Fundraising and the Value of Vocation

Sharilyn Hale, M.A., CFRE is a Principal of Watermark Philanthropic Advising in Toronto, ON.  She is also the Immediate Past Chair of the Board of CFRE International, the global credential for fundraising professionals setting standards for effective and ethical practice.  Together with Pat Thompson, she’s convening a dinner for 32 professional fundraisers on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in downtown Toronto.  Here’s why:

“Any job can become a vocation, and any vocation can become a job” writes Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.  About a year ago, serendipity introduced me to Pat Thompson who was completing a research fellowship sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation on vocational renewal among nonprofit leaders.  I had found a kindred spirit, as in 2004 I had completed my graduate thesis in philanthropy on vocation among fundraisers.  We have since enjoyed wonderful conversations on vocational themes.  Energized by the experience, we want to engage others – professional fundraisers in particular – in conversation.

Vocation is a word bridging personal calling and community, with meaning.  As a professional fundraiser a vocational lens has offered me a simple yet profound way to understand the value of my work to me and to others, and has been an anchor to which I’ve tied my leadership within the philanthropic sector.

In sharing with fundraising colleagues, I know I am not the only one who reflects on the dynamism between the professional and the personal – the tactic and the spirit.  In fact, our work enabling the philanthropic aspirations of donors and volunteers often stands within the complexity of human emotion and experience – love, aspiration, meaning, ego, fear, change, grief, legacy, empowerment, dignity, participation, transformation.  To be credible we’re required to bring or meet spirit at the table.  However, it is ironic for a profession rooted in philanthropy (which is love and compassion), that there are few places or spaces to talk about such topics, and few opportunities to inspire (in-spirit) each other.

There are an increasing number of options to learn about fund development techniques.  And with the dramatic expansion of the profession, these vehicles serve an important purpose in education and conveying the body of professional knowledge.  Competence counts.

Yet, an indicator of a gap in our professional community and education may be a comment a colleague recently relayed from one of his donors, “fundraisers are increasingly well trained, but not well tuned”.  Being well trained is professional.  Being well tuned is personal.  Today, our world needs fundraisers who are both.

While there are some wonderful things happening in and through our profession locally and globally, fundraising and its relationship to philanthropy is often not well understood.  There is a degree of cynicism in the public realm.  There is increasing regulation, concerns about the size of the “pie” and demands for greater accountability.  There are dedicated fundraisers disillusioned at ever increasing expectations and wondering if they are really making a difference.  There are fundraisers who elevate themselves in the importance and stature that can come from success and proximity to wealth, and others who just show up.

Could a deepened sense of meaning and purpose among fundraisers influence the presence of trust, faith, vitality and authenticity in ourselves, among our donors and within the communities we serve?  I’m not sure.  But it seems to me that, just like our work with donors, our response to these issues requires more of us.  Perhaps we can thoughtfully inform the narrative.

One of the pioneers of our profession, the late Dr. Robert Payton, challenged fundraisers to consider whether they were living FOR philanthropy or living OFF philanthropy.  The answer may be found in a reflective assessment of what philanthropy is about and the values inherent in the work of fundraising.  We can observe where we fit, with our values and passions, as well as the manner in which we take our place and how we express our leadership in service.  This reflection can begin as personal “inner work” but to be most meaningful it is also communal – among colleagues and peers.  And then it extends even further.  Vocation is never singular.

Shared reflection has been invaluable for me.  Early in my career I had discerning mentors who challenged me to be more than a fundraising tactician – more than a money hustler, or a functional manager of influence and affluence.  My colleagues helped me connect my own dots – the dots of my personal history, my values, my aspirations and the things I love and am good at.  Vocation made it meaningful to a bigger world, a world that I can touch and be touched by.  That is so much more than a job.  It is a joy.  And it is so much more than just about me.

Meaningful conversations rarely end once the talking stops.  They imprint and plant seeds that we then mull over, distill and assimilate as we see fit.  Tuning is a painstaking process, a discipline which all too soon has to be repeated.  As a job can become a vocation, without care a vocation can too easily revert to being just a job.  As such, I continue to value conversations with my peers and what I learn from them about generosity, compassion, risk, leadership and renewal.

That is why Pat and I hope you will join us in conversation.  For more details about our plan for the evening, click on this link.  If you cannot attend in person, begin and/or continue your own.  We hope you will explore, listen, mentor and be tuned.

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One Response to Fundraising and the Value of Vocation

  1. Maryann Kerr says:

    Wonderful article Sharilyn. Looking forward to the conversation this evening.

    I look forward to discussing Dr. Petyton’s challenge to fundraisers to consider whether they are “living FOR philanthropy or living OFF philanthropy.” I hope there will be other voices who will consider that life is not quite so black and white. When we go down this road, we come face to face with those who believe that we should not pay professional staff or fund professional development or even earn a good living if we work in this sector. I’ve seen too often the squashing of entrepreneurial spirit because the sector can’t support the idea that one can do well by doing good. The two concepts should not be counter-intuitive.

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