Beginning a Career in Non-Profit Fund-Raising

“How Do I Get Started In Fund-Raising?” This question has been posed to me countless times in my nearly thirty-year career as a development professional. And, it is a query I now observe scores of times via the various internet non-profit-related News Groups. If this is a question you have been asking, I’ll try in this article to direct you to travel several avenues toward your objective of beginning a career in the non-profit fund-raising profession.

The business of fund-raising quite often overwhelms and discourages individuals who wish to enter the profession.

  1. You are told that fund-raising is impossible and that the process is a mystery.
  2. When seeking your first-time development position, you read help-wanted ads for development officers which usually lists as a condition of employment, “must have a successful history of managing a major annual campaign or soliciting large donations.”

These can be formidable obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. Take heart that fund-raising, being simple in design and concept, (but very hard work!) can be readily and quickly learned. And, you do not need years of experience to be good at fund-raising. All you need is the chance!

Development jobs are available in great profusion because good and experienced development officers are hard to find. One reason for this may be that there is no broad formal training ground for development officers. However, you do have at hand the means to gain an understanding of the process of fund-raising. And, you can take advantage of the opportunities to enter the field through the process of apprenticeships in organizations where you can learn from the competent and experienced development professionals at work there.

Ways To Gain An Understanding

Of The Process Of Fund-Raising

  • Attend “for-the-profession” events. (See if your local universities, local chapters of national charities, etc., are presenting workshops, seminars and annual conferences.)
  • Read books and articles on the subject. (Start with your local Library.)
  • Be an observer and an active participant in the many internet News Groups. (As well, take advantage of the wealth of other fund-raising instruction and information available through a multitude of non-profit service websites.)
  • Join a professional service group. (Is there a National Society of Fund Raising Executives chapter near you?)
  • Volunteer your services to a non-profit organization. (You’ll see first-hand how such organizations function overall, and how fund-raising is conducted.)
  • Attend classes in non-profit management as presented by colleges, universities and business schools in your area.
  • “Network” with development professionals. (Such an encounter many years ago with someone who took the time to explain fund-raising to a then-General Electric employee marketing light bulbs, made it directly possible for me to be later invited for a development interview with The Cleveland Orchestra.)

Learn From The Best

Through Apprenticeship Positions In Non-Profits

I believe the best way for you to get a better understanding of what development is all about in record time, and for you to be in the “network,” is to receive personal briefings by experienced development professionals. What I know about skilled, experienced, competent and secure development officers, is that they almost always are willing to share their knowledge and are especially supportive of individuals who are eager to get into the fund-raising profession. One of my special joys over 20 years as Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra was to talk to aspiring development candidates at every opportunity. All of my colleagues in our community felt the same way and acted accordingly.

I suggest that you select about five of the largest non-profit organizations in your area. Identify their chief development officers. Send letters to them asking for visits so that you can receive their briefings regarding the general nature of fund-raising as they know it. Tell them that you know they are highly thought of in the fund-raising profession and that you desire their wise counsel as you begin your career in development. Do not ask for a job, nor imply that you are contacting them for employment. To do so almost always results in the suggestion that you “send in your resume,” and your chances for personal meetings with them become slim to none.

In each instance, say something such as, “My principal reason for wanting to meet with you is to gain an introductory understanding of fund-raising.” Indicate that you will follow-up your letter with a telephone call to seek a personal meeting with them at their convenience. Cite a time period you will make the call, and be sure to honor that promise.

Note: You will make the best possible impression on your development officer “prospects” if you place your “solicitations” of those persons in the same context in which they identify, contact, cultivate, solicit and steward the major prospects and donors to their respective organizations. Your process to seek “gifts” of counsel and expertise from those development professionals is exactly the same as the fund-development process they know so well—and they will certainly will be cognizant of such insight and thoughtfulness on your part.

When you do have your face-to-face meetings arranged, be sure that you are not late (arrive 15 minutes early) for the appointments. Your dress and manner should be exactly in line with what you would imagine those development officers would want from you should you someday be working for them and be in contact with their major donors, prospects and volunteers.

Make the meetings listening experiences—for you! After all, you are there to learn from them. Maintain eye contact as much as possible and, for certain, take notes. Do not sit across from those advice-giving professionals without your pen and paper in front of you being actively utilized.

What questions do you ask? Queries related to the respective organization’s vision, budget, fund-raising results and requirements, volunteer organization and staff resources, are quite in order and will help to give to you a concise assessment of the organization’s overall picture. Knowing and appreciating the organization’s mission—sincerely and in advance—will be most helpful to you.

Over the duration of each interview, be sure you do not ask for, or about, a job. Keep to your original promise and stay on the course of strictly seeking information and counsel. If there is a job opportunity for you then, or later, or should they know of colleagues who could be interested in your services, they’ll know what to do about it. Bring your resume’ to the meeting, but present it only at the end of the session.

Ask your host if they would suggest a development officer colleague of theirs whom you could next contact to seek an appointment. As well, ask if they would be willing to be named as a reference. Then too, if your interview went well, your host might even send a note to that person with his or her suggestion that they interview you.

When you return home or to your workplace from any of your meetings, be sure to send short and appreciative messages to those development officers for their thoughtful contributions to you of their time and expertise. You will then be demonstrating to them that you understand one of the most important aspects of fund-raising; the sincere expression of appreciation and regard for the gifts of others! It will make the very best sort of impression and you will be remembered—hopefully soon, so you can be on your way to an exciting and fulfilling new career in fund-raising.

Those are my views on the subject. What are yours? I welcome your comments and suggestions.

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  1. Hi Tony:

    Currently I am on a trip for a few months in Nepal, and later Himalayan India (yes, one has the opportunity for live on less in these countries).

    My pupose of being here is to explore and gather information on potential projects in the future, and coming along side existing ngo's that might need some support.  This info gathering has come through various means including many sit down talks over tea, and shooting a lot of video.

    I have read quite a few articles off of your website, and do have a question for you.  Would you have any suggestions on fund raising for efforts for around the other side of the world?

    Let me share what I perceive as a hurdle.  What do you think of when you hear of the country Nepal?  Maybe first on the list is Mt. Everest, then the word Kathmandu………..and for most people in the states the knowledge level stops right there.

    You might have a much greater knowledge of the land.  But realistically most in the states do not.

    Your thoughts would be certainly appreciated.


    • Hello Jim,
      Sorry for the delay. We are moving in about five weeks to a newly built facility in a nearby retirement community. Our suite will be ready in the early days of August.

      I thought of putting an "Out Of Office" notice for those contacting me, but held back thinking that between packing, the closing process, and other activities, that I could keep up and not miss responding to good folks like you in time.

      My fund-raising experience has, for the most part, dealt with community organizations whose support bases were just there, in their own communities. When it comes to world-wide funding prospects, that is another, and very elusive, story.

      I do respond as best I can when, for example, a dedicated humanitarian running a charity in Africa asks me where funds can be obtained from distant benefactors. Other than international foundations which the grant seeker can research, the best I can usually do is to have them see what aid or assistance they can get from foreign consulates and embassies—including asking about USAid.

      And, of course, if the money sought can be found with affiliation with international humanitarian groups, and international religious organizations. Sounds as if looking for money in space, but that is about all one can suggest from this literal and figurative distance.

      The work you are doing amazing and exemplary. Truly unique, so much so, that surely, an international granting foundations should find the project worthy.

      Alas, I am not of any real help. As you know from my website, I strive to teach the fund-raising process, and show how it can be applied in all fund-raising situations. However, when it comes to prospects to fund certain organizations, they always must start within where the operate, then move out according to the resources available to them, especially those whom they recruit to help having influence and some affluence.

      I wish you well—sincerely.

    • Jim

      I am assuming that you either are looking for ways to do good work within Nepal using your own funds or thinking about trying to raise money for that purpose. My recommendation is to work within an existing organization. It will already have developed ways or working within the constraints of the culture and for acheiving cooperation with national and local government. Nepal can be a particularlly hard area in which to work, and a number of organizations withdrew their personnel and support during the civil war.

      I speak from some experience having worked for Heifer International in the mid 2000s. Heifer has had a very successful operation in Nepal. Follow this link to learn about Heifer's Nepal activities, for a list of Heifer's international partnering organizations, and for a list of its local implementation partners.

      Start with that info and you should be able to do a lot of research on the Web.

      I can wholeheartedly recommend Heifer as a great organization to work with and through.

  2. Tyrone: I like your attitude and enthusiasm. But, you correctly identified the one, major, hurdle to overcome: lack of experience.

    You not only know that reality, but I would hope that from the reading of my article above, you know what to do to enter the profession, then to gain the experience.

    Having development managers recommend you, is certainly a very good thing. But the course of such interviews would follow the path described in the article. It will do little to no good to have those development managers get you into the door of non-profits, only to be told that you lack experience.

    Use the method to the letter which I describe in the article. You must have the opportunity, as an entry-level person, to work for a boss/mentor in the ways laid out for you.

    Surely, either now, or sometime soon, the very same development managers who are willing to recommend you to other organizations, could themselves have a position just right for you, working for them, where you gain the necessary experience.

    Read again the above article, and begin the process exactly in the way described. It works. It usually is the only way. Best wishes for success.

  3. I am a fifty four year old who has been a loaned labor leader for my state’s charitable campaign for four of the last five years. One of my major responsibilities has been to coordinate speakers for each fundraising event and follow up with a presentation of my own following. There has been a consensus that I take the next step as I am considered a natural at development and it is something that I LOVE to do. Unfortunately I do not possess the prerequisite degree and experience although I have development managers willing to recommend me once I find a company I would desire to work for. Is there any advice you can give to help?

  4. Carrie: It surely is a good beginning.
    Add to those qualities; common sense, hard work, preparation, courtesy, commitment, understanding—and a large dose of the most positive temperament possible.
    What is missing? The dreaded word: Experience.
    The article above, which you read, in my opinion, and from significant experience, has the pointers to what I believe is the best way to enter the profession. Do read it again, and follow exactly the guidelines.
    Plus, take a reading of another of my articles which will give you an even better understanding of the role a successful development professional plays in any non-profit organization:
    — A Development Director Needs More Than A “Smile And A Shoeshine,” But It’s A Good Start
    While you are at it, read the several other development-director-related articles you will find in the last section of the Table of Contents of all the articles posted on this website. Scroll all of the way down to the section, “Developing The Development Team:
    I hope you do have a chance to start toward a position in this wonderful profession. Your passion, and wanting to make a difference, should have you steps ahead on that path.

  5. I have been told numours times that I should do this for /a living I have a passion and want to make a difference…is that enough ??

  6. Dee: There is no need at all for you to go to college to get a degree or certification for non-profit fund-raising. It will not hurt, but it will not do much good either, relative to the time, effort, and expense you would expend. Even then, the chances are low to none you will find a job by merely having a certificate in hand.

    You already know that the dreaded word, “experience,” presents the challenge and quandary for good folks such as you to get a start, though you have some impressive background in the non-profit world.

    You read my article above. But, have you followed the suggestions, exactly as I stated them? You should. That approach will work better than directly seeking interviews for a job, no matter how promising, when you know the outcome will be dictated by the lack of experience factor. Read again the article, and follow it to the letter.

    I do not know the extent of the results you have thus far as they relate to “semantics,” but I can tell you with assurance that the right use of the right words during meetings and interviews could help to make the day. See what I mean when you read my article:

    — Sales Professional to Development Professional: A Workable Transition

    Best of all good luck. Do keep us posted to how you are doing in your job search, and let us know if we can advise further.

  7. How would you propose someone who is in their mid-forties get into the field of development without having to return to college? I have a graduate degree and tons of volunteer experience in fund raising, event organizing, grant writing and corportate relations. I have been seeking employment in this field for the last few months.

    I have actually earned a few great interview opportunities, but in the end, the organizations appear to be searching for individuals who have already been gainfully employed for five years in this field. I am re-entering the work force after an 8 year hiatus of sorts while raising my children. How do I turn my other related work, both paid and unpaid into a job? I am wondering if some of the issues might be semantics.

    Thanks for your input.

  8. Hello Caroline: No, it is not at all necessary to have some, or any, background in fund-raising when seeking the type of interview I suggest in my article. The great majority of such visitors I had over many years introduced themselves as simply wanting to gain an introductory understanding of fund-raising, as they were intrigued by the profession while they were working in many diverse other occupations.

    Just say that, and say as well you are seeking such information from that individual whom you have heard is a recognized authority on non-profit fund-raising. A little sincere flattery will go a long way.

    Just follow the suggestions in the article and keep to the promise that it is not an overt job-seeking exercise.

  9. Ali: My additional comments to Dave’s good counsel, takes the course to being sure that no matter your shifting of studies leading to non-profit management, that you make certain your teachers know and teach the concepts of non-profit fund-raising in depth.

    I know of far too many non-profit management programs which omit fund-raising in the curriculum, or they allow a student to choose whether or not she or he will want to know what fund-raising is all about. To have such a critically important component of non-profit management be regarded in that way is big mistake, in my opinion.

    What new Executive Director, on the job’s first day, would not want to know what the Development Department she or he is to be responsible for is all about? And far too many new Executive Directors find themselves to be “The” Development Department. They must know what comprises the fund-raising process before they walk through an organization’s door for the first time. Many don’t.

    It’s a certainty that an aspiring non-profit manager would learn in any curriculum how to develop a mission statement and how that document is the basis of a long-range strategic plan, complete with understanding budgets, forecasts, programmatic development and the like. All of that knowledge gained through the school’s curriculum most often leads to the need to address an operational deficit, and that is accomplished by knowing how to develop and implement a fund-raising plan. Unfortunately, that’s where a great deal of the teaching stops short.

    A non-profit management program which gives short-shrift to the teaching of the fund-raising process, is a non-profit management program which will have its graduates fall far short of obtaining the full scope of management knowledge they need in order to succeed.

  10. Thanks for the great advice :)

    I think I will probably be switching my major to a double major in marketing and international development and then get the certificate my school offers in nonprofit management.

  11. Great article.

    What do you suggest an undergraduate student do in preparation for a job like this? Are there any particular majors that you would suggest? I’m currently an international studies major with an emphasis on human rights.

    • Ali,

      Tony is away on vacation until the end of March. I’m sure he will weigh in on your question when he gets back, but in the meantime–a few of my thoughts. The first thint that comes to mind is whether your area of interest is in the subject matter of a certain area of nonprofits, or in the managing of fundraising operations for nonprofit organizations. If the former, then by all means start with the subject matter that interests you. If history, study history. If art, study art history. You get the idea. Then also look for what is outlined below.

      If the latter, first see if your school has a nonprofit management degree or concentration. If not and to supplement that anyway, I suggest marketing and other business courses, communications, Internet and Web related studies, and most important of all–getting involved with a nonprofit as a volunteer NOW. You can gain a lot of hands on experience quickly by finding a nonprofit in your area that interests you, contacting the development department, and offering to volunteer. Be eager to do anything and everything from getting the coffee to sorting files. Be the “I’ll-do-it” person. You’ll get the opportunity to interact with the pros in the department and learn how they do their work. Take the attitude that you will do whatever is asked of you or needs doing, and you will be surprised by the opportunities that arise to do more substantive work. If you spend a year or two as a volunteer, you will acquire valuable experience that will give you a resume that other contemporary grads will not have. And who knows, the organization might even offer you a job. I’ve seen it happen before.

  12. Dear Mr.Poderis,

    My name is Caroline Ondego. I was involved with a community development non-profit in Kenya.

    I read your article on “Beginning a career in non-profit fund raising” with much interest. It answered a lot of questions I had such as how to begin, where to begin, and how to make contact with established non-profit organizations, especially since my experience with fundraising is currently still extremely limited.

    The one further question I had as I read your article was; is it important to have some background in fundraising in-order to have a development officer agree to meet with me? Because I honestly do not have any and I’m just beginning my career after a 6 years of not being professionally employed.

    How do I introduce my lack of any form of experience in fund raising without putting my prospective development officers off?

    Thank you again for such an informative article.



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