“Why Would Anyone Want To Do This Work?” A Fundraiser’s Lament

photo:  Ollyy/shutterstock

photo:  Ollyy/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 12, 2018. 

Lately I have been thinking a lot about fundraising. Since I spent the better part of my entire 36-year career focused on this topic as an employee at America’s oldest continually operating performing arts center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it’s not surprising that I would return to it on a regular basis. The reason for this latest reflection is that I’ve been digging into the fundraising report released last year by SMU’s National Center for Arts Research (NCAR).

Essentially, the report reveals good news and bad for arts-related fundraising, but even the good news feels weighed down by more work and cost. Some of the report’s big takeaways are indicative of the challenges fundraisers in all fields face working at both small and large organizations. For example, the report shows that contributions from corporations cover a mere 2 percent of an organization’s expenses, and trustee contributions account for only a fraction more at 5 percent. The struggle is also compounded at this moment because the Trump administration is proposing large-scale changes in approach, including tax reform that could discourage charitable giving, as well as ongoing threats to funding for the arts and social service agencies dealing with welfare, immigration, the environment, social justice and more.

Compounded by the needs caused by natural disasters from Houston to Puerto Rico, the potential impact is that donors will be so overwhelmed, deflated and spread thin by the range of needs that they will become discouraged and less generous as time passes. And while the NCAR report is concentrated on arts and culture, I believe the entire fundraising field is feeling the stress.

The NCAR report states that organizations are spending more on fundraising than ever, particularly on staff. Growth in expenses related to compensating development staff was greater than overall fundraising expense growth, and as a result, organizations are attracting higher returns for the additional investment. This increased expenditure therefore seems to be merited and appears to be paying off. According to the report, these professionals are working in a more efficient manner, showing a return on their efforts that is 5 percent higher in 2015 than in 2011.

But the report also states (and this is my greatest concern) that hiring the right staff is key, and I believe finding a great fundraiser is more complex and difficult than ever. The old adage in fundraising is that people give to people, so it is not surprising that high investment in quality personnel is necessary for successful relationship cultivation. 

Given that fundraising roles are generally well-paying compared to other positions in nonprofits and that there are certainly jobs out there, the question is—why aren’t more aspiring professionals committed to this career path?

The Challenges of the Job

I believe that fundraising for hospitals, universities, arts and other causes is ultimately the primary function and responsibility of the CEO. Cultivating and serving board members and high-level donors simply comes with the territory of leadership. Therefore, logic would dictate that the most talented fundraisers are on a path to the executive suite. This really should mean that the most gifted managers, even in a field as difficult as this, would choose this trajectory.

However, I would hypothesize that young people today, who are often deeply committed to following their own creative instincts, who can telecommute, or who can invent their own startup businesses, perhaps aren’t interested in the labor-intensive, service-oriented work fundraising requires.

Fundraising is grueling work that generally consists of 90 percent rejection and 10 percent success. The trends also show that while organizations are desperate for general operating funds, many donors prefer supporting specific projects that they believe are more imaginative and creative, generating a growing need to cover basic expenses. Fundraising demands good writing skills, impeccable organization, relentless follow-up, solid public presentation attributes, the ability to withstand constant disappointment and rejection, good manners, ability to socialize and make dinner party conversation, a deep knowledge of the “product” for which they are asking for money, sophisticated research talents, discretion with lots of private information, always being on time and being totally prepared, etc. The profession is also quite labor intensive—long hours at the desk all day and at fundraising events at night.

And then there is the grantor/grantee relationship. While many donors from all sectors of giving are truly enlightened and helpful partners, anyone who has had a career in fundraising has struggled with philanthropy professionals and high-net-worth contributors who change priorities regularly, are slow to respond, and are sometimes unaware of the desperate needs of organizations trying to survive. Let’s face it—delayed gratification and unlimited patience are the fundraiser’s creed. And alternatively, donors are beleaguered and exhausted by the barrage of requests. No wonder they cringe when we approach!

You get the picture—this work is hard.

Why Would Anyone Want To Do This Work?

Despite all of these challenges, there are many good reasons to embrace this calling. First and foremost, I fervently believe that if you can raise money for ideas, artistic endeavors, improving health and well-being, and solving the crises in poverty and education—you can probably do anything! It is the work of the fundraiser that makes it possible for artists to create transformative masterpieces; for scientists to make discoveries to advance their research; and for social-service organizations to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our communities.

So—after all is said and done—fundraising can be an incredibly satisfying and powerful career.  Working with the private sector to generate resources, to solve problems that affect millions of lives, is a uniquely American enterprise given our dependence on private philanthropy to fund causes that address societal concerns. The upside here is that the grinding day-to-day financial needs, in essence, force our institutions into an ongoing vital and dynamic relationship with their public. This almost familial connection between an organization, its donors and those who receive its services (such as audiences, students and patients) is a very special bond driven by fundraisers. This quality makes American not-for-profit organizations some of the greatest in the world. Fundraisers generate the resources needed for scholarships, efficient new buildings, innovative treatments for devastating illnesses, better housing options, clean air and equitable food systems. Could there be a higher calling?

Yes, fundraising is, as I have pointed out, demanding. The work is multi-faceted, and every facet (foundations, galas, corporations, individuals, etc.) must vigorously move forward, constantly testing new strategies and bold ideas. Every day, the best in our profession wake up, look in the mirror and say out loud, “Today I will raise $1,000,000!” We have to inspire ourselves, and in doing so, we can inspire others. And then, when it actually happens (Eureka! Money is raised!), there is a huge adrenaline rush and excitement that is the equivalent of scoring a touchdown or hitting a grand slam. And then, of course, there is the real creative work of the fundraiser—matching the right prospect to the right project. This matchmaking is even better than setting up your best friend on the perfect date. And finally, when enlightened donors really embrace a program or institution, the connection is meaningful and motivating. In these instances, we are all—grantors and grantees—partners on the glorious journey to make the world a better place!

So what do you say, aspiring CEOs and dedicated professionals? Do you have what it takes? Only the best, brightest, and most resilient need apply.

Karen Brooks Hopkins is the President Emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nasher Haemisegger Fellow at the National Center for Arts Research at SMU, and Senior Advisor to the Onassis Foundation.