Is Fundraising Education and Training worth it?

By Nigel Harris

A photo of Nigel Harris

As I was reflecting on this question of is training really worth it, I began to really think … “well, actually, why do we need training in an occupation that has no formal or established pathway to the work that’s undertaken?”

One of the unique things about fundraising practice is there is no pathway into it. It is one of the few occupations you can move into without needing to know anything, or have done anything, to prepare yourself for the job at hand. So why would we need training for that? 

And why would we need training in occupation that often struggles to gain organisational buy-in around the need for fundamental knowledge or continuing education?

I often hear the lament from fundraising practitioners that “organisations don’t support what we do.” A common theme heard is that organisation’s don’t invest in training and don’t understand the need for having knowledge in fundraising. Getting commitment from leadership is one of the most vexing and challenging issues reflected by fundraisers. So again, why would we worry about training in that context?

Why would we worry about training in an occupation that is divided around what forms and informs professional identity? We still appear to have this challenge in fundraising practice. We might see ourselves in a particular way from inside out as we talk about being fundraising professionals and practitioners. But I’m not sure that we’ve really gathered around this idea of what actually informs the notion of professional fundraising practice and the identity that goes with that. 

So once again, why would training be useful in that regard? Or in an occupation that is inconsistent around what forms and informs practice and a body of knowledge, in terms of what it is and how it’s actually created. My observation over the 40 years I’ve been involved in fundraising practice is that we don’t have consistency around what actually informs fundraising practice. I still see evidence of people’s discovery around literature, around research, around different points of understanding. 

Again, it begs this question of why would we need training in that context? Or in an occupation that actually calls itself a profession but isn’t consistent in applying or even recognising the criteria that frames a profession. Another challenge I see in fundraising practice is that we like to call ourselves a profession without wanting to put in the hard yards and actually frame a profession. And when we do that alongside of other professions that actually do the work that frames their profession it creates a potential credibility challenge for fundraising. 

Identifying what actually frames a profession is not particularly difficult. It’s a quick Google search. It’s not something that’s unusual or particularly difficult to access. But once again, it seems to be a point of contest. So why would we need training in that context? And why again would we need training in occupation that will at times make things up?

So, the notion of ‘MSU,’ or ‘making stuff up,’ is alive and well and fundraising practice. In some cases, fundraisers can find themselves blindly accepting concepts and approaches rather than pursuing constructive curiosity. So rather than actually initiate enquiry and pursue knowledge and information, we will often just accept what someone says.

And why would we need training in occupation that serves social purpose in areas that impact and matter in people’s lives? That may or may not seem important, but it’s the reason that we’re involved in fundraising. Indeed, it raises yet again the question of why we would need training in occupation that carries responsibility for the informed investment of financial capital and the use of time to serve purpose. 

We carry responsibility in fundraising practice for using money wisely. While I’m not going to get into the trope of using donor money, as I think that one gets twisted and contorted in many ways, we have a responsibility to use both money and time well. But why would that warrant training to sit underneath that responsibility?

Similarly, is training important in the context of our roles being the face of an organisation and cause being represented when engaging donors and supporters? Often the first people that donors and supporters experience significant engagement with on behalf of non-profit organisations are those in fundraising practice. But does that present an argument that training is necessary when we consider that context?

Fundraising is an occupation that is responsible for positive and enduring donor relationships that extend beyond any individual and particular moment in time. So how would we see training benefiting that pursuit of responsibility? Or in an environment that commonly laments the experience where organisational leadership and colleagues don’t take fundraising practice seriously or see it as a professional discipline?

If we are happy to continue to take on those sorts of contests or challenges, then training has a dubious role in our occupational construct. Nor might it play a role in an occupation that has a significant turnover problem, which can be attributed to, in part at least, inadequate preparation and support for the roles undertaken as well as the unrealistic expectations around the nature and timing of results.

So, when we think about all those points, there’s clearly no case for training being a necessary and underpinning element of the occupation in which we serve. After all, training is an indulgent and expensive exercise in occupation that should just get on with the job and stop whinging about it.

Or maybe none of this is true? Of course, I’m painting a picture here that training is actually is very, very important.

And to be clear, when we’re talking about training, we can be talking about a number of things. So, when we actually examine this question of training, what do we mean? 

Training that you do to equip you to do your job. This may include fundamental job skills and knowledge.

Or it may also be the education that you undertake to prepare you for a vocational pathway and extend your capacity and capability in your vocation.

It can also be the continuing professional education that you undertake as part of your professional obligations.

And it can also be part of the pursuit of information and knowledge driven by curiosity and vocational responsibility.

When we talk about training, we should recognise that it can be delivered in various ways, from presentations, seminars, conferences, sector-based courses, formal education, reading, accessing online content, and more.

So, all of this brings us to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of training. 

But training for its own sake, and undertaken without a focus or expectation of accountability, can reasonably pose the question of why bother? And it’s a fair question, because much of the training that I’ve observed over the years is potentially nebulous, and it’s neither directed nor translated. 

It’s training that just happens. It may not be based around identified needs of individuals or organisations, or the development of individuals and organisations as well as the outcomes they are tasked to accomplish. In this context, the question of why bother with training is valid. 

But this isn’t actually the problem with training, for the most part at least. It’s actually a matter for fundraising practitioners and organisational leaders to address with shared responsibility. And that’s where the training problem really lies.

The real challenge in our sector isn’t whether we should or shouldn’t embrace training. I see that answer is being self-evident.

I would argue the real issue and challenge around training in the sector is to take a more complete, a more connected, a more continuous and more curious, and arguably more mature, approach to training. 

The bigger question is not whether we should or shouldn’t invest and engage in training. Instead, it is why, when, and how we pursue a deliberate and continued approach to training. And what informs that approach, and our expectation of realisable returns for people, for organisations, and importantly the social purposes that we serve, all of which is fundamentally underpinned by training.

And to restate, it’s not that training in and of itself is the issue. It’s how the training is used. 

Here I talk to the idea of organisations lacking focus and have made that point very strongly. I am also identifying the mindfulness around ethical responsibilities in terms of serving purpose and donors. 

It is also about the best spend of, well let’s call it donor dollars although it really isn’t that, as a sound investment. This again was a point I am emphasising. 

And just jumping out of that is a focus on leadership being critical to how training is framed and encouraged. But while we might identify that organisations carry a primary responsibility for training, that is not solely the case, as there are personal responsibilities around training as well. 

There is absolutely an obligation on organisations to get the most out of training and to think strategically about it, which elevates the need to be more complete, more connected, more continuous, more curious, and more mature. This is fundamental to an organisational strategy crafted to serve its purpose. As is the notion of measurement and how we actually see value being articulated through a continuing approach to training is also important. 

The argument I have presented lies not so much around a case for training itself, but rather how we see training being used and what its application might be from an individual and organisational perspective. While this will ideally rely on self-motivation on the part of the fundraiser, and that’s an important driver, there is a leadership responsibility here to lift people up and move them through learning processes as well. 

We need to accept that training won’t happen by osmosis, so there is a leadership responsibility in terms of how to help and guide and invest in training and the outcomes it can achieve. Conversely, a lack of leadership investment and understanding around training will erode fundraising effectiveness and ultimately serving purpose. At times it may appear that there is a reluctance to see things past a basic element of superficial investment and expectations of what would only be simplistic return. 

All of this emphasises that training is very important in its various iterations, but it’s the application of training, and how it’s articulated, and how it’s understood, and how it’s supported, and how that investment plays out in that longer term strategic context is where the broader focus should lie.

The big question is not whether we should, or we shouldn’t, pursue training in fundraising. That’s a given. Instead, it is why, when, how, and where we pursue a deliberate and continuing approach to training and what informs that approach and our expectations of return for people, programs, organisations, and ultimately social outcomes.