The fundraising staffing crisis

Ask any head of fundraising what their biggest challenges are and it’s a pretty good bet that first or second on their list will be the ability to recruit or retain the right people. Good fundraisers are at an absolute premium and a huge number of non-profits are failing to deliver their missions as effectively as they could because they can’t get the right fundraising staff. Even if you can find someone with the right combination of skills, experience and enthusiasm, keeping them in an environment where everyone else is desperately recruiting too is very difficult.

So we have fundraising strategies not being delivered because the staff aren’t in place. There are too many non-profits where the fundraisers lack the expertise to be successful. We have junior and mid level fundraisers changing jobs every 18 months on average which, if you think that it probably takes a minimum of 6 months for someone to become really effective in their role, makes no sense. It’s even worse for roles which are relationship based. How can you have a viable major gifts programme if your development staff changeover every year and a half?

But then we have lots and lots of bright and capable young people coming out of our universities who want nothing more than to work for non-profits. But it is quite exceptionally difficult for them to find openings in our sector. I’ll state an interest here, as a father and uncle of young folk who are entering or are about to enter the job market. These (obviously extraordinarily bright and talented) young men and women who have plenty of parental support haven’t found it all easy to identify suitable opportunities. There are very few graduate opportunities in our sector and the quality of those that exist are wildly variable. Sadly, there are non-profit organisations who are truly terrible employers and if your first job is with one of these that could well put you off the whole sector.

At least the recent graduates in my family know that a charity career is a possible route for them to take. Most people don’t. It’s no secret that fundraisers in the UK are overwhelmingly middle class and white. It’s very striking in charities in London, one of the most multi-cultural places on earth, that the fundraising teams are usually the least diverse parts of the organisation. It’s an interesting question why this is the case but my view is that only a small, relatively privileged minority are aware of fundraising as a career. And then we all mostly recruit our fundraisers from the existing pool.

I don’t think the word “crisis” is too strong to describe the current availability of fundraising talent in the UK. And I know the situation can be even worse in other countries. So what are we all doing about it?

I think collectively, we need to have much more focus on attracting people into fundraising. It’s a really good career. Yes, there are too many rubbish jobs in badly run organisations. But there are lots of really great charities doing inspiring things full of enthusiastic and motivated people. It’s not a path to riches but it’s very possible to earn a reasonable wage doing interesting work which makes a difference in the world. Lots of people would love to work in such an environment. We need to make it easier for them to do so.

So here’s a few things we could all do to radically change the way we recruit to our profession

Take responsibility

Most importantly, we need to all take responsibility for ensuring that there are enough of the right people entering our profession. We all understand collective good, right? So that means we need to allocate some budget and time to the long term development of fundraising as a profession. We can’t leave this to our sector bodies or other charities. We all need to do something.

More graduate schemes

Only a very few of the biggest charities have formal graduate schemes and not all that do include fundraising. We could do more here. All big fundraising charities should have a graduate scheme and we should put pressure on the ones that don’t to start one. For medium sized charities, one idea is to have joint graduate schemes where they would share the costs and the graduates would get experience working in two or three charities. The schemes need to be properly resourced with the graduates given good quality, wide ranging training across fundraising disciplines (and other areas too).

More entry level roles

Smaller charities might not be able to afford the costs of a graduate programme. But there’s no reason why every fundraising team can’t have at least one entry level job. With a reasonable level of on the job training plus some external courses, you can grow your own fundraisers. It is better for the charity as your recruitment pool will be much wider if you don’t insist on previous experience and you can get really talented and motivated candidates.

End to unpaid internships

Internships are of course a way for people to gain experience of the charity sector. But this is wide open to abuse. Unless there is a proper, structured and resourced training programme for interns, this is likely just to be unpaid labour. And only people from affluent backgrounds will be able to afford to work for free. So have volunteer opportunities by all means but don’t call them internships and have proper paid graduate entry jobs, widely advertised and open to all.

Tailored training courses

There’s a small number of courses which train people entering the fundraising profession. They aren’t easy to find and they can be expensive. We need more courses which offer a combination of classroom teaching with work placements. We need bursaries for less well off students.

Link up with universities.

Every charity can link up with its local universities and colleges to connect with current students and graduates. There will be relevant courses with students looking for projects and work experience. There are starting to be specific fundraising courses and degrees such as Chichester University’s We can do talks to students to spread the word about fundraising. As a sector we should link up much better with university careers services to spread the word about entry level opportunities and fundraising as a profession.

Employ face to face fundraisers

The largest number of people working in fundraising, asking for money day in and day out, are the recruiters working for the face to face agencies. An increasing number of people whose first work experience was on the streets or doorsteps are becoming salaried charity fundraisers and they are probably our single most promising source of recruits. But are we doing enough to connect with our face to face recruiters?  Or the callers in the fundraising telemarketing agencies? Are we encouraging them to apply for our vacancies? Do they know that they can work for the charities directly?

Promote fundraising as a career

Something our Institute of Fundraising, other sector bodies and major fundraising charities can do much more of is to more widely spread the word about fundraising as a career. Particularly using digital and social media which is where young people are. There’s starting to be more of this happening but I think still much more to do

So, overall there’s loads we can do to really improve the staffing situation that we all complain of. But the key is that we all do it. This isn’t someone else’s responsibility. It’s ours.


2 thoughts on “The fundraising staffing crisis

  1. I’ve just been reading ‘Good to Great’, which has some really interesting thoughts on the recruitment process. Companies which make the time to find the ‘perfect’ employees for their positions tend to end up having a lower churn rate and get better overall results.

    Unfortunately, time pressures and the desire to ensure some small period of handoff and crossover means that employers are encouraged to settle for some who is merely ‘good enough’ rather than ‘great’ – which can result in the employee becoming discouraged over time, leaving and continuing the process ad nauseam…

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