Matthew Sherrington: 'I am a proud fundraiser - but saying it out loud feels a little bit chippy to me'

Charity staff from all departments are feeling insecure and undervalued; so we should be supporting each other instead of creating divisions, writes our columnist

Staff from across the sector must work together to raise morale, writes Matthew Sherrington
Staff from across the sector must work together to raise morale, writes Matthew Sherrington

In my 20s I was a volunteer teacher in Sudan. One day, in a local market, I saw a mass of fur heaving about in the sand. It turned out to be half a dozen rabbits, tied together by their back feet, on sale for the pot. Nothing else kept them there and, though they were all trying to hop away, it wasn't happening. If those rabbits had mastered the however-many-legged race, they might have made their escape. As it was, their lack of teamwork not only stopped them seizing their chance, but it actively held each of them back.

What made me remember this moment was the Proud to be a Fundraiser campaign, launched in May by the Institute of Fundraising. The campaign is a reaction to the lack of love that fundraisers feel from the public as a result of routine criticism from the media, MPs and even the Charity Commission – not to mention from colleagues and trustees – who sometimes take them for granted and fail to understand what their jobs entail.

I want fundraisers to feel pride – but only along with everyone else

I am a proud fundraiser, although "privileged" describes better how I feel about what I do, which isn't just fundraising but doing my bit for the whole and providing the fuel the charity runs on. I do feel pride in what I do, in a humble sort of way, and I want fundraisers to feel pride – but only along with everyone else. Saying it out loud feels a little bit chippy to me. I have seen fundraising and organisational stability destroyed by prejudiced and ignorant boards, but I have also seen investment in fundraising at the expense of other departments.

Many people in the voluntary sector suffer a feeling of insecurity that what they do doesn't come up to scratch compared with the private or public sectors. It's not quite a proper job, is it? My experience is that feeling undervalued is quite common and touches many different functions in an organisation. People working in front-line services don't feel listened to and think policy people can often be detached from their reality; regions feel marginalised by the centre; communications feel as if everyone treats them like a punchbag. I'm afraid I don't know about the engine-room services of HR, IT, finance and legal. Perhaps they are quietly confident in their clear professional identity. Perhaps they are just quiet.

So what exactly is the root cause of this debilitating insecurity? It might in part be professional identity; in the case of fundraising, this is something the Institute of Fundraising is addressing with its programme of professional development. More simply, I think it is the lack of a compelling vision and story that helps everyone understand how they contribute to the overall goal, and how they depend on everyone else. Remember the floor-sweeper at Nasa who told John F Kennedy he was helping to put a man on the moon, or the stone-cutter who knew he was building a cathedral? It's often leadership that doesn't do enough to communicate that story all the time and make everyone feel valued.

In the end, if you are just doing your own thing, failing to respect others and to pull together in the same direction, you're no better than those unfortunate rabbits that were flopping about in the sand, exhausting themselves and going nowhere.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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