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Designing Your Development Path

So, you want to work in advancement.

Generally speaking, there are several paths one can take within the fundraising profession. And contrary to popular belief, not all development roles require making an “ask.”

1. Individual fundraising: You will typically work with high- and ultra-high net worth donors. This track includes Major, Principal, and Planned Giving. It can also include leadership gifts toward the annual fund.

2. Corporate and Foundation relations. In addition to establishing and maintaining relationships with corporate and foundation prospects, you will likely also develop grant proposals. This track sometimes includes soliciting government grants and may also be called “institutional giving.”

3. Within education, Alumni Relations: You will be responsible for a number of activities to engage all alumni in the life of their alma mater. You will be charged with developing and managing programs focused on increasing the depth and diversity of the relationships within an institution, often including making annual fund asks and engaging volunteer alumni leadership.

4. Advancement or Development Services: This area is focused on donor communications, prospect research, stewardship, and other back-end operations such as “moves management” and gift processing.

5. Annual giving: This highly varied role is increasingly becoming encompassed within the responsibilities of a marketing team. However, in many instances, this role focuses on working with an established donor pool, soliciting new donors, managing fundraising volunteers, and developing special reports and analyses illustrating contribution trends.

When you enter the fundraising profession, carefully consider which area or “track” aligns with your interests and personality. An unwritten rule of fundraising is that once you’re in a “track,” it is hard to shift gears over time. While it’s easy to transition early in your career, a mid- or late-career shift is unlikely unless you purposely position yourself as a generalist.

Why might this be? Because once you are a mid-level professional, you are expected to walk into a frontline fundraising job with the necessary skill set to meet fiscal goals. Few nonprofits are willing to pause fundraising and miss target goals due to a career transition.

How do you pick a track based on your personality and motivations regarding work? This is not as simple as thinking, “I’m an introvert; therefore, I should be in the back-end operations.” Plenty of introverts are wildly successful as frontline fundraisers. The better questions, perhaps, are these:

  1. Do I have an interest in sales? Note: Most fundraisers will balk at this notion, but from a personality viewpoint, the characteristics of successful salespeople remain true for frontline fundraisers.
  2. Am I more comfortable asking for money in a fully transparent setting where the rules are laid out, or am I more of a risk-taker?
  3. Do I prefer to work with people, or do I prefer technology-driven roles?
  4. Do I prefer to write or present?

These four simple questions can start you down the path of figuring out where you belong. Here’s how:

  1. If you have an interest in sales and are comfortable asking for money: you are likely suited for frontline fundraising, be it in individual or corporate/foundation areas. For those who aspire to be a Vice President of Development, beginning your career focused on individual giving is ideal.
  2. If you would prefer to manage relationships: alumni relations, stewardship, or operations might be more attractive for you, where you help lead the frontline team’s activities and support overall donor relationships.
  3. If you’re more technology-driven than people-focused: back-end operations and the annual fund might be more attractive based on your inclinations.
  4. If you’re a talented writer or researcher and that’s your passion: consider grants, donor communications, or prospect research.

Jennifer Harris, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President at Graham-Pelton and Lindsay Morlock is Graham-Pelton’s Chief Operating Officer.

Other parts of the series:

Part One: An Intentional Introduction to Fundraising

Part Three: Helping Your Team Grow Toward Goals.