Tobin Aldrich: Who'd be a fundraising director?

It's never been less appealing to be a senior fundraiser, but it's also never been more important to attract good talent, writes our columnist

Tobin Aldrich
Tobin Aldrich

It was two years ago, almost to the day, when I stopped being a director of fundraising, a role I had performed for nearly two decades for some really great charities, and became a consultant.

You could say I timed that rather well. The past two years haven’t been a great time to be a fundraiser, and for the poor souls who’ve had to steer the fundraising ship in that time it’s been really hard. The fundraising environment was already pretty tough before the 2015 media storm burst.

Thereafter, trying to deal with the myriad challenges thrown up by media scrutiny, rising donor distrust, new regulation and frightened boards while trying to keep your team motivated and supported took the challenges of the job to a whole new level, even for those who didn’t find themselves personally vilified in the gutter press. Yes, I truly don’t envy my fundraising director friends. 

You could easily understand why more people might want to leave fundraising at times like these. I really hope we don’t see an exodus from charities because we have never been more in need of good leadership than we are now. 

Heading a fundraising function is a job that requires true leadership skills. Creating the conditions that allow fundraising to prosper in charities that want to talk about anything else but the grubby business of getting the money in requires endless patience, firmness and diplomacy.

Providing clear vision and direction in an environment of uncertainty takes confidence and courage. Inspiring and motivating diverse people across varied disciplines needs real qualities of conviction and empathy. Finding routes forward through myriad obstacles while retaining optimism and good humour is a real test of any leader. 

You can see why finding really good senior fundraisers might be something of a struggle. We do have some fantastic fundraising leaders in our sector, people like Mark Astarita of the British Red Cross, Tanya Steele, who’s just become chief exec at WWF, and Louise Parkes at Barnardo's. Richard Taylor at Macmillan, Liz Tait at Battersea – I could go on for ages. But we don’t have anything like enough of them. 

I’ve worked with many charities in the past couple of years and finding the right leadership for fundraising has been an issue for most of them. It’s a constant problem for charities of all sizes, in all sectors. 

I’ve written before about the recruitment crisis that I think affects the fundraising sector as a whole. I think we have to fundamentally rethink the ways we bring people into the sector and how we develop them once they are in it.

There are lots of problems: too narrow a recruitment base, lack of good training, too early specialisation and too many good people being lost to other sectors are just a few. The shortage of people with the skills and attributes to be senior fundraising leaders is merely the culmination of the problems across the fundraising workforce as a whole. 

It’s not a problem with a single solution but one of the things that needs to improve is how we find, recruit and develop fundraising leaders. So my friend Imogen Ward, chief exec of the Lessons for Life Foundation, and I are setting up a new venture to help charities get the leadership they need. Called Aldrich & Ward, our leadership consultancy and search practice opens for business this month.

The charity sector has never needed good fundraising leadership more. We hope our new venture will help a bit.

Tobin Aldrich is a fundraising consultant and chief executive of the direct giving charity the Misfit Foundation

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