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Your fundraising career: Should I specialize?

Nine years into my fundraising career I did it. I decided to specialize.

I had been working in a small shop for years doing most of the fundraising. When you work on a smaller team, you learn to do it all: running direct response programs, creating digital engagement campaigns, designing corporate philanthropy initiatives, writing grant applications, cultivating major donors, and even a little bit of graphic design.

When I started looking for another job, I applied to more generalist roles. But as I interviewed with various organizations, I began to think about what it was that I really wanted in my career.

Becoming a Specialist

Specialists are masters of their craft, with a deep understanding of their work. If you choose to specialize, you’ll have the opportunity to become very advanced in your specific area of fundraising, and by staying on top of your game, you can become a thought leader in your area.

Specialists can help fill gaps on fundraising teams. For example, one of the first specialist positions a smaller team might create is a major gifts officer who can dedicate her time to cultivating and stewarding donors would otherwise not be engaged. Because of this ability to fill gaps with their expertise, specialists can be in high demand and have a higher earning capacity.

Unfortunately for specialists, career options can be limiting. Fundraising specialists look for roles that not only align with their skills, but with the causes they are interested in. So, for example, a fundraiser who specializes in prospect research and has a passion for social services may not find a role that is a fit for them.

In addition, specialists can have a harder time transitioning into leadership roles where one is expected to have an overarching strategy that involves all fundraising strategies, as well as managerial skills.

Becoming a Generalist

Generalists are often thought of as jacks of all trades, but masters of none. Though this can seem like a drawback, what it means is that they tend to be big-picture, team-oriented thinkers. They can often see the interconnectedness of various fundraising (and organizational) activities, and are comfortable navigating the waters when the path is unclear.

Generalists thrive in smaller organizations where modest budgets call for someone whose fundraising experience is wide-ranging. If you choose to be a generalist, your broad fundraising knowledge base will allow you significant career flexibility. You’ll be able to jump from role to role quite easily. And generalists often get promoted into leadership roles, as director level positions often require a comprehensive view of fundraising in addition to managerial skills.

On the flip side, generalists can make mistakes when they’re making decisions without the expertise to back them up. And without expertise, generalists sometimes feel like their work involves a lot trial and error rather than relying on a deep understanding of best practice.

And while job stability is not guaranteed for anyone, generalists tend to be more replaceable than specialists simply because there are more of them.

So how do you decide?

For me, it took interviewing for other roles to realize that I wanted to become a more specialized fundraiser. The process prompted me to ask questions I hadn’t really thought about.

If you’re trying to make a decision on whether or not to specialize, consider these questions:

What stage of my career am I in?

If you’re early in your career as a fundraiser, you may want to avoid specializing until you’ve had a chance to try your hand at everything. Once you know what you like, and what you’re good at, you’ll be able to make this decision with more confidence.

Do I do my best work when I can focus on one aspect of fundraising?

If you are most productive and producing your best quality work when you have multiple projects on the go, then being a generalist might be the right fit. But if focusing produces the best results for you, specialization could be the route you should take.

Am I passionate about one particular kind of fundraising?

Do you LOVE meeting with donors? Or crafting the perfect direct mail ask? If there’s one type of fundraising that gets you more excited than the others, it’s worth exploring that path.

As a generalist or a specialist, will I be able to work for causes I am passionate about?

As I mentioned above, specialization can be limiting if you are passionate about causes that tend to have smaller fundraising shops. On the other hand, a generalist who is passionate about university fundraising may have a hard time competing with experts vying for a focused position at these larger shops.

Do I want to be in a leadership role?

If you’re looking to be a team leader, you’ll need to develop a broad range of skills. Not only will you need to understand all fundraising activities and have managerial skills, but you’ll need cross-functional skills across departments as well. And remember, there is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing whether to specialize or not. It’s all a matter of what you want out of your career.

 

Ashleigh Saith

Co-Founder
Charity Savant

Ashleigh Saith is a fundraiser and nonprofit leader with years of experience working in small- and mid-sized nonprofits. She’s passionate about nonprofit marketing and leadership, and found herself with a shocking knack for finance. Ashleigh is currently the Manager of Annual Programs at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. She was formerly the Director of Development and Partnerships at Interval House, and is a graduate of the Humber Fundraising Management Program. While out running, Ashleigh thinks about new ways that Charity Campus can help nonprofit staff and volunteers grow, learn, and connect with each other. In addition to the charitable sector, Ashleigh loves cats, Gene Kelly musicals, and all forms of soup.

Follow Ashleigh on Twitter @ashleighsaith and Charity Savant @CharitySavant 

 

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Writing a proposal is like trying out for the Olympics. Research and planning take months, maybe even years; hundreds of competitors vie for the same grant dollars, and rewards are heart-shatteringly few. And, last, but certainly not least, your proposal might be the greatest, most eloquent piece of compelling prose you’ve ever written – that doesn’t get funded.

Tossing your organization’s hat into the grant arena is tough but sitting out the competition is out of the question. Not every proposal you write will be funded and it may take several tries before any dollars come your way. But if you keep trying you will eventually win, because winning grants is not based on luck. It is based on your approach. And, as the adage goes, the devil is in the detail.

Without further ado, below are three ways to write better proposals and increase the odds of winning your next grant.

  1. Read the funding announcement

I know, I know. You’ve read this tip before. But it’s as true then as it is now. Scour that funding announcement inside out. Note the terms the grantor uses and incorporate their language into your proposal. Very frequently the grantor will embed suggestions in the sections preceding the questions. Do not overlook these. They are NOT suggestions.

I recently worked on a proposal where, in the middle of the announcement, there was a sentence that mentioned the statement of need could include information on subpopulations. While the question itself did not ask to detail subpopulations, I knew that scoring well meant incorporating as much information as possible on subpopulations. Why? Because an approach should not be a one-size-fits-all solution. The grantor wants to know that YOU know your community.

  1. Complete a thorough needs assessment

Here is where details become critical. Needs assessments should be complex, lengthy and turn up several issues.  These issues will be the basis for your approach. No matter what grant you are going after the funder wants to know that your approach includes data-driven activities.

What do I mean by that? Say you are applying for a grant to build a homeless shelter for war veterans. Not only will you need to answer why a shelter needs to be built right now, but you will also have to address your population’s underlying causes of homelessness. Why is this population susceptible to homelessness? Are there any underlying behavioral and mental health issues? How will you address these issues while war veterans are in your care? More importantly, what solution does your assessment turn up for long-term success? No needs assessment is complete without knowing how clients discharged from your program will be reintegrated in the community. The funder will want to know how your organization will ensure clients live happy, healthy and productive lives long after they complete the program.

  1. Show don’t tell

Repeat after me: I will never use a “lack of” statement in my proposal ever again.

This one is simple. Winning proposals never use “lack of” statements. To illustrate the point compare the next two paragraphs.

  1. The majority of teens living in Sunshine Village spend their evenings watching TV because there is a lack of afterschool programming to keep them engaged in pro-social activities.
  2. There are three providers of afterschool programs in Sunshine Village that serve 1,000 teenagers per year. There are 3,000 teenagers in Sunshine Village, which means that 2,000 of them are left with unstructured time in the afternoon. Youth risk behavior surveys administered through Sunshine Village High School indicate that 75% of teens spend three hours or more per day watching TV because, as one teen noted, “there is nothing to do.”

Which proposal do you think is more likely to get funded? While these are very basic examples, the point is that you will make a more convincing case with accurate, detailed information about your community, its population, and its needs.

Writing proposals is a gargantuan task and requires thorough research. But with adequate planning (and about five hundred cups of coffee) you will be able to compose quality proposals with data-driven approaches. Good luck!

Melissa Manzone is Founder and Writer at The Grant Gal, which helps non-profits strategize and write proposals for federal grant competitions. Melissa holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The Ohio State University and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Kingston University London. In her free time, Melissa loves to read everything from biographies to historical fantasy and her favorite book will forever be Jane Eyre. She also is an aspiring author and is working on her first book about a warrior princess, which she hopes to publish next year. You can find her at www.thegrantgal.com and contact her at Melissa@thegrantgal.com

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As a newly wed, much of the last year has been spent working and planning my wedding. Now that my wedding has passed, I have been reflecting on the many life lessons that the wedding planning process has taught me. Here are my top six learnings:

  1. People matter more than things: This is one of my Bubbie Helen’s (grandmother’s) favourite sayings (which my mother often reminded me of when I broke something around the house as a child). And it applies to both weddings and fundraising equally. You can have mountains of the finest flowers, fountains of champagne and a scrumptious, towering wedding cake but none of it matters if the people who you love most are not there to celebrate with you. Similarly, dazzling donors with glossy brochures and Academy Award worthy videos means little compared to building meaningful, personal long term relationships with those who give to your cause.
  2. Personal touches go a long way: My husband and I spent much time and energy figuring out how to make our wedding feel like us. It was those touches, big and small, that we and our guests loved most about our wedding. Your donors will not remember the flashy events you invite them to, but guaranteed they will keep a card you send them that has a dog that looks like theirs on the cover and read articles which you send them because you know they will be of personal interest.
  3. Don’t skimp on the hors d’oeuvres: Hungry wedding/event guests are angry guests! No further explanation necessary.
  4. Trust your partners: The early stages of the wedding planning process are often the hardest, because they involved finding vendors that you like and trust. They are key to ensuring your wedding is exactlyas you want it. The same is true in a fundraising shop, you must trust your colleagues, volunteers and the countless other stakeholders who are crucial to success in fundraising campaigns.
  5. A handwritten, heartfelt thank you note never goes out of style: Always send out hand written, personal thank you cards in a timely manner. There is not a person inthis world who does not appreciate being thanked. Whether it’s for a wedding gift or ongoing organizational support, those 5 minutes you spend writing the card will pay dividends in your relationships.
  6. Always keep the bigger picture in mind: And last but most importantly, don’t get bogged down in the process. Weddings are stressful to plan and it’s easy and natural to get overwhelmed by the endless decisions and details. Fundraising campaigns are no different. But in both cases, the key is to always keep the bigger picture in mind. Throughout the process, when we got stressed, we stopped, took a deep breath and reminded each other how excited we were to marry each other. When a campaign deadline is looming, take this simple advice. Pause, take a deep breath, and remember how much good your cause is doing. You will get through it.

 

Hava Goldberg is a passionate fundraiser and community builder who is currently the Senior Development Officer, Community Engagement at the Sinai Health Foundation. She is a proud alumunus of the University of Guelph and holds a Masters in Non-Profit Management (specializing in Jewish Communal Services) from Spertus College (Chicago). Hava has worked in the non-profit sector for nine years and in fundraising for the last four years. She has been an active volunteer and fundraiser for as long as she can remember.

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That’s china, with a lower case “c” as in a set of fancy, old plates, not the country. Allow me to explain, this morning on my commute to work, I read yet another article about how Millennials are eschewing their parents’ Royal Doulton figurines and heirloom china in favour of minimalist lifestyles. Apparently this applies even to the lucky few who are home owners. The article, like many others that have been written over the last few years, suggests that this is the case because Millennials value experiences more than things (especially Instagrammable experiences).

This is a lesson that we, in the fundraising sector, must take to heart. As fundraisers, it is crucial that we take our cues from the daily habits of our donors outside of the non-profit sector. Newsflash, human behavior does not change drastically simply because someone is giving to a good cause!

As a 30-something year old, who often has to remind others she’s a Gen Y not a Millennial, I can tell you that I have far too often received fundraising appeals that are directed at someone twice my age. Return address labels, greeting cards, key chains…ugh! If I don’t want my family’s tchotchkes, do you think I want yours unnamed but well intentioned non-profit?!

It’s high time for us to start segmenting by age and stage of life when it comes to our mid-level giving strategies. Millennial and Gen Y donors have no interest in freebies. Indeed, receiving these things may make donors under the age of 35 less likely to continue to give to your cause. Subsequently, this will likely cause them to question how you are spending their hard earned donations.

Instead, we must start speaking to them in a way that appeals to them. Why not send them an invitation to experience your cause in a hands on manner? For example, if you work for a health based charity that partakes in research & care, plan an opportunity for donors to do basic health science experiments with some of the young researchers. I assure you from my own experience, not only will your young professional donors relish this opportunity to deepen their understanding of the cause, they will Instagram, Tweet and Facebook about it and create fantastic earned publicity for your cause.

These opportunities exist within many non-profit organizations but are often offered exclusively to major donors who are frankly so saturated with opportunities to don fake scrubs or swing a hammer that they often do not attend or appreciate these events. Reimagining these events could allow you to organically grow young professional ambassadors for your cause. And we all know how much Millennials love anything organic…

Hava Goldberg is a passionate fundraiser and community builder who is currently the Senior Development Officer, Community Engagement at the Sinai Health Foundation. She is a proud alumunus of the University of Guelph and holds a Masters in Non-Profit Management (specializing in Jewish Communal Services) from Spertus College (Chicago). Hava has worked in the non-profit sector for nine years and in fundraising for the last four years. She has been an active volunteer and fundraiser for as long as she can remember.

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