What's it like to work in fundraising?
February 15, 2016 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a piece of fiction and have a character who works in fundraising for a big nonprofit. Is there anything I can read to find out what this sort of work is like?

Here's what I know so far about the character: she makes a decent-or-better living doing fundraising for a large nonprofit or charity group that funds social justice or cultural activities (I'm not sure which yet). I need to be able to write about what this person's day-to-day life on the job is like. I know that working in development involves wooing donors and such, but that's about it. Are there books or essays I can read about this kind of work? I bet something geared toward a job-seeker in the field would be useful, and a personal essay or memoir about working in development would probably be a goldmine.

posted by toomuchkatherine to Work & Money (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Fundraising, especially for a large not-for-profit, has many facets and specialized roles. Does your character schmooze with large donors? Does your character write big-dollar grant proposals? Does your character devise donation programs that aggregate large numbers of nationwide small-dollar donations? Does your character "merely" market those programs?

When I chaired a not-for-profit, I read Nonprofits for Dummies. It was eye-opening. You may find it helpful as well.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:05 PM on February 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, I want her to schmooze with large donors. There are many x factors, but that's one thing I definitely want her to do.

I will get Nonprofits for Dummies, thanks.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 12:07 PM on February 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

To help with your search: the term of art for the kind of nonprofit fundraising you are referring to is "major gifts." A person like your character in that kind of organization would be a "major gifts officer" or a "development officer" with a major gifts portfolio, or perhaps even the "director of development," responsible for fundraising writ large but delegating the annual fund (small dollar fundraising) and institutional giving (foundations and corporations) to subordinates but keeping a major gifts portfolio for herself.

I wish I could relay more about the day to day life of major gift fundraising, but I work on the institutional side.
posted by AndrewInDC at 12:32 PM on February 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I did this as well. When you say "schmooze with large donors" there are a lot of different ways this can happen, in my experience.

For some organizations, there are boards with influential donors. Many times the staff at the local office will run or participate in meetings with that board or committee.

Sometimes there are large, annual (or bi-annual) events that large donors attend. This could be an invitation sent out with minimal contact, or a lot of personalized connections to get them to attend and spend money.

Sometimes the influential people work on bringing in their network so even more influential people attend events. There is always schmoozing at events, and usually alcohol (in my experience, the big money folks like to drink and LOVE open bars).

It's been a few years but those are some very basic thoughts. Message me if you have more questions or want more detail.
posted by glaucon at 12:50 PM on February 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is actually pretty good for a Major Gift Officer perspective. If you have any specific questions, feel free to memail. I'm not an MGO, but I work in major gift fundraising and interact with dozens of them every day.
posted by JannaK at 1:44 PM on February 15, 2016

I worked in the data-entry area of development for a museum, so while I had a lot of contact with development people, I never really did any myself. I can answer questions in Memail if you like. I dealt with the aftermath of telemarketing and direct mail campaigns, the small anonymous donations such as cash-boxes, and the big donations that were obtained either by chance or by arm-twisting by higher-ups (who would then hang on to checks for days, or misplace them, and wonder why they haven't hit our books yet). I created reports of recorded donation activity (reports seen by the board, so I found myself yanked into the politics of what they now call "optics").

Your character can look forward to the low-level status game that happens in all offices, compounded by the need to shine at meetings, impress coworkers and development peers at nearby or philosophically-adjacent non-profits whom they've met at direct-mail seminars and whatnot. Your character will design mailers, create reports for tracking success, manage her department budget maybe. She will ponder the imponderable after every incremental success or marginal failure: what did I do this time that made it great/fouled it up? She will give away lots of low-cost freebies for events/services/operations performed by her company.

She'll probably mostly work for and with women, mostly married or in LTRs, though the board of directors could be mostly male. She'll be told by people inside and outside that she could make more elsewhere doing the same stuff. She'll remind herself that she supports the mission, and that she loves the flexibility of the workplace, and that's worth the salary discount. And she will get caught up in the same corporate bullshit about office supplies, office theft, office fridge/coffee politics, broken copiers leased from unreachable vendors, the hiring process, the firing process, personal disputes that're over by lunchtime, and personal disputes that are escalated to HR. If she isn't experiencing a layoff, or watching as others are laid off, she probably has unpleasant memories of layoffs during her career, and the dread of facing them again if she fails. She will know who around her is with the mission, and who around her is just trying to keep their job and status.

Some language stuff:
Fundraising goes to two major categories: capital and operating. Capital is for improvements, new buildings, pretty much anything that retains at least some of its worth after you buy it. (Buildings, vehicles, large equipment that isn't computers.) Operating is everything else: office equipment and supplies, salaries, all the day-to-day expenses.

There are a few areas of development:
Annual Fund: the majority of operating costs are going to be funded by small gifts by many supporting donors who are encouraged to give both impulsively as well as regularly.
Major Gifts, which solicits large donations from donors who give mostly for promotional purposes and the money comes from a marketing budget. These are often capital gifts, because if you build something, there's always room to put a plaque, or a donor wall, or engraved floor tiles, on it. This person will get criticized constantly for spending money to make money.

Event Development: Few big, or many little, annual galas/marathons/extravaganzas which is black tie with high ticket prices must be planned all year around-- date planning, two-stage invites (starting with save-the-date cards 6 months in advance), and of course the event itself must be planned to within an inch of its life. This person will be criticized for spending most of what they make (true), and basically hiding their labor costs in other departments as they draft everyone to support the big event (also true).

Sponsorships: Capital stuff, mostly, but any opportunity to raise big gifts for the betterment of the mission at the expense of someone's marketing budget is good. She does not delude herself that the giver is behind the mission as much as wanting to be seen behind the mission. This person will be criticized for selling the institution piece by piece, whoring out the employees who deliver sponsor messages, and comparisons to NASCAR cars and jumpsuits will be made. The highs are few and far between.

Grants: Long and onerous applications getting filled out all the time. Application deadlines minded. Trying to get data and metrics from other people in the organization, which will be easy from those who keep it, and teeth-pulling from those who don't. Trying to calculate the cost of programming. Splitting hairs over which costs are "direct" (program expenses) and "indirect" (overhead). Receiving mail from foundations (some of which are just tax-shelters for the personal giving of wealthy people) that sometimes contain checks, and sometimes contain rejection letters.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:50 PM on February 15, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you want a good insight into nonprofit culture, these are two great blogs. Both deal more with small nonprofits, but there are a lot of things that will go for larger nonprofits as well:

Nonprofit with balls (written by the ED of a social justice non-profit)

When you work at a nonprofit (tumblr gifblog, now defunct, but still great)

she makes a decent-or-better living doing fundraising for a large nonprofit or charity group that funds social justice or cultural activities (I'm not sure which yet)

Two things about this:

1. If her nonprofit funds work (as opposed to doing the work itself), it is most likely a foundation. This is culturally and functionally going to be quite different from working for a grantee organization.

2. If she makes decent-or-better money and is not a senior manager or director, she probably doesn't work for a social justice non-profit, unless it's one of a very small number of national orgs, most likely in DC, NYC, or SF. This may be a bit different if she works for a foundation that is well-funded and gives out a LOT of money.
posted by lunasol at 3:31 PM on February 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

In my braindump above, I kinda conflated Major Gifts with Sponsorships-- there's overlap, but it's not 100%. Really I just lost track of my Major Gifts paragraph. MG's are the kind of big checks that require actual development, hand-holding, reporting, assurances etc. by the Development professional.

The other thing I forgot is Endowment. This is the investment fund that can't be touched by the institution, but they do collect the dividends every month. Endowments are often funded from the estates of donors who want a legacy. At an organization the size where I worked (~250 employees, $12-15M budget), there was no one Endowment-dedicated fundraising person, but the director of development did the normal low-level work on this, and would organize Endowment Campaigns to boost donations (or intended donations). Getting people to put the org in their wills is part of this, and there's some art to patting yourself on the back for obtaining funds that you don't have yet and won't have until something kills your donor. So.

Endowments are also a big source of "Directed Giving" but hardly the exclusive source. Directed giving means "here's a fat check, but you must spend it on programs that serve ______, and may not spend it on _____." They take these directives seriously. However, if the gifts are small, you don't have to sweat it much; if you have Directed Annual Fund giving for Exhibits in the amount of $2000, and you have Exhibits expenses of $500,000, well, you've done all you need to do. But the Endowment directives mean you have to split some portion of your dividends (in proportion to the directed gift's portion of the whole endowment) towards the directive's intent. Sometimes you get more money than you need or anyone wants for a program that the donor cares more about than the staff. Sometimes it's a good idea to refuse directed gifts if they become a white elephant.

Grants are nearly always directed (hence Direct vs. Indirect funds); Sponsorships and Major Gifts are directed by their nature; Annual Fund gifts may be directed but few are large enough to matter; the directed funds just displace undirected funds to whatever else needs money. But the ability to direct their giving can excite donors and a springboard for informing them about where their money goes-- it's a gimmick, but it can pay.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:50 PM on February 15, 2016

To add to Sunburnt: stuff that is not directed (or restricted) is called, I believe, unrestricted. At my NPO everyone is always talking about how important/great it is to get big unrestricted gifts because they count towards the Annual Fund total and can go towards, you know, whatever. :)
posted by Zephyrial at 6:29 PM on February 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

These answers are great!

If she's making decent money, she's going to be at a managerial level, so she may have one or two underlings doing research and initial reaching-out to prospects. They'll probably handle some of the lower-level prospects on their own. While you're right in that she'll spend a lot of time wooing donors, she'll probably also spend a lot of her time managing established relationships with major donors who have already donated significant amounts to the organisation (and often are very difficult to keep happy but it's vital to keep them happy).

She'll often have to facilitate relationships between senior project managers (the people actually doing the work that is receiving funding) and major donors (who fund the work).

Look up the donor journey. Some people dismiss the concept, but it's true that you don't go from not being aware of the organisation to giving them loads of cash in one fell swoop, there are steps along that journey that a fundraiser needs to coax the prospect along until they become a donor. This can cause tension when you're reporting back on your activities. For some reason, senior management never seem to understand why it takes as long as it does for gifts to materialise!

Source: Fundraiser, but never major donor, thank God!
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:48 PM on February 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the correction from Zephyrial. I see I've been out of Development long enough for the details to fade.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:56 AM on February 16, 2016

Sam Lipsyte The Ask. (Fiction.) None of the guidebooks are going to tell you about the dysfunction or how it feels to be obligated to smile and flatter big donors no matter how awful they are
posted by citron at 8:39 PM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for these answers, they are insanely helpful and generous! Sunburnt, I think you may have a novel about all this in you, yourself.

To lunasol's point about foundations that make grants vs. organizations that receive them, that's an interesting and obvious distinction that I hadn't thought through that. Could she be a major gifts officer for a foundation? Or are most big foundations already so well-funded (i.e. with a billionaire's wealth) that they are fully focused on giving money away, not raising it?

Again, everything you've all mentioned is so replete with built-in drama, I'm looking forward to crafting this story even more than I already was. Will definitely get the Sam Lipsyte book and read all the recommended links.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 2:37 PM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

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