What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Jeffrey D. Byrne of member firm Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc.

As President & CEO of a fundraising consulting firm working with nonprofits nationally, I often get asked how I got involved in fundraising. I’ve been working with nonprofits for the last 24 years in varying capacities to assist organizations in meeting their missions. I’ve found the fundraising profession to be the one area that I can give back in a way that I never imagined possible, having worked with hundreds of nonprofits the past 12 years through fundraising consulting. Here’s my story about my first thoughts around a career and then finding the right resources to grow my career.

Mrs. Ballinger in my first grade class at Eugene Field Elementary School in Charleston, Missouri asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  Now I really can’t remember if I said a doctor, teacher, fireman or farmer.  What I didn’t’ say was “a fundraiser!”

It took a while to find what I wanted to do. First, I worked for my Governor in his office in our state capitol. After that, I went to work for a major corporation in St. Louis and gave $3,500,000 away each year for three years. After tiring of that, I decided to flip which side of the desk I was sitting on and try my hand at fundraising for Evangelical Children’s Home, a nonprofit organization providing residential treatment for girls and boys who’ve been abused, abandoned and neglected. 

In 1988, 21 years after Mrs. Ballinger’s question, I began a job which would finally answer her question.

I was back in my hometown last week speaking with a local nonprofit organization – Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center.  I was asked to address fundraising for this organization, and I started by asking “who likes to ask for money?”  This is a question I’ve asked hundreds of times as a consultant. Unbelievably, most of the time in a room of fundraising professionals, only about half raise their hand. That day, between staff and Board members, all the staff raised their hands.

When I started with Evangelical Children’s Home there were scant organizations providing education and ongoing training on making the request.  I asked senior level fundraising professionals I knew for advice.  I sought out fundraising consultants for guidance. And, I got involved in professional fundraising organizations.

Today, learning opportunities are plentiful. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) offers hundreds if not thousands of educational and training sessions across the country through their chapters and conferences.   The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University offers courses and career tracks for professionals on almost every nonprofit topic imaginable. And locally in communities where we serve as fundraising counsel, I comb through newspapers and websites to locate resources for our clients.  For instance, in Greater Kansas City we have a wonderful resource, Nonprofit Connect, which serves the 6,500 nonprofits that file a 990 each year with the IRS. 

 As you look for resources to build your career, here are a few pointers that I adopted to help me. 

  • First, model behavior that you see in someone you admire.  Take the good and accentuate it and discard what you don’t like. 
  • Two, seek out mentors who are fundraising colleagues, ask for their help and keep close to them.  They are/were my best sources for me to throw out an idea and have them react. I wasn’t afraid to be on the “edge” with ideas – don’t you be either. 
  • Three, ask your volunteers and donors what has worked for them and what hasn’t. Truly seek their advice. Challenge them when you think it needs challenging. Thank them and enhance what’s worked. Give the credit to others. If you’re successful, you’ll get plenty of credit.
  • Use educational resources that are available to you locally, regionally and nationally to further your knowledge and understanding of what you need for your organization. 
  • Finally, use that information and get out from behind your desk; out of your office; go call on donors; cultivate prospects. Double up your efforts.  In the long-run these will help your organization.

Oh, and I didn’t say I wanted to be a fundraiser to Mrs. Ballinger’s question.   She’s long passed away now, but if I could talk with her, I’d say I became a fundraiser and it’s been the most rewarding and the best job and career I could have ever chosen. 

(PLEASE NOTE:  For resources on education and training go to these websites for more information:  AFP International [www.afpnet.org], Center on Philanthropy [www.philanthropy.iupui.edu], or. . . search on the web locally under fundraising training, fundraising education, etc.)

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