It seems as if I have been spending a good deal of time recently addressing those on the fundraising side of the sector. This post adds to my previous posts on this topic – based on a number of recent conversations and presentations.
This recent spate began when a very respected and experienced professional wrote to say that she had just finished earning a credential in fundraising and concluded her enthusiastic comments saying “Now that we are in the same field, it would be great to get together to talk about it.” I responded with congratulations and a willingness to get together, but with a demurral. I clarified that I am not in the fundraising field at all; I only work with and teach those who give; her response was “Isn’t it really the same thing?”
In fairness to her, it is a comment I hear quite regularly from development professionals and fundraising folks, but never from those of us on the funder side. Indeed I heard it again just 2 days ago when someone wishing to make a career change into grantmaking explained to me that, as a fundraiser, she deals with foundations all the time so, of course, she insisted, she understands what it would be like to work in a foundation.
Just today, I received a referral from a well-known fundraising professional who is well aware of what I do. The introduction to me was that a prominent volunteer had a need for some foundation support. When I followed up, this prominent volunteer was looking for someone to do foundation research for fundraising purposes and had explained that to the fundraiser to whom, evidently, it is the same thing.
It is sort of understandable why a fundraiser might think so. After all, grantmakers must give money and development professionals seek money. There is indeed an interface.
But what differs is what happens surrounding that interface, and that makes all the difference. As I have written in previous posts over the years, how one spends ones time, what counts, what considerations come into play, indeed the very nature of the relationship to the funding process are not analogous at all. Some years ago, I developed a couple of interactive case studies I use to illustrate this in workshops. Development professionals are invariably quite surprised.
As if to demonstrate how even vocabulary means different things, a recent presentation is suggestive. When discussing trends in grantmaking, I used the term “capacity building.” When I asked this group of 20 fundraising students what that meant to them, they all immediately confirmed that it has to do with determining the capacity of an organization to raise money for a capital campaign. Well, it is true that some funders do provide support for a development professional as a part of a capacity building effort, but I have yet to meet a funder who doesn’t understand the term “capacity building” to mean something quite different: to strengthen the organization itself – utilizing a variety of intervention methods, which may or may not include strengthening its development abilities. Similar words; dissimilar meaning.
Another indicative case is how fundraisers and grantmakers describe the much heralded and celebrated Robin Hood Foundation in New York. When I ask what makes it distinctive, development folks all point to the wildly successful fundraising gala Robin Hood holds each year and the commitment of their very well-healed board to cover all overhead and infrastructure costs. Impressive indeed. But for funders, the Robin Hood Foundation is distinctive because of its approach to their grantees – their insistence on assessment, continual improvement, long-term commitments, and a singular focus to addressing poverty related issues in New York City.
Most funders know about the Robin Hood Foundation’s society page worthy fundraising event, but almost no fundraiser knows what they do with their funds once they raise them. Had this anecdote happened only once or twice, one might discount it. But it such a consistent response that one may safely generalize how different our perspectives are.
Even LinkedIn seems to elide the two roles. While I am certainly not looking for a job, thank you very much, LinkedIn seems to think that the word philanthropy in my profile means fundraising. Sure enough, I regularly get suggestions for jobs I might be interested in, or groups I might want to join, the majority of which are for fundraisers. I cannot speak to their algorithm but clearly folks like me don’t seem to represent an identifiable pool.
And, lest this set of observations give the misimpression that I am only critical of others, my own elevator speech doesn’t seem to make it clear to people either, no matter how many iterations I have tried. When folks hear the world philanthropy, they seem not to hear the rest and assume that I am a fundraiser. It usually takes a bit of back and forth before they get that I do something totally different.
Why is it so difficult? One reason, of course, is that there are many more nonprofit organizational fundraisers than highly accomplished professional grantmakers. Statistically, once one is outside of narrow settings in our grantmaking and foundation world, we are quite a minority. After all, in the USA, there are at least 15 times as many nonprofits hoping to raise money as there are private foundations which grant money, and the majority of those private foundations don’t have any staff at all.
More to the point, our field, foundation professionals and advisors to funders, continues to be an amalgam of folks with diverse credentials, or none at all. Fundraisers, as most professionals in every field, have earned-certification requirements or credentials. [Full disclosure: While I am very proud of the professional level certification in grantmaking available through the NYU Academy for the last 14 years, it is still a drop in the bucket about which most in our field are unaware.] On our side, the funding side, there are no formal barriers to entry. Anyone can hang up a shingle as a “Philanthropy Advisor” or be hired by a foundation. Knowledge of the law, ethics, power, best practices, grantmaking strategies, policies, and so much more are rarely expected, to say nothing of required. That doesn’t mean that there are not many wonderfully competent and capable people in our field but far too many are not – even if they have jobs or clients. The long out of date concept that one can only learn grantmaking on the job makes it much to easy to dismiss that this is a field and, ultimately, a profession.
This is not simply a plea for a socially easier way to self identify. As long time readers know, I believe it is a lacuna in our field itself: Funders, foundations, and those who advise or work for them are responsible for billions of dollars, influence public policy and the entire ngo/nfp sector, and can do so with little oversight or accountability beyond the most marginal legal requirements.
No wonder the average person doesn’t immediately get it; and no wonder that fundraisers, who have earned a CFRE, think we do the same things. We don’t. But until we accept that we need credentials, training, and professional standards, we will continue to need very long elevator rides to explain ourselves. Maybe, then, people, including development pro’s, will see how different our work really is.
[I will soon be posting a follow up to this piece that will propose some paths forward for the sector as a whole – including those of us fully ensconced on the funder side.]
Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.