Why I left fundraising

I often hear and read that people just “fall into” fundraising and they don’t choose to be a fundraiser. That wasn’t the case for me. I chose fundraising as my career in my junior year of college.

As a Theatre Management major, I was required to do a sequence of four courses, each focused on a different area of nonprofit management: fundraising, marketing, accounting, etc. The fundraising class was my absolute favorite. Our final assignment was to write a grant proposal on behalf of a small Chicago theatre. (I actually just went and pulled it out of my virtual archives and it’s not terrible!) When my professor told me that if I was a fundraiser, I would never be without a job, I was sold.

So I became a fundraiser at the tender age of 20. In college, I did four internships and tried desperately to do as much prospect research, grant writing, and event planning as I could. My goal was to be a director of development someday. My natural inclination was to work in corporate, foundation, and government relations because they tended to be research and writing-heavy and I’m a quiet solo worker at heart, but I forced myself to learn more about individual giving and annual fund and working directly with donors and board members (who petrified me, by the way).

By 26, I had worked in fundraising at three different nonprofits, worked with several others, and was the Associate Director of Development at a well-regarded nonprofit. But the organization wasn’t a good fit for me, so I began applying to other fundraising jobs. I found that with every application and every interview, I was just more and more tired. And it wasn’t because of the rigmarole of applying for jobs. It was because I didn’t want to be a fundraiser anymore.

As a fundraiser, I was always under a deadline, or two or twenty. Even as I worked as hard as possible, coming in before the sun came up and leaving long after it had set, it wasn’t enough. I had to deal with every possible type of personality and had to try to make everyone happy – the CEO who slashed my beautifully written proposal to ribbons, the program staff person who wanted me to sneak in a line item for her pet project. I did a lot of everything. I was a grant writer, an administrative assistant, a database administrator, a holiday party coordinator. I was making less money than all of my friends and was always told that there would be money for raises “next year.” And I never stopped working. I once snuck away from my boyfriend at a party at a museum to take pictures of their donor wall.

In 2009, CNN named “fundraiser” one of the most stressful, low-paying jobs. There a great many reasons that fundraising is insanely stressful, and I’ve named more than a few here. It’s terribly unfortunate, because most fundraisers (including myself for a long time) love what they do. Fundraisers’ work is critical to so many people, and when things are good, it is the most challenging and fulfilling job there is. But as Brock Warner noted in his blog post today, fundraisers are so incredibly undervalued, not just monetarily, but in every possible way. And this is going to continue to run people like me out of the job.

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