Before I start, I want to make clear that I am certainly not anti-education. In fact, I highly value my liberal arts education (Juniata College). I went on to get a master’s degree in philanthropy and development (St. Mary’s University of Minnesota), and using that, have taught thousands of students across the world the nuances and details of charitable gift fundraising (Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Edison State University). That said, I firmly believe that anyone well-trained in the work can make a meaningful difference in a fundraising job —degree or not.
I know that this is going to cause a lot of discussion, and I think it’s a healthy conversation to have. Is requiring a bachelor’s degree to be a professional fundraiser for a nonprofit organization a means of discriminating against under-represented people in the profession? Let’s dig in.
Rarely do nonprofit fundraisers have degrees in nonprofit fundraising.
Even today, with a much more highly evolved professional infrastructure than ever before—that includes associations in general fundraising, different kinds of missions in fundraising, grant writing, prospect research, planned giving, direct mail and more—there are no bachelor’s degrees that specifically train people in nonprofit fundraising.
Yes, there are a small handful of bachelor’s programs for nonprofit management, but most academic programs and courses specifically on fundraising are found at the master’s degree level. That said, the premier fundraising certification organization, CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive), gives a nod to degree-less fundraisers by not requiring the degree — although it weighs it with more than 10% of its entry educational requirement.
In 30 years+ of nonprofit fundraising experience, including leadership positions at several universities, I don’t know that I could identify a predominant bachelor’s degree major among my colleague fundraisers. Many had degrees in communications, some were educated in business, and there was a variety of others from the sciences, liberal arts, and even a couple of engineers. As a result, nearly everybody who was a fundraiser had to learn on the job, or through professional associations. Today, there’s also a broad variety of informal, online educational opportunities.
This means that almost nobody comes out of college with experience in fundraising. Those who do pick it up through university phonathons or other volunteer fundraising opportunities for campus organizations — not through their assigned coursework.
We always did it that way.
So if there are no bachelor’s degrees in fundraising, and everybody who has one has to learn on the job and in non-academic programs, then why do most jobs for fundraising require a bachelor’s degree?
In part, the answer lies in “professionalism.” Fundraising is seen as a white-collar activity, and regardless of the nature of the work, white-collar activities require bachelor’s degrees. The idea is, or was, that people with bachelor’s degrees had a higher level of personal sophistication, had better communication skills and conducted themselves in an appropriate manner so that they could better relate to donors with significant means. Given that the earliest nonprofit volunteers and philanthropists came from the monied upper classes, and at the time, bachelor’s degrees were only available to people at the highest levels, there was some sense to this.
There’s a cultural bias.
In my opinion, a big factor in the perpetuation of the bachelor’s degree requirement is cultural. People with bachelor’s degrees, particularly those who come from traditional programs where they lived on campus or had a campus experience, feel much more comfortable hiring other people like themselves.
This isn’t new. Some might even call it human. While there are attempts to eliminate the bias of hiring people like oneself when it comes to racial and ethnic characteristics, few people question the educational bias. At a time when it’s clear that there are racial and ethnic barriers to education, the education bias becomes a surrogate for the same discrimination.
Education isn’t what it used to be.
We face an interesting dynamic today. Democracy has come to education. The bachelor’s degree is available from more places at more price points than ever before. At the same time, there is an increasing number of children who are denied the quality of education that would enable them to enter a bachelor’s degree program.
On top of that, the nation’s financial commitment to higher education has waned. What financial aid there is has shifted from grants to loans, and states have significantly reduced their contribution to higher education. Let’s pile on more. With online education, a student may get the knowledge, but not the connections or social experience that was the promise of bachelor’s programs of years ago.
In short, even if you can get it, a bachelor’s degree isn’t what it used to be. Yet for so many jobs, including charitable gift fundraising, it remains a requirement.
What’s the practical reality?
Over my career, I’ve seen some great examples of non-degreed fundraisers at work. While employed by a prominent state university, two of our most successful fundraisers were without bachelor’s degrees. Ironically, both worked in professional schools that gave highly advanced graduate degrees. One advanced to serve in an important leadership position in the university’s fundraising program. Yet despite her success, there was a little taste to treating her more than an anomaly. I don’t know how she got her fundraising job to begin with, but however it was, it wasn’t going to be repeated.
The bachelor’s degree requirement is particularly troubling when you consider that the real measure of fundraising success is in the number of dollars you bring in and the donors you engage. In that respect, it’s very much like sales, and in sales, it’s all about results. For some reason, in fundraising, you have to pass the degree threshold first. I’ve known a lot of fundraisers who do not produce results but are highly educated and “qualified” for the job.
So, how can this be fixed?
Don’t require it.
First and foremost, unless there is a particularly special reason for holding a bachelor’s degree or higher in a typical fundraising position, remove the requirement. This is especially important for new people coming into the profession. As we discussed above, degreed or not anyone going into the profession is going to have to learn about fundraising on-the-job — because almost nobody gets in an educational environment.
Look for success indicators.
Of course, if you have somebody in front of you who has a successful track record in raising money and engaging donors, go for it. In today’s environment, that person is likely to have a college degree because the pipeline requires it. To broaden the pool of otherwise qualified candidates, ask yourself “what are indicators of potential success that people who do not have a fundraising background can bring to the table?”
For example, how do they build relationships? Have they formally or informally been involved in sales or revenue generation for an organization? How is their writing? Can they stand up in front of people and talk? Do they connect with our mission in a personal way?
As we know, not every type of fundraising requires somebody to stand up in front of an audience or to write brilliant prose. It’s important to understand exactly what is needed in the position, whether it’s an event coordinator, a direct mail fundraiser, a grant proposal writer, a prospect researcher, or an individual gift solicitation specialist, among other sub-professions that you’re looking to fill.
Why isn’t mission more important?
What is their dedication to your mission? Any of us will admit that somebody must have at least an affinity for the mission that they are raising money for, and better yet, a real passion for it. Would you rather hire somebody who has a bachelor’s degree but is lukewarm about your mission, or somebody who loves it with all their heart but never had the chance for a degree? Since you might end up training either of them in the fundamentals of fundraising, I’d pick the person with heart.
We limit the pool to those who can afford to work a fundraising job.
Bachelor’s degrees don’t come free. We know this, but fail to recognize the impact that high debt load can have on the availability of entry-level nonprofit fundraisers. Unfortunately, many graduates won’t look at working for a nonprofit in any capacity because they need to pay back substantial college loans. Although fundraising is one of the higher paid jobs in any nonprofit organization, this usually only applies to people with experience.
Most entry-level fundraising positions, if you can find them, don’t pay enough to allow a recent college graduate to make any headway against their indebtedness. The pool gets much bigger when you include people who would not have this problem.
Fundraisers need to connect with people.
Most of the wealthy people in your community have bachelor’s degrees, so other similar individuals will be better able to form connections and solicit gifts, right? Wrong. A large number of people who are solicited by charitable gift fundraisers don’t have college degrees at all. As Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko pointed out in their book series starting with “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy,” a substantial number of Americans do well financially without college degrees.
In my own experience, even at a university, we would get quite a few gifts from non-degreed individuals. Following the pattern set out by Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File in their book “The Seven Faces of Philanthropy: A New Approach to Cultivating Major Donors,” we received many gifts from communitarians, typically, “self-made” business people who saw their own success reflected in their community. Your degree-less fundraisers will be able to connect with these individuals just as well as any traditionally educated professional might.
Focus on life experience.
One of the biggest pushbacks for not requiring bachelor’s degrees for fundraising positions is the suggestion that we are “dumbing down” the fundraising profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, not requiring a degree is a recognition that collegiate bachelor’s degrees are not necessarily producing the kinds of people who can be successful in a nonprofit charitable giving environment. So what does? Life experience.
People who come to fundraising as second careers provide a great opportunity for nonprofits, degree or not. I know a lot of people who have been out of the labor market for years because of family commitments of other circumstances, with and without degrees. I can’t tell the difference when it comes to their ability to do a fundraising job. There’s a lot to be said for life experience in relating to donors—significantly more than a degree on its own.
What should be required?
Ethics. There is a lot of misunderstanding about nonprofit fundraising. The few media portrayals show fundraisers as glorified, high-end party planners who take most of the money raised for themselves (for example, this Law & Order episode featuring Julia Roberts), or the all-too-regular newspaper headline of nonprofit theft.
Judging anyone’s ethics is extremely difficult, but in my opinion, high ethical standards are one of the most important attributes of a successful fundraiser. Some colleges require ethics courses, and, by my observation, a lot of students barely scraped by. Conversely, I can count dozens of non-degreed people I know who live up to the highest ethical standards. Therefore, a bachelor’s degree is in no way an indicator of a propensity to follow the AFP Code of Ethics.
To sum it up… The last time I checked, I wasn’t required to show my bachelor’s diploma when I showed up to discuss the charitable gift with a donor. No foundation asked me to include my diploma with the associated paperwork for a grant. The events committee didn’t need to see my degree when we planned the gala. They all judged me on my ability to build ethical and appropriate relationships to do a fundraising job. My employer judged me on my ability to fund the mission. It’s time that fundraising gets to what really counts so we can best serve the people who depend on our nonprofits — and leave the rest behind.