By Phil Gérard
Appeared originally in Canadian Fundraising and Philanthropy:
The profession of fundraising is becoming better known. Professionals with transferable skills want to meet with me to ask how to transition into a career in fundraising. I also attended several career fairs with our AFP Vancouver chapter’s Youth in Philanthropy committee and the appetite of students for our profession (doing good and getting paid – what a concept!) is amazing to see.
Do I believe that hiring professionals with transferable skills works? The answer is a clear “maybe.” Business development, sales, public relations, negotiation, writing, public speaking, and communications are a few examples of skills needed in fundraising.
Candidates must be able to make the case that their skills from a non-traditional fundraising environment can compete with those of an experienced fundraiser. These relevant transferable skills and experience could have been acquired a while ago, maybe even in high school, in university or in the first job. Therefore, job seekers, even those currently in the fundraising profession, should carefully explore their backgrounds and pick out the jewels to highlight.
Once the foundation of relevant transferable skills is established, I believe that there are four key ingredients to success for people with non-traditional fundraising backgrounds.
Attitude is crucial. Certainly, the so called hard skills, such as education, and experience are important, but the “soft” or “people” skills, such as communication, team spirit and attitude, are much more difficult to train. In fundraising we particularly want someone who is enthusiastic, a team player, resilient and eager to succeed, someone “who is hungry.” We want to screen out people who focus on the negative, on problems rather than solutions, and like to blame others for their lack of success.
The notion that someone who made six figures in their former career qualifies for a senior fundraising position just because of their previous seniority is problematic. It sets both candidate and the organization up for failure. It also affects the morale of the organization’s experienced fundraisers, who may now report to someone who has never closed a philanthropic gift.
Transitioning careers is always difficult. People looking for a career change need to expect sacrifices. We as fundraisers would be in the same position if we wanted to change careers.
I have been in major gifts fundraising for over a decade. I might decide to use this experience in the private sector, say real estate. I would need to get the training and certification, but even then, I still need to convince a client to retain me over the star realtor in town.
People with transferable skills might have a great pedigree, but without a track record in philanthropic fundraising, it is hard to make a case for hiring them over someone with a solid track record in major gifts.
Some people, particularly those from high-paced, stressful environments such as law and corporate sales, have a romantic notion of the fundraising profession. The reality, as we know, looks different. Fundraising is an incredibly rewarding career, but the road is long and bumpy. Someone without direct fundraising experience will need additional time to hit the ground running, and can feel frustrated and pressured if the big gift has not yet closed after the first year on the job.
Fundraising is a science as well as an art: knowing what to do and how to do it. A good training program will help build the basic foundation, and teach the principles of fundraising and the terminology. Larger fundraising shops may have their own training program; others may choose to send their new colleague to an AFP fundamentals course or support them in taking a fundraising certificate program.
In addition to the basic training, organizations also want to consider establishing a structured onboarding program. Onboarding describes the process of making a new employee a part of the team and ready to perform. Now, your employee is up to speed, which is a time when managers make a crucial mistake and think they are all right on their own.
When we began, how did we learn best? I learned by doing and seeing others in action. I still remember when my advancement VP took me on an out-of-town donor trip when I just started. It was not only a great confidence builder, but I learned so much just watching her in a real life donor call.
We all need mentors. Even now I have them after many years in the field. Having someone in our organization with whom we feel safe asking for advice is wonderful for any employee. If we can identify such a person in our organization and assign them to a colleague with transferable skills, we are much more likely to have a successful hire.
Hiring people with transferable skills is certainly not easy; however I refuse to buy into the notion that it is impossible. Most of us earlier-generation fundraisers were “transferables” ourselves! If we can find someone with amazing energy, enthusiasm, attitude and ambition, and if we have the ability and resources to train and mentor, we can create an incredible asset for our team in an environment where experienced fundraisers are hard to find.