A little over a week ago, I was clearing out some emails and came across one of AFP’s newsletter. It included a call for nominations for the Distinguished Fellowship Class of 2022. Out of curiosity, I headed to the link to read more about the nomination process and bang, there it was. One of the things that’s always made me cringe for the last 15 years. The benchmark that our sector seems to value most in fundraisers: the amount of money they’ve raised.
It turned into a three-part Twitter thread and a conversation began with others in the sector.
Let’s unpack this for a minute. As fundraisers the bulk of the work involves building relationships with supporters. It’s a known fact that when it’s done successfully donations soon follow.
Yet, a quick scan of articles introducing fundraisers, certifications or award applications often include the question “how much have you raised so far?”. Sometimes it goes so far as fundraisers themselves mentioning how much they’ve raised when introducing themselves. The whole thing feels like a lot of grandstanding.
Focusing on how much a fundraising professional has raised is a one-dimensional benchmark that doesn’t paint a full picture of the individual’s skills. First, raising money is a team sport. Whether the individual is a major gifts, community or legacy fundraiser, there is absolutely no way they raised one iota all alone. Others were involved such as a team member in marketing or communications, a prospect researcher, digital, or board members. What does it say about the fundraiser if they take full credit for funds raised? What does it say about a sector that expects its fundraisers to take full credit for funds raised knowing they weren’t alone in that endeavour?
Second, this metric makes it impossible to compare a fundraiser who built a career working in a large institution like a hospital foundation versus one who has worked in small rural charities. Clearly the hospital foundation fundraiser will likely raise significantly more than a small shop fundraiser – does this make them less effective or successful? Is the small shop fundraiser less capable compared to their hospital counterpart? No, of course not but I’ve seen recruiters and nonprofits folks alike turn their nose down on the small shop fundraiser who’s trying to get a job in a larger shop.
Third, depending on the fundraiser’s area of expertise, they may not have the opportunity to raise millions. How can a monthly giving fundraiser be valued as equally as their counterpart who specializes in capital campaigns if they’re valued based on funds raised? Or better yet, a fundraiser working in a charity whose mission is not as easy to raise funds for versus one that has huge marketing budgets. The inequity cannot be ignored.
Fourth, this metric doesn’t take into consideration the importance of having a strong fundraising structure such as a fundraising plan, strategies, stewardship, etc. It’s surprising to see how many organizations still function without having a fundraising plan with benchmarks, financial and non-financial targets and a supporter recognition and stewardship plan.
Thinking back to all the charities I’ve worked at in my career, it’s sad to realize that not one had a fundraising plan the day I started. This meant spending over 6 months deep diving into past fundraising activities and marketing materials, reviewing policies and procedures, evaluating whatever recognition was offered to donors, and geeking out of data and the database. Only then was it possible to start developing a fundraising plan. Any fundraiser that has encountered this will undoubtedly not have raised as much as they would have liked because planning takes thought, reflection and most importantly, time. So maybe assessing the fundraiser based on their ability to develop all this would be a better benchmark because it serves their charity and the sector? If the focus is only on money, what happens to building resilient charities based on a robust culture of philanthropy?
Fifth, and this may be the more controversial point is this: raising a lot of money does not necessarily mean it was done ethically, collaboratively and in a way that ensures more gifts from supporters. I am NOT saying that someone who has raised millions is unethical. What I’m saying is that raising a lot of money is not an indicator of respecting moral and ethical standards.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important point is this: the nonprofit sector continues to battle the misconceptions surrounding ethical fundraising practices from the general public. Yet, we ourselves, publicly celebrate the millions that fundraising professionals raise. The perception the lay donor may get from this is that money is all that matters. This conflicting messaging is problematic and may confuse donors. Is this really the image we want to paint for current and prospective supporters? Is that how we want others to view our work and our sector or do we want them to view us as vectors of solutions to big social problems?
To circle back to the AFP Fellowship application. A couple of days after those tweets, I was contacted by the AFP Board Chair. She said that others also felt uncomfortable with the ‘funds raised’ measures and there already was an ongoing conversation about changing this metric on the application form. The following day, the form was changed and the metric was changed to a question that reads: Describe a professional achievement and/or example of a program, initiative or donor relationship that illustrates his/her/their commitment, expertise, and results as a fundraising professional.
Please note that this did not happen because of my tweet but the online exchanges may have helped the reflection. I’m simply happy that AFP was already reflecting on this even before my tweet. Now let’s continue this discussion and move others in the sector to adopt this approach.