Learning to be a Fundraiser

Dear Kim,

I am currently working for a nonprofit agency and want to break into the world of fundraising. What educational background do you suggest?
—Charm School or Hard Knocks?

Dear Hard Knocks,

There are a number of educational routes to go in pursuing a career in fundraising and all of them are useful. Getting a Masters Degree in Nonprofit Management at any number of schools will give you a lot of theoretical and historical background and some excellent field placements. Taking two, three and five day trainings on various fundraising topics from the plethora of excellent trainers and training institutions will give you a lot of knowledge from practitioners in the field and allow you to meet other people in fundraising. Getting a degree in a related field such a social work, public policy, arts administration or business can be very helpful.

How you decide depends on a few variables:
1) What part of the sector do you want to work in? If you want to raise money for a direct service agency, then an MSW would be helpful, but if you want to work for a museum or a symphony, then an art or music degree might be better.
2) How do you like to learn? If you like being in school, then a three year degree program might be appealing. If you hate school, a different route would be appropriate.
3) How much money do you want to spend? Training courses can be very expensive, but take less time than pursuing a degree.

Having said all that, I will share with you my personal favorite way to learn fundraising, which is how I learned it: by doing it. I majored in Classics and Religion in college and had not a thought in my head about going into fundraising. In fact, I don’t think I knew it was a career when I was in college. I headed to graduate school to get a Masters of Divinity and to be a Methodist minister. When I decided to go into fundraising, I asked the director of development if I could work for him for a very low salary. I told him if he took me anywhere he went, I would do anything he said. I went to planning meetings, I wrote proposals and letters, I made coffee, I went on solicitations. I learned by being an apprentice and by doing. After I had been in fundraising for a year or so, I started going to trainings and I was much better able to learn because I knew what I didn’t know.

My advice to people wanting to go into fundraising is: volunteer for a nonprofit on the fundraising committee and take a job as a development assistant with someone who is willing to help train you.

Good luck in whatever route you choose.
—Kim