The fundraisers I speak to spend just as much time describing how important and equally time-consuming a task getting staff and beneficiaries to engage with the fundraising process is, as actually asking for gifts is. This is because building meaningful, long-term gift relationships between those who give and those who receive is understood by fundraisers to be more valuable than raising a few immediate pounds. And fundraisers understand that this goes beyond having proficiency in applying specific fundraising or marketing techniques.

Good and, dare I say ethical fundraising, meets the needs, addresses the interests and gives voice to all those participating in the philanthropic gift relationship, including donors, beneficiaries and non-fundraising staff members. This requires a great deal of social and emotional labour from fundraisers as they seek to achieve and maintain the delicate balance between all these stakeholders in the philanthropic gift. However, this remains un-accounted and un-planned for in organisational fundraising strategies.

Redefining fundraising

But what is most worrying is how unprepared for this labour many fundraisers feel. Meeting the emotional and social needs of all these actors requires a skillset that an instrumental understanding of fundraising as a means to raise money simply does not address.

I believe this knowledge invites a rethink of how we define the task of fundraising and, thus, the ways in which we educate future generations of both fundraisers and non-profit managers. We need to move away from training that merely focuses on fundraising techniques or making the ask.

Train charity staff and leaders on their role in the fundraising process

Fundraisers need to be provided with these technical expertise most certainly, but this needs to be balanced with training, space and conversations that help fundraisers develop and hone what my research, and that of Dr Beth Breeze (UK) and Dr Ruth Hansen (USA) amongst others, find are fundraisers’ creative, emotional and social skillsets. More importantly, this must be complimented with training for charity staff and leaders on their vital role in the fundraising process.

This requires a fundamental shift from viewing fundraising as the practical responsibility of fundraisers and as a separate function of the organisation from front-line delivery or advocacy. Fundraisers find themselves in a position whereby they serve the needs not only of an organisations’ donors and bank balance, but also those of the distant beneficiary and staff member on their doorstep. But they cannot and do not do so in a vacuum – the training they already have access to via organisations such as the Institute of Fundraising should be complimented and extended by a wider education about fundraising both in the workplace and in academies and universities for fundraisers, sector leaders AND workers.

This is the difference between raising money and philanthropic fundraising which is imbued with gratitude, love and respect for the other, whether they be a supporter or the person to whom the supporter is directing their precious gift or the person ultimately delivering the gift.

Dr Lesley Alborough is a Pears Research Fellow at Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent. She currently teaches a masters level fundraising module and is developing undergraduate training provision for fundraisers.

Prior to undertaking her PhD in 2014 which explored how the practices of professional fundraisers impact on the behaviour of donors and staff in non-profit organisations, Lesley had a 15 year career as a fundraiser in South Africa and the UK. Her current research considers the social and emotional skill needed when fundraisers interact with organisational and regulatory structures and the extent to which this shapes understandings of wider charitable and philanthropic practice.

Lesley Alborough
Lesley Alborough
Pears Research Fellow at Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent
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