Interested in a Fundraising Job? What You Should Know

Fundraising Can Be Gratifying, but Beware the Risks

Young volunteers with children.
How do charitable nonprofits give so much? Because they have people who fundraise endlessly. Jose Luis Pelaez/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

One of the most important jobs in the nonprofit world is that of a fundraiser.

That word, "fundraiser," can be confusing. "Development" is what the nonprofit world calls the field of fundraising. "Fundraiser" more often means a fundraising event.

So, when you look for jobs in fundraising, expect to find them described as development positions, such as the "Director of Development," or as part of the "development team."

Nonprofits run on fundraising. Consequently, fundraisers often enjoy higher salaries, a top place in the organizational chart, access to the powerful and connected people who serve on the board, and high regard in their communities.

How Do People Get Into Fundraising?

For many years, people drifted into fundraising. There weren't degrees in fundraising, so all kinds of backgrounds were acceptable.

Often humanities majors found themselves in fundraising, but, also, former teachers, people from the business world, and volunteers for charitable groups found their way into professional fundraising.

For instance, Lynda Lysakowski, a fundraiser and now an author, worked for a bank that encouraged volunteerism. Lynda also helped with numerous fundraising activities for her alma mater. Eventually, she realized how much she enjoyed fundraising and made the jump from the corporate world to nonprofit as a fundraiser.

On the other hand, Amy Eisenstein was graduating from a public administration and nonprofit management program and thought she wanted to be an executive director of a nonprofit eventually. She "hated" fundraising but knew that it was a necessary skill for nonprofit CEOs.

So, Amy got a job as a fundraiser for a small nonprofit where she had to do everything herself. She fell in love with it, to her surprise, and stuck with it. Today she is a respected consultant to nonprofits large and small and a highly sought speaker and author.

Today, you'll find many graduate programs that feed nonprofits with professionals. You can get a Master of Public Administration, Master of Public Policy or Master of Urban Planning. And some universities, such as the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, now have degrees in philanthropy, 

What Do Fundraisers Do?

The idea of fundraising might seem scary. After all, isn't it hard to ask people to give you money? Once you are well trained, the "ask" may not seem so frightening. But, even if that doesn't appeal to you, there are many job possibilities within fundraising that don't require such personal contact with donors.

Linda Lysakowski, author of the excellent Fundraising as a Career: What, Are You Crazy? lists these specialties within a nonprofit's development department:​

Planned Giving.
Many people want to leave money to their favorite causes after they die. Planned giving professionals help with end-of-life bequests from donors or set up sophisticated giving instruments such as gift annuities. Planned giving is an excellent choice for attorneys, financial planners or bankers who wish to move into the nonprofit world.

Major Gifts.
Going after big donations does require much face-to-face contact with prospective donors. Major donors need extra care and sometimes complicated negotiations. As a result, major gift positions at nonprofits command good salaries.

Campaign Specialist.
Special campaigns, that only occur every few years, such as a capital campaign move fast and require complex coordination. Other special campaigns may be ongoing, such as an endowment campaign, and need a long-term commitment. Developing expertize in these areas, however, may translate into an easy transfer to another organization, into consulting, or even to the leadership of a nonprofit.

Annual Giving.
A big chunk of any nonprofit’s revenue comes from its annual campaign. Annual giving campaigns might involve direct mail, telephone solicitation, and online fundraising. Annual giving specialists need energy, creativity, and versatility.

Corporate Giving.
A position in corporate giving could include drafting a proposal for a corporate foundation, organizing a matching gift for donations, seeking sponsorships for a particular event, or creating a cause-marketing program with a corporation. Former experience in business would prepare you well for this niche, especially if you have excellent business contacts.

Special Events.
If you love to throw a party, this might be the ideal job for you at a nonprofit. The bigger the nonprofit, the more special events there are likely to be. You might find yourself seeking sponsorships, managing the calendar, working up the budget, coordinating volunteers, setting up a national meeting, and more.

Good fundraising demands good writing. If you can write well, you could specialize in grant writing, or development of fundraising materials from newsletters to direct mail letters to online fundraising appeals. Some nonprofits such as universities and hospitals even produce magazines. If you were an English major, or have experience in journalism or PR, you might just find a writing job for a nonprofit.

Social Media Coordinator.
Today, nonprofits, big and small, need people who can manage a steady flow of content for social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Expertise is a must as well as joy in connecting with people online.

Research, Data Entry, and Donor Management.
Are you data-driven? Have a talent for all things technical? Good at databases? Love a research challenge? Fundraising relies on information research. Fundraisers want to know all they can about individuals, foundations, and corporations that might give them money. Not to mention all the record-keeping needed to manage donor information.

How Much Do Fundraising Professionals Earn?

Fundraising is one of the better-compensated areas of charitable work. The fundraising field is expected to expand as the number of nonprofits grows. There is also significant churn as fundraising professionals gain experience and move up and out. Besides that, the tidal wave of baby boomer retirements will stimulate job growth.

Although we hear about fundraisers who make north of a million dollars a year, those are very rare indeed. A report on salaries says that fundraising compensation has risen, with the median salary at more than $70,000. The range in salaries included more than $85,000 for the top earners and about $47,000 for the bottom 25 percent of fundraisers.

What Are the Disadvantages to Fundraising?

Problems do exist in the nonprofit world, especially when it comes to fundraising. Moreover, those problems are not all about convincing donors to give.

A study by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr Fund just a few years ago found that nonprofit fundraising seemed to be something of a mess.

The report called the problem a vicious cycle, citing:

  • high turnover among development staff,
  • a shortage of qualified candidates for fundraising jobs,
  • and lack of resources among nonprofit organizations.

Although these findings might be good news for fundraising job applicants, since there always seems to be a good job market, they also serve as a warning. 

For instance, the CEOs (usually called Executive Directors) often expect too much from their fundraisers. Also, fundraisers may be overworked, underpaid, and lack the resources to do a good job.

Making a bad situation worse, boards often don't understand fundraising, are unwilling to help with it, and may support hiring unqualified people just to keep expenses down. Boards can also think they know best when it comes to fundraising.

How You Can Avoid a Bad Fundraising Job

Mazarine Treyz, the author of a book on how to get a fundraising job, warns of the “setup.” Fundraisers are brought onboard but starved of resources and hounded by overwork. All of that leads to failure. They have been “set up.”

Treyz suggests that fundraising job candidates ask critical questions about the job before jumping into it. They include:

  • How many people have held this position in the last five years? You'll find out if the job is a revolving door.
  • Can I talk with the last person who held it? If allowed, such a conversation could reveal a lot. For instance, did the ED and development director got along, and if the last person left on good terms or bad. Watch for discomfort and squirming in seat. 
  • Is there a budget for professional development? If not, head for the door. You will not get proper support.
  • Does the Executive Director like to fundraise? If that person is interviewing you, just ask her if she enjoys fundraising. The best response is a warm smile and "of course."
  • How does the board feel about fundraising? If the board thinks fundraising is not their job, watch out.
  • Do you have an up-to-date donor database? If the answer is no, it means that there is no infrastructure, and you'll spend much time getting it into place before you can bring in new money.

Why Is All of This Important?

Well, if you walk into a “setup” and fail, your name will be mud when you look for your next job. It will not matter that it was not your fault.

Alternatively, you might become discouraged and decide fundraising is not for you after all. And that would be sad. You might be excellent at it in the right circumstances.

The Bottom Line

Fundraising is a splendid job if you want to work in the nonprofit world. The pay is usually good, you might enjoy a high status within the organization, and there is a career path. Fundraising can even lead to the leadership of a nonprofit.

There are many ways to be in fundraising too. Even if you do not relish the idea of asking people face-to-face for their money, you can work behind the scenes as a writer, handle social media, design materials, or slice and dice data.

There are things to watch out for if you pursue a fundraising job, however. Avoid the “setup” of over expectations and few resources by asking questions before you say yes to a particular position.

However, do consider fundraising as a career. It can be incredibly rewarding.