A new study: Taking the pulse the fundraising profession

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors |

America’s first settlers had favorable attitudes toward philanthropy, perhaps because charities traditionally were well supported in their native England.

This giving attitude laid the groundwork for fundraising as a profession.

But actual nonprofit development positions are relatively new, and the study of the profession is even more recent.

In 1987, Indiana University established its Center on Philanthropy, which has transformed into a national resource for education, research and training in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

Gene Tempel was part of the center’s beginnings, and later founded the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He has led the charge to better understand the career of raising money.

In the mid-1990s, he and Margaret Duronio conducted the first-ever study of the profession. The study was revealing about the field, and provided evidence for the first time that for many in the field, fundraising was not their first career choice. Their study was published in a 1997 book called “Fundraisers: Their Careers, Stories Concerns and Accomplishments.”

Last summer, Tempel recognizing that this field research is not widely known, partnered with Sarah Nathan, the co-director and special projects associate at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and adjunct faculty member, to resurrect and replicate the survey.

The pair distributed an exact replica of the study to 35,000 members of AFP, CASE, AHP and the Lilly Family School and received 1,900 completed surveys, which provided additional career insight nearly two decades after the first study.

Steeped in data, Nathan and Tempel are currently reviewing and compiling the findings, which will be released this fall. This time, technology made the process easier, allowing electronic distribution and a more complex and sophisticated data analysis.

“We are still asking new questions and can do this because we have this much more robust data now. Unfortunately, the original data has been lost to time, all we have from the original study was published in the book,” said Nathan.

Earlier this year, the team shared preliminary data analysis at professional associations’ conferences.

Among the highlights:

  • Fundraiser tenure has gone up. People are staying on their jobs longer.
  • Once a fundraiser gains a total of 10 years experience at various positions, they then tend to stay longer at their next job, up to five to six years.
  • The characteristics of a good fundraiser are honesty and integrity. Why those traits are the most prominent will be analyzed by the team this summer.
  • The average age when people enter fundraising is now 30, and the median age is 27.

“That means that half the fundraisers are 27 or younger. We think that’s a really exciting finding,” said Nathan. “We thought anecdotally (the age) has come down because there are a lot more trainings and higher education programs now — over 400 programs exist now in the U.S. in this field — but we didn’t have any evidence.”

In 1997, only 15 percent of development professionals entered fundraising as their first career and the average age of entry into the profession was 33.5 years for women and 33 for men. At that time, most learned fundraising on the job.

Nathan thinks the information might help address issues of shortages, knowing that people are now trained in fundraising, in philanthropy and nonprofit management, who are going to be the next generation of leaders in the sector.

According to Nathan, the survey also covered an individual’s career path, how he or she came to fundraising and how he or she learned fundraising.

Tyrone Freeman, director of undergraduate programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said this academic year, Lilly Family program graduated 66 students with undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees. According to Freeman, most of the undergraduates have found employment and plan to stay in Indiana.

Freeman and Nathan both think a unique aspect of both their school’s programs is that courses are based on the most recent research being conducted on campus, which constantly refreshes the curriculum to reflect new research in the field.

Of note is that the degree program was started in 2010 at IU during the recession.

“We came in at the end of the scene, as it was kind of culminating. It really represents a new pathway of opportunity for students who want to specifically go into nonprofit work and want their studies to be on that topic. They are creating pathways, they are getting jobs in fundraising, they are also getting jobs in other aspects of leadership and management,” said Freeman, who came to the Fund Raising School beginning in 2003.

With more interest in capacity building, funders are helping to hire or train fundraising staff to be more professional.

Nathan’s advice to those entering the field is to find an organization where fundraising is support by the board and builds a culture of philanthropy.

A good first job is at an organization where everyone contributes.

“Go to a first job where you could stay for three years, and where you have support to be successful. So many people in small shops just cannot be successful because they don’t have access or infrastructure to be successful and the board isn’t engaged or isn’t setting realistic enough goals,” she said.

The study’s findings will be released in the fall.

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