So You Want to Be on Top—Going From Fundraiser to Leadership

At some point, usually after dealing with a seemingly uninformed (dare I say “stupid”?) request from someone who is higher than you on the organizational chart, you probably have fanaticized about being in charge. Maybe your ultimate goal is to manage the complete fundraising program, or you may have your sights set on the “corner office.”

My bias is that fundraisers can make excellent executive directors because they understand that funding is not a necessary evil, but rather a way to invite others to share in the excitement of mission fulfillment with your organization. However, not every fundraiser wants to be in leadership—and not every fundraiser should be in leadership. But if that’s your passion, here are some steps that may help you on the path to achieving this dream.

Get to know people far removed from your discipline.

A leader of a nonprofit organization needs to understand the inner workings of the entire organization. I recently had a nurse tell me, “Doctors know a lot about a little, and nurses know a little about a lot.” The same can be said for fundraisers and organizational leaders—fundraisers know a lot about fundraising, but organizational leaders know a little about fundraising, program, finance, information technology, human resources, operations and more.

If you are on a personal career path to move into leadership, start talking to your accountant or IT person. Don’t pretend to understand their jobs; instead, be genuinely interested in learning from them. I remember telling a finance manager once that a report I did was “just fine,” even though my debits didn’t equal my credits. He gently explained to me that the term for a financial report where debits don’t equal credits is “wrong.” I still am not a financial genius, but I learned my way about financial reports—and IT security, hiring laws, building leases and much more—by genuinely listening to colleagues, and willingly sharing “Fundraising 101” with them, too.

Read everything—the 990, financial reports and the audit, grant requests and reporting, program reports, board reports, etc.

You may not understand everything you read at first (but, hey, you have friends now that you can ask for clarification!), but you will glean bits and pieces, and eventually really understand what you’re reading. Notes to the financial statements may explain a lawsuit pending against your employer (not a cause for you to panic, but worth knowing); the 990 helps you understand how the money you help raise is spent; and program reports and grant reporting give you a better view of what’s involved in successfully running a program and the kinds of roadblocks that could be encountered.

Board reports may not be readily available, depending on how your organization approaches them, but it never hurts to ask, especially if you explain that you want to be a better employee and that means you want to learn all you can.

Take advantage of every opportunity—hands-on and educational—to learn more.

A lot of what I learned on the job is because I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that!” and then frantically read everything I could to figure out how to do it—better than anyone else had ever done it before. I traveled across the U.S. and stayed in some fantastic hotels because I offered to help out with the annual training conference for field staff. I saw the world because I took on working with a video crew to film areas we were working, including sites of recent disasters. I started writing fundraising copy because our writer resigned and I decided I would give it a try.

You may go after different experiences, but whatever you choose, it will help you grow as a person and as an employee—and you’re likely to have a lot of fun and gain some shareable experiences in the process.

Understand that it is usually a process, not an overnight promotion.

Yes, “paying your dues” is necessary. It’s not always fun. It’s not always glamorous. But use the time to learn, to widen your skill set and to show—over and over, year after year—that you’re the employee who can lead the organization in the future. Grab on to every opportunity, no matter how insignificant it may seem, because you never know what is going to impress someone who holds (or will hold) your future in his or her hands down the road.

Fundraising always has been an exciting career for this old dog, and part of that has been accepting (or seeking out) new challenges constantly. Do you want to eventually be on top? Then start right now, using this article as a motivation. It’s not just in the Army that you can “be all that you can be”—nonprofit organizations need real leaders, and tomorrow’s real leaders are often today’s fundraisers who never let complacency linger in their cubicles.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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