Adrian Sargeant, the Robert F. Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, has a bleak view of the practice of fundraising.
“We have no mechanism for learning from the latest research,” says Sargeant. “We are about the only profession that has never defined it’s body of knowledge, what we would expect every competent fundraiser in the U.S. to know.”
Every competent fundraiser, for example, should know that satisfaction, trust and commitment are the three factors that drive donor loyalty, and they should know how to manage information about those donor characteristics.
“That would be part of our collective body of knowledge, but it’s not mapped out anywhere,” Sargeant says.
In Britain, by contrast, national occupational standards for fundraising that Sargeant wrote map all the skills that fundraising professionals need in their back-office, management and fundraising roles.
That set of skill-based standards “informs professional practice because organizations can use standards for recruitment, retention, staff appraisal, and it drives the qualifications for fundraising,” he says.
Britain also has spelled out the knowledge that fundraisers should have to perform their role in the areas of fundraising, direct-mail appeals, and managing the public trust.
By contrast, fundraising professionals seeking accreditation in the U.S. as a “certified fundraising executive,” or CFRE, must take a test that asks only multiple-choice questions that focus on what fundraisers actually do rather than on what they should be doing.
A question, for example, might ask if the fundraising professional knows what a case statement is but does not ask the professional to actually write a case statement.
The tests are based on surveys of the current work of fundraisers and assume current practices are “best practices, and that’s not always the case,” Sargeant says.
“There’s no mechanism for exposing people to the latest research and challenging their thinking,” he says. “I think what we need in this country is to accredit professionals for taking their professional development seriously. If you read widely, go to conferences, take your training seriously, you would be rewarded for that.”
What is needed, he says, is a “knowledge-based route of qualification for people coming into the profession, where you do have to write a case statement and fundraising plan, a kind of traditional academic syllabus, exposing people to a body of knowledge, the same as a lawyer, doctor, plumber or accountant.”
And people wanting to enter and remain in the fundraising profession should be required to learn that body of knowledge and be subject to regular review and keep up with the latest research.
Sargeant gives poor grades to the fundraising profession.
Donor retention is “terrible,” he says, with 60 percent of givers who give to a charity for the first time typically not giving a second time.
And while first-time givers typically give only small amounts, many nonprofits invest a disproportionate level of resources retaining those givers, typically by focusing on the impact their organizations have on customers.
Yet research has shown that the single biggest factor in determining whether givers keep giving to a specific charity is how its fundraising staff treats them, Sargeant says.
Nonprofits also need to understand more about online giving, which accounts for roughly two percent of all giving by individuals, he says.
“We need to grow that by understanding more about donors’ behavior online, and making sure fundraisers are technologically literate,” he says “We haven’t defined what we would expect fundraisers to know.”
That would include, for example, knowing the precise elements that make a website effective in attracting donations.
The profession also lacks a “mechanism for feeding knowledge into a knowledge base so anyone studying fundraising is going to be exposed” to new research, Sargeant says.
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Todd Cohen, a veteran news reporter and editor, is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper published by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, N.C. Cohen has taught nonprofit reporting and media relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and regularly speaks on the topics of nonprofit media relations and trends in the charitable world.