I was an accidental fundraiser.
There wasn’t a grand plan in place. It’s just that once I left one terrific regional theater, I wanted to work in another. And I felt the one area I hadn’t gotten a good look at was fundraising.
I thought I’d have some time to consider options. But it didn’t quite happen that way and I needed to find a job, stat.
So it was lucky that an entry-level position opened at a theater in my area. Lucky and maybe not quite so lucky.
I was a fundraising newbie, but I’d had more than three years of management and customer service experience. In my previous position, I managed a staff of 25 and had responsibility for more than 3 million in sales income each year.
But I jumped at the job and the low salary offer without even negotiating.
Don’t get me wrong: all in all the next 12 years were a wonderful experience. (Stressful, trying, maddening – but wonderful, too.)
But over and over, I neglected my own development.
I downplayed my own skills. And it hurt me. It also hurt the organization, I think.
Last year around this time, I was inspired by a graduation ceremony to offer some advice for young fundraisers. I felt upbeat, optimistic. Graduations do that to a person.
But looking back, I think I missed something. So here’s my message to that much-younger me:
You need confidence. Or you need to fake it until you make it.
I don’t mean arrogance – though I’ve seen plenty of arrogant and less-than-talented people do very well over the years.
I don’t mean brashness – that’s not my style.
But if I had known to stand up for myself right from the start, what might have been different?
I might have:
- Negotiated for more money
- Calmly stuck to my schedule
- Felt unapologetic about my own priorities.
Negotiated for more money
It’s not all about the money. But often, the money is also shorthand for respect.
Women make up the majority of nonprofit fundraisers. Yet, we’re paid less than our male colleagues. Are we not worth it? And if we accept less, what message does that send?
Stuck to my schedule
Yes, I know our sector is famous for expecting 24/7 commitment. But it’s killing us.
And it seems long hours end up making us less efficient, anyway. You lose focus. You get frazzled and tired and make poor decisions.
In the bigger picture, overwork doesn’t force the decision-makers – staff leadership, board members, donors, and funders – to see that investing in nonprofit staff is critical. It’s the smartest investment they can make. Your self-sacrifice is noble. But in the long run, it’s not helping your organization stay or become strong.
I did insist on earlier hours – because my daycare provider insisted on it. But I paid for it – in guilt, in accusations that I wasn’t dedicated, in standing with my peers. No one saw me in the office at 7:30 am. They just noticed I was leaving at 4:30. Slacker!
Valued my own priorities
I was able to take maternity leave with my second child. And that’s because, after my first, I returned to work. I was the first woman not to leave the organization after having a child. The board realized they needed a policy in place. So, yay me.
But I gave up a great deal of ground when I became a mother.
While most board members and donors were supportive, that didn’t always extend to staff leadership or colleagues. I wish I’d been more confident about my own value. Prioritizing a family doesn’t make you a less valuable employee.
What would have happened if I’d cleared a wider path?
What might have changed for those following me if I’d made a stronger stand?
So younger me, believe in yourself and your value. Worry less about measuring up to standards that don’t help you, your colleagues or your fundraising results.
And when, like me, you’re faking it until you make it, channel Tess from Working Girl:
I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up, OK?