How to transition from corporate world to fundraising?
April 2, 2014 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I think I'd like to transition from the corporate world into fundraising, but I am not sure of the best way to do so. Any tips?

I am entering my mid-30s and have worked in the entertainment industry for almost my entire career. I work on the business side, and have a broad range of skills in sales, operations, contract negotiation, copywriting, project management, etc. I've worked for large companies, small companies, and freelance. I've wanted out of this business for a long time but haven't left because I wasn't sure what I wanted next.

After much soul-searching I keep coming back to working in nonprofit/fundraising, because I feel my skills are transferable enough, I don't need to get an advanced degree, and the work really appeals to me - I want to use all the skills I've acquired for good, and not to keep making crappy movies with egotistical people. My experience would be especially great for getting corporations and high-wealth individuals (celebrity and non) to give, as I've had to work a lot with those types of clients in my current industry.

However, I'm not sure where to start. My initial idea is to take a couple classes at the local university's highly-ranked fundraising management certificate program. From there, maybe I could start doing some grant writing work on a volunteer basis and see if I could eventually parlay that into paying work.

What I really want, though, is a full-time job in the business, because I feel like that's how you really learn. However, every position I see - even the lower-level ones - seems to require ample experience in nonprofit and fundraising work, which I do not have.

Would it be best to stick with my current job (which I do not like and I would love to leave ASAP, but which is tolerable on some days), take fundraising classes, and do some volunteer grant writing work for a year or two before I try to get a job in this business? Does that sound like a formula for possible success in this situation?

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Find nonprofits who are looking for people to assist with fundraising, for sure. Fundraising is a totally different animal than anything else you can imagine, and learning to write grants, ask patrons for donations, etc., is something you should have experience in before deciding to make a big move like this, because it's incredibly taxing work.
posted by xingcat at 7:56 AM on April 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

That sounds like a good plan to me. I'd also try to join a board and do some actual fundraising on a sustained basis in a sector you'd like to work in ultimately (arts vs. vs. education vs. social services, etc.).

Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:57 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

It may be easier to transition into a role with a consulting firm in this space than into an internal, client-side position.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:20 AM on April 2, 2014

I made this transition (not from entertaining but from corporate training) a long time ago now.

A few things:

- be aware that you will take a HUGE pay cut. Honestly, the pay disparity between where my career would have been had I stayed in the corporate world and where I am now (a director level position and an office with a door) is huge, and not a day goes by that I don't think about that.

- becoming a member of a nonprofit board would probably be your best approach to just putting your toe in the water. Find a small NPO who explicitly uses their board as networking fundraisers, and use your connections to help them raise money. Then, if you don't find it too awful, spin that experience into a job.

- I would avoid grantwriting, for a slew of reasons I won't get into here.

- From your description, it sounds like a 'major gifts officer' or 'portfolio manager' or similar would be a good fit for you: these are people who specialize in soliciting large gifts from specific individuals, and they do it by cultivating relationships with those individuals over months and years.

- I have never met a fundraising professional who would consider someone based on classes alone. It's experience that walks and talks - being able to come in and say "I raised $xx,xxx for my program" is what will get you a paying job.

My best advice would be to stick with your current job, find a small NPO in a field that interests you, and see if they need folks to be on their board. Raise money for them, help with events, and learn all you can from their development staff. If, after a funding cycle or two, you still think it's fun, then make the jump to a full time job. Best of luck to you.
posted by anastasiav at 9:05 AM on April 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I will add that pretty much every state has a state association of nonprofits, who can help you find a board to volunteer for and will also often provide training and networking ideas.

If you contact your state association and say "hey, I have a lot of experience that could help a nonprofit court corporations and high-net worth givers, can you connect me with a board for an NPO doing x, y, or z thing" they'll be ecstatic to help you make some connections.

Also, fundraising isn't just traditional NPOs. Schools -- particularly small private schools -- need a lot of fundraising help and are very open to people stepping up to help. A decent number of the best fundraisers I know got their start working with a local PTO or Community Organization supporting a school.
posted by anastasiav at 9:18 AM on April 2, 2014

One way to think about this is that in the nonprofit world, there are two sides to fundraising/development: there's major donor and foundation work and there's smaller-donor/membership work. The major donor/foundation stuff is more like sales: researching leads, cultivating them, making your pitch. The smaller donor/membership work is more like marketing: direct mail, social media, email.

If you have experience with marketing, I think you'll have an easier time transitioning into the membership side of fundraising, as many of the skills are transferable. It'll still take some crafting of your resume, but I bet you could make the case.

Whether or not you do that, though, I would still echo others' advice that you get on the board of a local nonprofit with the explicit intention to learn more about fundraising. Boards really struggle to find members who are serious about fundraising, so I'm sure this will be no problem. That said, try to join the board of an organization that is relatively functional and is already doing a good job with fundraising, because then you'll be able to learn a lot from them.

Some cities/states actually have programs to recruit, cultivate and train young board members, usually sponsored by nonprofit councils or leadership forums - if your city/state has a program like this, go for it.

As for the certificate program, I think it can't hurt and you will probably learn some good skills but agree with those above who said that hiring managers won't really care about it. It might be good for networking though, especially if the professors are well-connected and willing to help you out.
posted by lunasol at 3:13 PM on April 2, 2014

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