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Updated: Jun 23, 2022

In one of my last pieces, I wrote about working in Development, and I wrote, “That’s probably a longer post for another time, but in essence for me at least, it’s the difference between transactions and transformations.”

You can easily find more expert opinions about this if you Google it, which I strongly encourage you to do because why take MY word for it, me a relative stranger here on the internet who if she’s being honest, is known for mildly heretical takes on everyday doctrine. Basically, I’m going to be pondering here, and these opinions are my own, and I may actually back myself into a corner or two before coming to a conclusion.

I’m iterative like that.

I’ve pondered this for a long time, because when I meet people and they ask what I do I say I work in Development. One, I have often gotten blank stares with inquiries about tech or child education, film production or land use. Tack a “non-profit” onto development and it’s still not always clear. If I say “fundraising” I get one of two responses, a dismissive nod and “Ah, yes sales,” or a slightly tentative look like I’m going to pounce like a movie-monster and ask THEM for money RIGHT NOW! Cue Scary Music!

Most of the answers to the question posed, I found in online searches connect into that quoted phrase above. That Fundraising is transactional akin to a raffle or telethon, or cold calls, or direct mail/email, and Development is relational, creating a partnership which can be more transformational both for the donor and the organization. Of course, there can be brilliance involved with raffles, telethons, cold calls and bake sales (yum!). The difference is in positioning. Where fundraising might stop with the bake sale, development would make the bake sale part of a larger more cohesive plan to create a sustaining flow of resources into the organization.

While fundraising is what it says it is, and is based in root words connected to fundamental (that which is primary, essential, groundwork) and fundus in the Latin (the base and and source), it’s just the beginning of the work. Indeed, people I polled in a highly scientific survey felt that fundraising as a word meant something more basic, whereas development was a fully and more systemic look at the work.

Finally, given the replies in my query and also online casting “fundraising” in a slightly less positive light, made me ask, a la Carrie Bradshaw, “I couldn’t help but wonder…does fundraising carry with it a kind of silent, sneaky feeling that exposes our cultural feelings and concerns about wealth and class and capitalism, worth, esteem, and value???”

(spoiler alert-I believe it does)

In our profession, we do things we aren’t supposed to do in polite company like talk to people about their money. We are bold and engage in really intimate conversations about people’s wealth even up to how they might transfer it after they die (another verboten topic, death and dying), often without knowing them very well.

Our work sets up a mutually vulnerable relationship between the staff and the donor, depending on why that donor wants (or needs) to donate wealth. We learn things about them, all while helping them navigate delicate relationships with the organization and themselves and family. When done well, it can truly feel transformational both for the donor and for the organization, but at its worst can feel invasive and manipulative.

The last feeling I ever want a donor to experience is being “sold” or used, or pressured to act. That ethic has usually trumped my desire to get funds at any cost. I just can’t engage in the work from a hyper-competitive level and still feel like I’m “developing” a worthy and beneficial relationship to do mutual good. I resist competitive pressure, possibly to my career detriment.

(That pressure is a product of capitalism, because if you don’t get the funds, you’ll go out of business. Our economic system is set up in such a way that non-profits require funding to do things that are necessary for healthy human existence-from providing shelter for those unhoused to helping create arts experiences to working on reversing climate change-much of which I believe (no surprise) should be far far more socialized. American Philanthropy and the non profit industrial complex is worth much discussion, which many more eloquent than me have broached, but about which I have, you guessed it heretical thoughts.)

Perhaps because of those dynamics above, we’ve developed (sorry) new terms for the field that expand the definition of the work, show the centering of the donor, and focusing on systemic-the match-maker/broker/facilitator aspect of the profession, so that we avoid those funny stares. A colleague and friend of mine usually says, “I help people with their philanthropy” and while it’s not a quick sound byte title, I think it sums up what we do very well and quite nobly. Another friend of mine, only slightly sarcastically, once called me a “Compassionate Wealth Transfer Engineer” and it made me laugh, because that’s about as close to engineering as this ENFJ is ever gonna get.

My elevator speech about myself has evolved over the years, but I’m still pondering the terms. What matters to me, as someone in this profession, is that we do this work with thoughtfulness and with a willingness to get heretical about why we are doing it at all.

The terms matter, because clarity matters. Clarity matters because in order to build relationships that support powerful missions (which are the heart of why we do any of it) we need to name what we do in a way that translates ALL that we do and why. For me, part of that “all” is examining and moving through/past old cultural and economic structures and the isms that come with it.

Terms affect outcome, and if we want our work to make a better world, we have to tackle our collective history, warts and all, terms included. The profession? Well, it’s a work in development. The fundamentals? Need to be examined. Stay tuned, more to come.

photo credit howard lake

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