Kids grow up saying, “I want to be a fireman” or “I want to be a policeman,” not “I want to be a fundraiser.” Many people don’t discover the field until later in life and then struggle to make a transition into it.
Shaun Keister and his team in the philanthropic development office at UC Davis have teamed up with UCD Extension to offer four online courses for those beginning or trying to advance a career in fundraising and development. Each class will cost $1,100, and students who pass all the courses earn a certificate.
“There is a massive shortage of talent in the fundraising industry, largely because people don’t grow up wanting to be fundraisers,” Keister said. “It seems like a perfect opportunity to really give back to and help the nonprofit world by offering a program like this one that can be done online for individuals who are thinking about a career change or people who would be nontraditionally ending up in this space anyway.”
Keister, vice chancellor for development and alumni relations at UC Davis, said he regularly runs into people in the sales industry who have skills they could use to raise money for nonprofits, but they don’t quite know how to switch from a for-profit approach.
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Paul Prokop, the university’s associate vice chancellor of school and unit programs, said it’s the type of program that would have been ideal for someone like him. He started out his career as manager for the national sales team at the Hershey Co. On one level, he said, that work was exciting and rewarding, but it didn’t give him a sense of fulfillment.
“I started my first development position at the University of Pittsburgh,” Prokop said. “I didn’t have development experience, but I had the marketing background. So it was because of the mentoring of the vice chancellor, who really took a personal interest in me and helped mentor me through those early stages of my career, that I was able to successfully make the transition and then move on into a career.”
Keister, Prokop and their colleague Jason Wohlman, the associate vice chancellor for university development, all were mentored into the profession. While some universities offer degrees in nonprofit management or similar studies, they said, most people really just fall into these roles.
Wohlman and Keister both planned to go to law school after completing their undergraduate studies, but they took jobs during college, making calls to alumni to raise funds for their schools. They were both naturals – effective listeners, persuasive communicators, and mission-oriented facilitators – and caught the attention of the people leading their programs.
Keister’s first job out of college was conceiving and managing the phone room at Florida State University, where 150 students worked part time, making outbound calls to alumni and requesting donations. It raised $1 million in its first year, far exceeding goals. Minnesota State University hired Wohlman while he was still a student there to run its annual fund. He gave a two-year commitment, thinking he would defer law school. Twenty-five years later, Wohlman has yet to get around to that law degree.
“You can make a very good living while doing something that benefits society,” Keister said, “and there aren’t a lot of jobs like that. And you can climb the ladder pretty quickly because of the massive shortage of talent in this field.”
The average professional U.S. fundraiser earned $75,913 in 2014, with 63 percent reporting an increase in salary over the previous year, according to information gathered by UCD. Keister came to UC Davis about 4 1/2 years ago. On his third day on the job, he got an unexpected call.
“They said they were a recruitment firm,” Keister said, “and they were trying to fill this position at a school on the East Coast, and they wanted to talk to me about it. I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait a minute. You do realize that I have been in this job for three days. I’m not on the market.”
The response from the recruiter, Keister said, was: “Well, are you happy?”
He was astounded that they were still trying to recruit him, he said, but as a manager, he has seen how quickly good people can receive offers for more pay and greater responsibilities.
“I don’t really like to hire people who have been in this business for one or two years and jump around a lot, because fundraising is a relationship business,” Keister said. “We get to know our donors. They trust us; we trust them. I think it takes a fundraiser a minimum of three years to really hit their stride because you don’t build relationships overnight.”
Educational institutions and nonprofits have been undergoing a massive shift in where their support comes from, these industry veterans say. UC Davis, for instance, used to derive 40 percent of its budget from the state, Prokop said, but that’s down to 8 percent. Nonprofits have seen their government funding plummet as well, so it’s crucial that development staff members have the tools they need to match the interests of donors with the strengths of their organizations.
The initial course, “Fundamentals of Fundraising and Development,” begins April 13. It introduces students to terms and concepts, and shows them how to identify, cultivate, offer stewardship and recognize donors. There are also classes in annual campaigns, major and principal gifts and planned giving. UCD Extension also offers information sessions where they answer questions for those interested in taking the classes.
“The skill you have to learn or practice over time is the ability to ‘make the ask’ because that can be intimidating,” Keister said. “I think it’s the No. 1 barrier people have. They can be really good at a lot of things, but when the moment comes to look the donor in the eye and make that gift, that can be very intimidating. As human beings, none of us loves being rejected, and you will hear ‘no’ more often than you hear ‘yes.’ ”
Or, if you’re the new vice chancellor for development, you’re sure to hear from a donor or two who’s unhappy about something. Keister recalled being approached by one donor less than a month after he’d taken the job at UC Davis.
“She sort of put me on notice that she was glad I was here, but there were issues that needed to be resolved,” Keister said. “It was a little scary, but I pulled her aside and I committed to her that we would fix what was broken, that we would get answers to her questions and that she would have a different experience going forward. I took her on as my pet project because, once you give your word, you have to take ownership.”
That donor later called Keister for a meeting, he said, and he wasn’t certain what to expect. She told him that she was going to make a $1 million gift to the university, he said, and when she died, she left the bulk of her estate to UC Davis. It was worth a little more than $5 million, he said.
That particular donor’s experience was a game-changer for Keister’s division, he said.
“We really learned from that experience, and she helped illuminate to me, early, some of the problems and challenges,” he said. “We didn’t just fix those things for her. We did it institution-wide. We place a much, much greater emphasis on how we thank our donors and how we report back to them on the good that their gifts have done.”