A few years ago, while discussing a learning opportunity, a colleague of mine said: “The last thing I need is to sit and listen to a bunch of fundraisers talk about how great they are.”
At the time I was pretty offended. Now I think maybe she was right. We (fundraising professionals) really do look to each other for validation. We build ourselves up, cheer each other on and even have award ceremonies for each other. We need to inspire and support each other because we are still a long way away from this profession garnering the public support and respect it deserves.
You have read about my mother in law in previous posts. Eileen, didn’t really want me talking about my job of fundraising in social situations with her friends. I remember one birthday party in particular when one of the guests disclosed that he ran a small foundation and suggested that I submit a proposal. This innocent, friendly, organic conversation resulted in a family scandal that lasted for weeks. Eileen just couldn’t understand how I could be so crass as to “solicit her friends”. I never did follow up on the lead. The personal strife simply wasn’t worth the donation.
On another occasion at a major donor cultivation event I somehow ended up on the receiving end of a lecture about how fundraisers don’t need to get paid. In fact they “SHOULDN’T” get paid. I set my immediate defensive instincts aside and tried to patiently justify my paycheck by explaining that I have specific training. I pointed out that since hiring me, my organization had started raising significantly more money for program delivery – the programs that she loved. I was dismissed with a wave of the hand and “Yes… well…you ALL say that.”
I’m not sure why I’m always so surprised by these attitudes. Perhaps it is because I am an accidental fundraiser. When I was a child, I never once claimed that I wanted to be a fundraiser when I grew up. I fell into this vocation – it called me. For many of us it was a passion to accomplish something useful and good for the world that led us down this path. We don’t want to raise money – we want to change lives, restore and protect the environment, build communities. Money is a means to end. We are not fundraisers – we are agents of change. Of course we have a long way to go before society at large thinks of us this way.
To make matters worse several times a year major news outlets seem to go on the attack. These news stories are usually out of context and full of untruths. They perpetuate the myth that we beg, steal and manipulate in order to raise money for our own personal gain. The reason we raise the money, the programs we fund and the lives we save are almost always ignored. Theses news articles leave the impression that somehow the charities can operate in spite of NOT because of the work we do.
The most recent occurrence was something I read this morning in a newspaper from Australia. It seems a reporter attended the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s national conference last week with the specific intention of writing about our behaviour when donors aren’t around. He accused the fundraisers of “meeting behind closed doors” – at a conference. Any laughter or sarcasm in the session on legacies was reported to be at the donor’s expense. Moves management of donor relationships was put in quotation marks – the implication being that we are manipulative and unethical, paying outrageous sums of money (conference fees) so that we can secretly strategize how to rob old and dying people of their assets.
I have attended that particular legacy masterclass. I know the speaker and have laughed at his jokes about death. Jokes about taboo subjects are funny. Laughter gets good marks at conferences. But, would our donors laugh at these jokes? And if they wouldn’t, should we?
Obviously this reporter already had a very low opinion of this profession. His reporting was irresponsible to say the least. His method of sneaking into the conference undercover as a paying delegate was unscrupulous. I have deliberately refrained from linking to the article to limit the exposure. However, the damage is done. Once again professional fundraising has been publicly shamed. This time I can’t help but wonder if we are somehow responsible.
Yes, we need to keep developing networks of peers and supporting each other. We need to keep patting ourselves on the back and giving out awards for excellence and “badges of AWESOMENESS”. However, I think the time has come for us to do more. We need to stop looking within our own sphere of influence and start looking outside to our organizations, families and community groups. We must start to do more to change the negative public perception of this profession.
With the recent passing of the iconic George Smith in the United Kingdom I can’t help but think of the legacy he left behind. Mr. Smith had a profound impact on our sector and how we communicate with donors. The outpouring of emotion and sentiment from fundraisers all around the world has been heart wrenching. Of course one can’t help but start thinking about what kind of legacy will be left behind when one dies.
What kind of imprint will I have on this sector? What kind of imprint will YOU have? Can we improve the public perceptions of this profession? I’d like to think we can.
While I don’t know exactly how to do it, here are some things I’d like to try for a start:
- Eliminate the phrase “moves management” from our lexicon. Donors are not pieces on a chess board. Instead we ought to think about ways we can increase engagement in our work and our mission.
- We need to constantly imagine that our favourite and most generous donor is on our shoulder. Watching us. All the time. Our behaviour shouldn’t change because a donor or a reporter walks in the room. We must strive to operate with the highest degree of integrity ALWAYS.
- We must stop talking about the money we have raised as benchmarks of success. Instead let’s talk about the programs we have helped to fund. The new nature reserve, the children that have been fed, the seniors who live with dignity, the lives that have been saved.
This list is just a beginning. I hope you will add to it in the comments below. Let’s start a movement of change. Let’s help the world see what an honourable, important and valuable profession fundraising is to the fabric of society.
Perhaps one day our donors, our community or maybe even the media will give us the “Badge of Awesomeness” and we won’t have to give it to each other anymore.
What do you think you can do to improve perceptions of our vocation?