Ian MacQuillin: We need a skills audit of the fundraising profession

There are no formal entry requirements because there is no body of knowledge an entrant must acquire - and this needs to change

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

A couple of conferences back, someone I know quite well handed me a piece of fundraising direct marketing and asked me what I thought of it.

So I gave it a swift once over as I supped my coffee. Alarm bells began to ring. The bloke I was chatting to was connected with the charity and I wondered whether he was showing me this DM letter because he was particularly proud of it. What set the alarm off was that this piece of DM was, not to put too fine a point on it… shite.

So I told him using these precise words. He agreed with me.

It was truly, utterly abysmal. If you created a checklist of how not to do donor-centred fundraising, this would have ticked just about every box.

It focused totally on the organisation, used mainly first-person language and did not include the donor as a genuine partner in changing things, only as an external funder. Worse still, the case study it described had already been funded and solved. The DM asked donors to support other situations like it.

This letter went out to supporters and, of course, it bombed, hitting something like 8 per cent of its target.

Anyone who had read a single blog by Tom Ahern, attended any of Adrian Sargeant’s conference presentations or followed Lisa Sargent on Twitter would have realised this was rubbish fundraising that was destined for failure.

Yet this communication had been produced by a consultant and approved by the in-house team.

I am going to say this because it absolutely needs saying, although I am sure it won’t win me many friends, and I really did debate with myself whether I should even write this column. But here goes.

There are some organisations where the quality of fundraising is low and there are some poor fundraisers in our profession, fundraisers who don’t have the basic skills or knowledge to be able competently carry out fundamental tasks (I’ve written previously in Third Sector about this knowledge gap, with similar examples of deficiencies in basic skills and knowledge).

But it isn’t just in practical knowledge and competence that fundraising is lacking. There are also many professional fundraisers who struggle to conceptualise problems and issues and think through solutions to them. If fundraising is conceptually "broken", as we are told it is, then to fix it we need to synthesise new concepts from our existing knowledge, not simply do what we’ve been doing a bit differently.

To do fundraising better and to do it differently, we need to rethink the skills we need for members of this profession. Entry into the fundraising profession is ad hoc and inconsistent. There are no formal entry requirements because there is no body of knowledge an entrant needs to acquire, and there’s no consensus on whether degrees in subjects such as marketing and PR are of any use to a fundraising career.

There’s no real way for a new entrant to demonstrate they have the skills and knowledge that will let them hit the ground running, which is why unpaid internships are prevalent, even though they are actually a barrier to entry for those who cannot afford this route.

But nor do many organisations really know what skills they are looking for in their fundraisers. The fact that David Burgess’s #NonGraduatesWelcome movement has found that so many non-profits require applicants to hold a degree – any degree – because "that’s what we’ve always done" testifies to the lack of thought behind fundraiser recruitment.

A first step towards rectifying this is a formal, sector-wide skills audit of the fundraising profession that would identify the skills needed for different disciplines and different levels. Basic competence and knowledge will obviously feature prominently. But we also need to establish how much we value skills and aptitudes such as critical reasoning, creativity, independent thought and problem-solving, and for what disciplines and roles these are required.

We will not "fix" (that is, radically transform) fundraising if we do not bring in more people with the aptitudes and abilities to conceive of how it can be fixed.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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