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 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.