In the first of two articles for the Institute of Fundraising Ken Burnett explains why the opening session of this year’s IoF National Convention matters so much to the future health and well-being of the voluntary sector.
Something surprising struck me on my first day as a professional fundraiser that I’ve never quite got over. I’d come from the self-serving, high-pressure world of book and magazine publishing, where working long and late was the norm, mostly to make other people rich. I’d joined the nonprofit sector to get away from all that, expecting real commitment, tireless enthusiasm, people wandering around suffused with rosy glows, all coming in early and going home fulfilled.
Naive and simplistic, of course. And dead wrong. Instead, as often as not, what met me was indifference. Or at best, under-enthusiasm. There were glittering exceptions, certainly, but most people seemed to have little idea of ‘big picture’ in what they were doing and why, no sense of changing the world. Many seemed a bit bored by the prospect of another working day, or sought each evening to get away as early as they possibly could.
I was very disappointed. Not everyone, it seemed, shared my passion and enthusiasm for this new career I’d chosen.
Though my starry-eyed idealism quickly evaporated I’ve never lost the belief that what we do does matter, that by fuelling good works fundraising makes a fantastic difference in this lousy world. And while a lot of people – we call them the radiators – share this belief that our career area is special, distinctive, a privilege to work in and a vocation to serve, for sure there are many others – we call them the drains – who take a different view, who’d be just as happy shifting fast-moving consumer goods or organising commercial conferences. If I’m honest I’ve always resented the drains who, to my eye, are less than wholly committed to their causes yet still deem it OK to accept the voluntary sector shilling. Now I’ve come to see that the drains are downright dangerous, a real threat to the healthy viability of this sector that should be so justly proud of its people, what they stand for, what they believe in and the passion they feel about the singularly great thing they do.
I’ll explain why in a minute, but first here’s the Clayton Burnett definition of the two types who inhabit not-for-profit organisations.
• The radiators spread heat and passion, radiating the warm glow of making a difference.
• The drains suck out the emotion, neutralise feelings and commoditise giving till it becomes like any other commercial transaction. They’ve professionalised to the point that passion, dreams and aspirations are usurped and replaced by the cold, remorseless logic of the marketplace.
Donors give in spite of the drains. They give because of the radiators.
Right now it seems there’s a real battle for the soul of fundraising. In the far corner sits the ‘this is just a job’ brigade, professional fundraisers too of course but perhaps just a tad too professional, and this has weakened them far more than they realise. For while donors want competence, they mistrust professionalism. More comfortable with the brand police and the rational-giving advocates than with touchy-feely emotional fundraisers, the drains are passion assassins, with skills they consider readily transferable between causes. They’re more about analysing than feeling, more about spreadsheets and RoIs than lump-in-the-throat testimonials and transformational storytelling.
In the near corner, though with little enthusiasm for any kind of a fight, is the emotional fundraiser. She’s also in this business for a reason and it isn’t to climb the greasy pole or to struggle against internal structures, silos and a culture that doesn’t ‘get’ what fundraisers really need to flourish. Of course she’s firm favourite with any potential donors in the crowd because were they ever asked to choose between a professional steeped in statistics, logic, terms and conditions or a passionate and sincere emotional fundraiser, there’s no contest. They’d choose the latter, every time.
The emotional fundraiser though, however determined and highly committed, can be easily discouraged. Nevertheless I’m betting on her, for if we develop a generation of fundraisers that sees nothing special in what they do then we’ll never hope to inspire the next generation of donors.
Why does this matter?
Well, it may not have escaped your attention that nowadays the cost of new donor acquisition, for many causes, is teetering on the brink of entirely unacceptable. And as acquisition costs climb inexorably donors seem ever less likely to stay with us long enough, and to give sufficiently generously enough, for those acquisition costs to be fully amortised so that the currently long wait for investment recovery can be reasonably justified to the generation of donors coming in.
This is a leadership issue, of course. And it’s about investing far more than we now do in customer service and donor retention (see part two of this feature). It’s also about recruiting, training and inspiring the right people to work with donors and stressing for them, unambiguously, what it is that matters most. If every new recruit can be a committed emotional fundraiser then maybe we’ll have a chance of changing the current donor/cause paradigm, in which our causes are viewed by many as minor irritations at best, money-grubbing, stress-inducing social evils at worst.
Here’s a chance to give would-be fundraisers the job satisfaction they crave and so help stem the turnover that causes our enterprises to haemorrhage their finest talent. But best of all, donors would love it. They don’t want to deal with professional career fundraisers who don’t feel the passion. They need to be impressed, inspired and infected by those who do.
So let’s let ourselves celebrate this wonderful work we do. It’s really an indictment that we have to have a session at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention called, ‘Proud to be a fundraiser’. Of course the whole sector should be, no exception. The sooner we’re all proud to be fundraisers the better. So bring your CEO on July 7th, not just because he or she gets in free, but because you need their backing, and pride too, when you transform your fundraising.
If you’re undecided on the ‘logic versus emotion’ argument then probably you’re in the wrong job anyway but before you leave, have a look here and see if your position isn’t worth rethinking.
And while I won’t be in the NFC hall strutting my stuff with all 1,000 other fundraisers and CEOs on July 7th, I will be firmly there in spirit.
Go for it, Jayne and Alan. Your time has come.
© Ken Burnett 2014