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Asking foundation staff for fundraising advise is like asking a grocer how to grow a potato

in WORLD, 23/07/2013

I don’t mean to diminish the vast experience that many program officers have as fundraisers in another capacity. Program officers were often successful fundraisers themselves. Rather, I mean to highlight fundraising as a skill, a profession, and a challenge.

I suspect almost every program officer at a charitable foundation has been asked by someone “can you help us with fundraising ideas.” Anyone working for an organization in need of funding should be investigating any possible source of funds. I generally say (or at least think) ‘good for you for asking.’

Whether a foundation program officer has an answer, or should answer, raises issues about possible unanchored assumptions and expectations. First is the assumption that anyone involved in the field of philanthropy knows about fundraising. With the exception of public foundations, it is uncommon for program officers at foundations have to raise money in order to sustain their own organization. We would not see a program officer for Ford or Kellog, for instance, coming around looking for donations for their endowment.

I don’t mean to diminish the vast experience that many program officers have as fundraisers in another capacity. Program officers were often successful fundraisers themselves. Rather, I mean to highlight fundraising as a skill, a profession, and a challenge. Fundraisers are the people who face sleepless nights if their task is not completed well. Fundraisers provide donors with an opportunity to support work that donors can not do themselves. Fundraisers help mobilize individuals who want to become involved in a movement as stakeholders. Seeking support for good work is an utterly worthy activity.

Fundraising is also a profession. Professional associations in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere offer certifications, as do many Universities from Rhodes in South Africa to NYU. Holding a certificate in fundraising (or medicine or accounting) does not mean a person is a good fundraiser (or doctor or accountant). But it does mean they have had training in the latest practices in fundraising, the relevant legal standards, and methods and technologies.

Most importantly, these certificates indicate that the person has had training in the ethics of fundraising. International standards of ethics have been adopted globally, governing transparency of fundraising activities, fair compensation, and governance. The Donors Bill of Rights, also adopted globally by fundraising associations and organizations that fundraise, preserves a donors ability to know whether someone who is fundraising for an organization has a potential financial interest, to know who is on the board, and to know the financial and legal status of the group’s activities. The existence of such standards indicate that fundraising is more than a task, it is a profession. Those without such certification may be familiar with ethical standards as well, but obtaining a certificate is not possible without some study of professional ethics.

The distinction between fundraising from individuals and fundraising from foundations also deserves attention. Asking an individual to contribute from their own personal livelihood involves a different set of considerations and obligations than asking an institution with paid program staff. Any discussion which does not explicitly recognize this different risks confusing and violating good principles and best practices.

Asking foundation staff for fundraising advice is like asking a grocer how to grow a potato.The better questions for a foundation program officer is “do you have any experience fundraising?” and “do you know what other organizations like mine do to raise funds?” and go from there. Many program officers, like me, used to be fundraisers. I used to fundraise for the the organization that I ran, and have also fundraised a bit for political candidates and other groups. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could currently legitimately call myself a fundraiser, though I do have knowledge of what kind of fundraising is happening in fields in which I work.

Thoughtful foundation program staff, when asked these questions, will know when they can offer advice and when they have no answer. But above all, everyone should recognize that fundraising advice should be given and taken in the context of professional standards in the field.

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