Are good Fundraisers born or made?

Most people fall into Fundraising as a career.  As kids not many of us got our Cindy dolls having a major donor cultivation lunch or our Action Men doing an international challenge event. You don’t tend to want to be a Fundraiser when you grow up.

So what makes a good Fundraiser? For me, there’s some common themes across the different income streams. Resilience and determination to cope with setbacks and rejection (the 9 unsuccessful Corporate pitches to get the 10th). Good communication skills, to distil the highly complex problems most charities are trying to solve into accessible and emotive copy. Competitiveness and drive to beat targets (go into any charity Fundraising office and there will be some form of trophy on display – generally from winning an internal competition such as the staff Christmas quiz or rounders’ match). 

Most Fundraisers have these skills to some extent. But in such a competitive funding market it’s vital to hone these skills. And for the future Fundraising leaders, this can be quite a journey of self-development.

Although training and development has improved in our sector, it can still be very hit and miss. Fundraisers tend to be sent on random external courses, conferences, with occasional in-house presentations or mentoring. Line managers aren’t generally trained as trainers, so even if good external courses are selected there often isn’t structured and supported follow up from the Manager to embed learnings. The IoF Special Interest groups are a good idea, but can suffer from a lack of experienced input, and don’t always reinforce good practice as a result.

The problem becomes more pronounced as Fundraisers climb the career ladder. You tend to get promoted because you’re successful at raising money. The attributes that make you successful (drive, determination, competitiveness, confidence) can be hindrances in senior management positions. The need to secure internal buy-in, take people with you, navigate internal politics can seem a frustrating anathema to Fundraisers who just want to get things done, and are convinced their way is best.

This need to re-adjust your skills as you progress in your career led me to take advantage of personal coaching sessions. I deliberately choose a coach outside of fundraising as I wanted to focus on behaviours, not fundraising itself. I’ve found it invaluable – challenging at times, certainly, but fascinating to focus on how I behave in certain work situations and how I need to behave differently now I’m in a senior role in order to be successful.

The opportunity to step back from day to day work and focus on how I was doing the job was really useful. Obviously, finding the right person to coach you is key – you have to be able to trust and relate to them, but equally a good coach will challenge you. They’re your coach, not your friend. The discipline of doing coaching homework preparing for tricky conversations was fascinating – it highlighted to me how often as senior managers time pressures mean we just plunge into very sensitive meetings or discussions with little thought as to how to get the best outcome.  Unsurprisingly, those discussions can go wrong as a result.  

Some people may question the cost of charities paying for individual coaching. I’ve found costs to be very reasonable (most coaches will do charity rates) and cheaper than most training courses. And with senior Fundraisers often personally responsible for millions of pounds of charity income, I’d say it was an investment well worth making.

As Fundraising develops as a profession in the UK, training and personal development structures are clearly going to be key.  I think coaching has an important role to play in this, and not solely at the senior levels.

If you’re interested in coaching, these are some of the coaches/companies I’ve used and would recommend. I’ll declare a conflict of interest here – one of them is my sister, and she’s brilliant.

 Cilla McKay, Rocket Consultancy

Shaun Lincoln

Joanne Miles

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