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Becoming a Pro

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

My first 7 years as a fundraiser were a professional development wasteland. Everything I learned was unintentional, unguided, and failure-produced. Don’t get me wrong. I was driven to succeed. I cared about the causes we served. I even have had some raw talent to get by. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I was unconsciously incompetent and learned everything in the rear view mirror.

The stats suggest I’m not alone. 38% of fundraisers have little to no experience making a direct philanthropic ask. 40% of all fundraisers expect to leave the profession within two years.

Becoming an elite fundraiser requires an effort that few people sign up for when they take a role in the social sector. The work is hard and the burden feels heavy. How do we learn to develop authentic donor relationships? To what efforts do we focus our time? What does a good fundraising day look like? How do achieve big revenue goals?

I’ve met thousands of executive directors and fundraisers.

The defining attribute of elite practitioners is that they faithfully pursue both vocational conviction and technical excellence.

It’s the marriage of the two that produces deep, abiding satisfaction in our work and result in the generosity our institutions require.

Vocational conviction + technical excellence = elite leadership. Ready to start?

Like so many of us, it’s easy to start with your job without looking at deeper questions. But culture-changing professionals should be able to connect who we are with the intrinsic value of our work in ways that excite us.

After years of wandering through work, I was fortunate to be guided through a clarifying vocational conversation. I came to understand my vocation as two-fold: I am effective at and enjoy pointing others to stories beyond themselves; and threaded through most of my conversations is an urge to challenge others to action.

What occupation expresses these vocational themes? I could have been a guidance counselor, therapist, clergy, etc. I chose to be a professional fundraiser.

My job? Chief Development Officer at Morris Animal Foundation (one of several jobs).

While I believe that vocational conviction best comes first, it alone is not a silver bullet. You are not suddenly good at fundraising just because you care. The next step is to commit to the long journey of mastery. My recommended path:

  • Decide on 1-3 skillsets or mindsets critical to your occupation that you wish to develop in the next year.

  • Select a quality, focused learning experience per quarter.

  • Find your tribe. Connect with a group of leaders who, despite maybe differing specialties and organizations, are striving for professional mastery. Spend time with them virtually or otherwise.

  • Follow someone else that is ahead of you on the journey. Become a disciple and do what they do.

Professional development can so often be a marginal, rushed type of experience. For many leaders, it’s even a non-experience. Be different.

Leaders who take responsibility for their learning refuse to defer it to someone else and dedicate themselves to growth. Pursue the path that few have the courage to walk: the faithful pursuit of meaningful work you can’t avoid.

Are you looking to become a pro? Learn how we can help you.

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