Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising's problem isn't a lack of talent, it's a lack of knowledge

A defined entry route into the profession would make sure fundraisers have the knowledge they need

Last year a consultant went into a fairly large charity to help them with a new capital appeal. She asked what the major donor team’s gift table looked like and was met with blank stares.

Gift tables are major donor and capital appeals 101. Yet not only were fundraisers at this charity embarking on a capital appeal without a gift table, they didn’t even know what one was.

Joe Jenkins wrote in Third Sector a couple of weeks ago about what he perceived to be a talent crisis in charities. But fundraising has a far more fundamental problem than a talent crisis. Fundraising suffers from a knowledge crisis.

Talent is a quality of the people doing the job that refers to their natural aptitude or abilities.

Knowledge refers to the facts, information and skills that a person acquires through learning.

You can have a talented fundraiser who has very little knowledge about fundraising (her natural aptitude just pulls her through), and you can have a knowledgeable fundraiser is who not particularly talented (she’s useless at organising and applying the knowledge she has).

So that major gift team may all be hugely "talented" fundraisers with natural aptitudes and skills for building relationships with major donors. But without a knowledge of gift tables - charts that set out the number and size of gifts that are needed to meet a fundraising goal - they’ll be using their natural talent to ask for the wrong amounts from the wrong donors at the wrong times.

Fundraising is one of the few professions (PR and journalism might be others) where you are not required to possess a body of professional knowledge in order to practise as a professional. But neither are you required to acquire that knowledge once you have become a fundraiser.

Research from Beth Breeze at Kent University and Sarah Nathan at Indiana University confirms what we know anecdotally: that most fundraisers "fall into fundraising by accident", partly because there is no defined entry route for young people wanting a career in fundraising. Imagine you’re a careers advisor and a 17-year-old comes to you and says: "How do I become a charity fundraiser?" What would you tell her? What could you tell her?

For just about every profession you can think of, there is a defined, knowledge-based entry route that involves a university degree and/or on-the-job education/CPD leading to a professional qualification.

For fundraising the best advice seems to be to work in the corporate sector for 10 years, acquire some transferable skills, and the hope someone recognises those skills and takes a chance on you.

This is not a sustainable way to attract new, knowledgeable talent into fundraising.

I’ve been advocating a knowledge-based entry route for fundraising for a long time. I honestly cannot understand why anyone would object to this. But plenty of fundraisers do. One argument is that it would reduce diversity and a recent Institute of Fundraising report on increasing diversity in fundraising recommended lowering the barriers of entry. Seriously? Lower? They’re almost at ground level as it is.

So let’s reframe the issue. Skip forward 30 years to 2048. Do we want the majority of fundraisers in the middle of the 21st century to still be "falling into fundraising by accident", or only getting a job because someone "takes a chance on them", and then learning on-the-job from someone who may or may not know what they’re talking about?

Or by then do we want to have the trappings of a mature profession with a defined knowledge-based entry route, so when a 17-year-old goes to her careers advisor and says "I want to be a fundraiser", you can say: "Brilliant, take this course and learn all about how you use gift tables at the start of a capital appeal."

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