Fundraising Veteran Provides Career Insights

Gene Brandt

One thing that is becoming clear to all of us who are “senior citizens” in the fundraising consulting business is that the next generation of fundraising professionals is upon us.  One obvious indication is that these days, just about every one of my clients is fifteen or more years my junior.  I’ll admit it, I feel old!

With the economy strengthening, the non-profit sector is hiring again, and not surprisingly, one area where jobs are appearing again is in fundraising.  Some organizations call it development.  Others refer to it as institutional advancement.  Whatever they call it, however, it is clear that non-profit organizations are hiring fundraisers again.

We are often asked how to break into the fundraising area.  Like many other jobs, being in the right place at the right time is really helpful.  My first development job was as alumni director at Knox College, my alma mater.  I was working in the Knox admissions office when an opportunity arose in the alumni office.  Since I was already on campus and available, I was able to secure that position.  That position got me started in the fundraising business.

Today, being in the right place is equally important.  There are not really specific college courses that one can take that prepares you to be a fundraiser, but working in your college development office as a part-time student employee or summer intern sure can help you break in.  Here are a number of other thoughts regarding ways to improve your chances of getting hired and getting promoted after you get your first job.

  • Break in wherever you can.  I suppose it goes without saying, but it really doesn’t matter if your first job is as a gift processor or a prospect researcher.  Get into a development office and start working.
  • Observe.  Listening carefully, paying attention to subtle nuances—these are skills that are essential to effective major gift fundraising.  Cultivate those skills NOW.  Watch what is going on in your office.  Observe what those in more senior positions do, how they interact with donors and prospects.  Learn from your observations.  This will make you a more effective development officer as new opportunities arise.
  • Don’t ever stop learning.  Some of our clients have the budgets to send staff members to conferences and seminars.  Take advantage of that.  Go to local AFP meetings.  Ask if you can attend a CASE conference on a particular topic.  If your office does not have a budget for such activities, they certainly still receive copies of the AFP journal and the “Chronicle of Philanthropy.”  Read those.  Get on the routing list for professional publications.  Keep learning.
  • Offer to help whenever the opportunity arises.  In every development office, there are numerous opportunities to assist with special events, board meetings, cultivation activities.  Always volunteer.  These are excellent opportunities to mingle with your organization’s key prospects and to show that you are comfortable in important social settings.  And let’s face it, those that volunteer to help-out are always appreciated.

Our firm has taken a leadership role in the development of up-and-coming fundraisers through our establishment and sponsorship of the Development Leadership Consortium.  If you are a young development officer in the Chicago-area, I would encourage you to explore the opportunities available through the DLC.

Yes, development officers are getting younger, but this is definitely a good thing.  Young ideas, new ways of doing things, lots of energy.  This is what our non-profit sector needs for its future.  And let’s face it, it’s what we brought to the table in our day, along with the intent to listen to those with experience.  I sure hope that listening part does not go out of style!

Gene Brandt is co-founder and president of Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt LLC, a major fund-raising consultancy that works with prestigious non-profit organizations throughout the United States.  Prior to his work as a consultant, Gene served in a number of leadership positions in the nonprofit sector, including as president of the Science and Technology Museum of Atlanta and Vice President for Development at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

One thought on “Fundraising Veteran Provides Career Insights

  1. Thanks for the advice. I am a junior in college and often wonder where life after graduation will take me. I hadn’t given non-profits much consideration until recently. I’m glad to hear that there are new jobs opening in the field. There is a lot of good advice here. One piece I really liked was to, “Break in wherever you can.” Not only should we do this to immediately start gaining experience and new skills as well as honing existing skills, but also, it’s easier to find a job when you already have one. It always seems like opportunities present themselves when you’re not looking. I’m not saying to stop looking but you can’t just wait for the perfect job. Rarely do people find their dream jobs right away. I hope listening never goes out of style as well. As a part of the younger generation, we need to listen to and learn from our elders. Also to take what we learn and what we already know and form our own unique style.

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