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What Does It Take to Make and Build Your Career as a Fundraiser?

Resource Center - Foundation

Tania Little 200x232

In the social-profit sector we strive to make a difference. We spend much of our days at our workplaces because we want to make the world a better place, while still yearning to make enough money and see a clear path to our dream job. But creating that balance doesn’t happen on its own. In the rush of our daily roles and responsibilities, we have to take charge of reaching our goals. 

It starts with self-awareness. Most of us get a job right out of school because we really just want to be employed and not living at home anymore. It usually takes a few years for us to realize what’s working and what isn’t; what we like and don’t like; how we want to be managed; how we work in a team; what kind of leader we want to be and what environment we thrive in. In many cases, the realization that we should be paying attention to these factors doesn’t hit us until our second or even third professional role. It’s critical to our personal growth to increase our self-reflection and pay attention to the details.

To find long-term success in your career, you need to know what motivates you and drives your sense of success and happiness. Getting to that final destination is a journey that requires us to take a systematic and thoughtful approach that will yield a long and fulfilling career. Like any journey, it’s always good to start with a plan and a map.

Try a Career Map

Many years ago, I was fortunate to be introduced to career mapping by Tara George, MBA, CFRE, and senior vice-president & lead consultant-search practice at KCI. I was contemplating a work/life shift and became an avid fan of Mind Mapping® after realizing the potential of using the left and right brain approach to problem solving.

Career mapping provides you with the opportunity to facilitate choices, based on your individual talent and the potential directions that your career can go. It helps you to better understand what competencies and skills you have, which ones you need to develop, and what steps you need to take to move forward to your ideal job. In her article The Importance of Career Mapping, Caela Farren, Ph.D., articulates that there are nine critical elements of a career map: purpose, behavioral strengths, profession-centered competencies, business competencies, leadership competencies, functional accomplishments, career paths, developmental experiences and formal education.

Do you know what you’ve accomplished thus far in your career? What is your 30-second elevator pitch? If you can’t communicate your successes in a clear and meaningful way, it’s time you took a few minutes to reflect.  What have you accomplished? What does success look like for you? What makes you most proud? It’s important to measure your successes both qualitatively and quantitatively, and have the ability to elaborate on them with a quick story or example to bring them to life.

Taking the time to think through where you are currently in these areas, and where you need to get to, will help you to build a concrete plan to move you more strategically through your career decisions.

Be a Volunteer

I’ve been volunteering since I was 15 years old, and I’ve learned that the only way to master my work was to practice it over and over again. The social-profit sector has grown so significantly in the past 25 years that you must make investing in yourself a priority. Whether you’re participating in a local AFP conference, taking a certificate program like those offered at Humber College or Ryerson University, working towards your CFRE or a master’s degree like the MA in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Carleton University, the need to expand your knowledge and understanding of the sector is essential to providing depth to your practice.

Getting out and volunteering is equally important. Are you serving on a board or committee? What are you doing for fun? Look to create opportunities to build skills beyond the ones defined in your current role. Being able to show that you are a passionate learner and that you can transfer learning into your professional role is an effective method to demonstrate to your current or future employer that you’re ready for the next opportunity.

I’ve been actively volunteering with AFP for over ten years and been incredibly fortunate to meet colleagues from around the globe, many who have become close friends. Opportunities to expand my knowledge, skills, professional capacity and, most importantly, my personal network have all been wonderful benefits to giving back to the sector. We often hear from volunteers that they get back so much more than they could ever give, and I can attest to that same experience with my years of service to AFP.

Volunteering and continued professional development are also great ways to build your network. Taking the time to build relationships and know the leaders in your own organization (and across the sector) provides you with a wealth of knowledge and access to years of experience to learn from. Meeting formally or informally with your peers provides a rich opportunity to learn and problem-solve from shared experiences.

An additional benefit of engaging in the sector is the opportunity to learn from the generation that came before you. In many cases, just getting out and being active as a volunteer can provide you with opportunities to build formal and informal mentorships. Canada’s social-profit sector is evolving at a fast pace, and the wisdom from current sector leaders can inform and shape the future direction of the sector – a future you will hopefully help create.

Longevity and Relationship Building

With our sector evolving so quickly, longevity in your job matters. If you look at your resume, do you have a different job every year to eighteen months? The social-profit sector is known for having poor retention rates. According to Penelope Burk at Cygnus Applied Research Inc., “87 percent of top development execs agree that the rate of staff turnover in fundraising is a problem.”   In order to better steward donors while building a long-term career in our sector, take time to consider what culture you thrive in. Being able to stick it out through the tough times demonstrates leadership, and that is one of the best attributes you can have as you’re developing your career.

We know that successful fundraising is about relationships, and those don’t happen overnight. At the 18-month point, you’re just getting through your learning curve, getting to know your donors and hitting that sweet spot of efficiency and effectiveness. It doesn’t serve you, your donors or your organization to move on because of the lure of a little more money.  Longevity goes a long way in helping you develop your practice and increase the depth of your relationships with colleagues and donors.  Making a meaningful difference and doing the job you were hired to do will ultimately benefit you, and the sector, long-term.

Choosing to work in the social-profit sector is a very intentional choice. Taking the time to be reflective, plan your course, invest in yourself, give back to the sector, build your network and grow with each role will help you to build a long and fulfilling career.

Tania Little, CFRE has been involved in the social-profit sector for over twenty-four years and has worked as a professional fundraiser for more than fifteen. Prior to joining Second Harvest in 2011, Tania worked as a consultant and in progressively senior development and marketing roles on campaigns ranging from $3 – $260 million.

Tania is actively engaged as a volunteer currently serving on the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International Board of Directors and is the incoming Vice Chair of Professional Advancement (as of Jan. 1, 2013), as the Treasurer for the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada and on the AFP Canadian Government Relations Committee.

Contact her, 

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