I had the privilege of attending the AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) Think Tank a couple of weeks ago.

It was so cool to be among a group of great thinkers to talk and brainstorm about fundraising topics.

One of the things that came up was the number of people who are entering the profession without a solid understanding of our principles and ethics.

Lots of people take jobs in nonprofit fundraising and assume their sales or other corporate skills will transfer.  While an awful lot of things are the same, some are very different.

Skills/concepts that translate:

  • Marketing concepts are the same in for-profit as in non-profit.  It’s about identifying target audiences, key messages, and consistent communication.
  • Good leadership is always appropriate!
  • Customer service works very well in the nonprofit.  Donors, volunteers, and people in the community enjoy being treated well and sort of expect it from nonprofit organizations.

Skills/concepts that don’t translate:

  • Working on commission is considered unethical among professional fundraisers.  This is troublesome, because in the for-profit world, it’s a commonly accepted practice.  In fundraising, the donor expects 100% of their gift to go directly to the nonprofit to help people.  When a commission is given, the nonprofit doesn’t get 100% of the gift.
  • In the for-profit world, it’s all about me, me, me.  In the non-profit world, it’s about what’s in the best interest of the organization.  In fact, there are times when a fundraising professional needs to step out of a donor relationship so as not to muddy the waters.  For example, imagine that a particular Director of Development (DD) builds a very strong relationship with a particular donor, so much so that the donor decides to leave the DD in her will (not the non-profit).  This puts the DD in a precarious ethical situation, because they are working to secure resources for the non-profit, not for themselves.

I’m sure there will continue to be many well-intended people who try to apply what they know from the for-profit world to the non-profit one.  Somehow, we must find a way to education them about our industry’s ethics so they can be successful in their new jobs.

  1. Sandy, this is a very timely post and one that needs attention. I attended a GA Center for Nonprofit’s workshop last year where literally hundreds from the for-profit world, recently displaced, came to learn more about jobs in the nonprofit world. The key is education. They can’t automatically learn “our” world without good nonprofit leaders to guide them.

    • Thanks Betsy. I agree with you that education is the key. These folks will make a great addition to our industry, but someone needs to show them how to transition their skills.


  2. Simple list, big impact. Even in a local setting, like a school PTA – adding committee members with sales and corporate communication skills greatly boosts annual fundraising performance.

  3. Sandy,
    Right on! I’ve encountered this so often that I wrote “Ten Worst Reasons for Choosing your Director of Development” http://tinyurl.com/d4wzrh as a cautionary tale to nonprofits blindly considering hiring someone from the private sector just because they worked with money or around wealthy individuals.

    Our local chapter’s AFP member network breakfasts frequently attract professionals from the for profit sector who are looking to cross over. And many get jobs. As the former chair of our mentoring committee, I watched many of these business folks decide after six months or a year that this sector wasn’t for them.


  4. Sandy, Yes! While in the for-profit sector it is often about the corporation or the sales person…in the social profit sector it is about the mission of changing or saving lives somehow AND about the stakeholder. Good reminders for us all to only take that which is appropriate and build on in our sector. Thanks for the post!

  5. Sandy, great discussion of the issue and your examples apply to vendors a non-profit hires as well. It isn’t just employees that need to get up to speed on the ethics and principles of the non profit world, but every contractor that is hired to represent your organization is some way. That is a pool of people that might create a bigger challenge for education just becuase the relationship can be short term. Hiring experience might help, though.

  6. Dear Sandy,

    Thank you for writing about how skills translate across the sectors.

    While I agree with a lot of what you said, I think the nonprofit world could raise a lot more money if we DID let nonprofit fundraisers make a commission on TOP of their salary. I know, the AFP says this is not kosher, however, I have to side with Dan Pallotta on this one. How is it sane to expect us to work harder and harder, year after year, to raise more and more money, with no help or very little help, no say in how the organization expands, for the exact same salary? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I wrote a blog post where I expanded on this idea a bit more.
    Would love to get your thoughts on it.


    PS. I also led a nonprofit job club where I talked with a lot of people who were looking for how to translate their skills and core competencies to the nonprofit sector, and I have some handouts that help people identify those. It’s here:

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