Interview: Beth Breeze

The director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent is studying the personality traits of fundraisers

Beth Breeze
Beth Breeze

What sort of person makes a career out of asking for money? With fundraisers coming from all corners of the country to learn, mingle, network and party, the convention is a perfect opportunity for the fundraising academic Beth Breeze to gather material for her latest research question.

The director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent is researching the personal and social skills of successful fundraisers for a three-year project called The Formation of Fundraisers: The Role of Personal Skills in Asking for Money.

Breeze, whose first degree was in anthropology, jokes that she will be spending the convention sitting in a corner with a notebook, watching delegates.

She considers the project important because fundraisers have not been studied before. "We've studied - perhaps even over-studied - donors, so I think it's time we looked at the other side: the askers," she says. "Almost no gift is given unprompted, even if the donor is unaware of that."

A month and a half into the project, which has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Breeze is developing ideas about the sort of person who chooses to make a career out of asking for money, when most other people, she says, would "rather poke their eyes out".

She plans to interview at least 30 successful fundraisers, volunteer fundraisers and major donors, and carry out a survey of at least 1,000 major donor fundraisers about their experience in relationship-building.

"A fundraiser's position is strange," she says. "People really like giving - it makes them happier and some say it even improves longevity. But being asked to give is not pleasurable. It arouses a lot of different emotions and people avoid fundraisers."

As an example, Breeze tells how one fundraiser she spoke to was at an event full of wealthy donors. He approached a group that included one of his trustees, who said: "Here comes the fundraiser; watch your wallets."

When she asked fundraisers to list the words that described them best, "tenacious" stood out among the answers, which also included "passionate" and "being a good listener". Not being easily discouraged and being persistent fits with a certain idea of a fundraiser, she says. "What is being tenacious? It is having a lot of determination, but there is a downside to it," she says. "How do we know when we've gone on too long and how long should we keep it up? And, crucially, how tenacious is too tenacious?"

She says she hopes to get an insight into the personality traits of fund- raisers by looking at the sort of people they are in their lives outside work. For example, are they organising nights out and taking an active role in making things happen?

As well as having the ability to keep on asking, being a fundraiser is also about asking the right people at the right time and doing the right research, says Breeze. She plans to work with a psychologist to look at fundraisers' ability to read body language. This was inspired by an early discussion with a fundraiser who said she knew she was making progress when the person's face relaxed.

As part of her work, Breeze has looked at the history of fundraising to understand where the profession came from and where it is heading. "We've actually become less aggressive and less inappropriate," she says. "Some earlier techniques included haranguing people in private spaces." Early examples in the US included making pitches during the interval in cinemas and disturbing sunbathing holidaymakers to ask for donations.

"One of the things I'm trying to track is in what ways things have got worse and in what ways better," she says. "We are certainly better at using more appropriate communications and settings."

CV:

2013: Director, Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent
2008: Researcher, University of Kent
2005: Doctoral studies and freelance researcher
2004: Deputy director, Institute for Philanthropy

- Read more on this year's IoF National Convention

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