November 11, 2021

The Role of Fundraisers is Changing

Private support has always been fundamental to nonprofits. The role of fundraisers within organizations reflects a changing nonprofit landscape.

With over 1.5 million organizations nationwide, the nonprofit sector has never been larger. As a result, attracting private support, the backbone of operation, has become more crucial–and competitive–than ever before. 

“Donors have become increasingly sophisticated in the last ten years in particular,” Peña Search founder & principal Carlos Peña said. “As the sector has grown, they are bombarded with requests all year long. Donors are now more mindful and strategic about where they put their philanthropic support, wanting to maximize their impact or move the needle in a way that is meaningful to them.”

A result of this new generation of donors? A new generation of fundraisers. We spoke with Carlos and search director Travis Hillier about how the role has changed in the past ten years, both in terms of donor mindset and evolving technology. 

Role of Fundraisers in a Changing Landscape

Twenty to twenty-five years ago, the nonprofit sector looked very different. Many working within organizations came to them by chance, not as part of any specific career path. Those who fundraised did so mainly within their existing networks. 

“Being a fundraiser used to be mostly about building relationships with responsive donors,” Carlos said. “People would give to an organization because they knew and trusted the CEO or a board member.”

This has shifted majorly over the past 15 years, as nonprofits have become desirable career paths to a younger generation, especially among women and people of color. Graduate programs devote study to nonprofit management and fundraising, as well as large development offices driven by complicated analytics and donor metrics. 

“The professionalization of the nonprofit sector in general seems to have contributed to fundraising becoming a more sophisticated field,” Travis said. “It seems like there has been a significant shift away from event or direct mail management to more of an emphasis on cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding decision-makers or individual donors.”

Carlos agrees, noting that a more informed donor pool requires more informed fundraisers. 

“Donors are asking new questions–they are asking for outcomes, for collaborations, for data that shows that their money is making an impact,” he said. “Because of the donor sophistication, fundraisers have had to become more sophisticated, too.”

Technology & Fundraising 

Technology has doubtlessly evolved over the past two decades, right alongside the role of fundraisers. What once was tracked through gut feelings and personal relationships is now incredibly scientific.

“Many development departments have donor databases, which are powerful tools when they are used correctly,” Carlos said. “A well-organized advancement office is constantly looking at the way that regular donors are giving, looking at year-to-year metrics to identify good donors as well as learning about the successes and failures of their organization’s programs. Analyzing the data on a regular basis is extremely important.”

Databases can tell development departments a lot about their donor base. However, it is up to the individual fundraiser–and broader organization–to adapt accordingly. 

“They are more adept at using data, and organizations are finding new ways to measure the impact of their work in a scientific manner,” Carlos said. 

The Future of Fundraising

As the Information Era progresses, fundraisers must continue to adapt to a more informed donor base. Those looking to move up in their careers will need to bring data of their own successes to the table. 

“One thing I tell everyone is to document the positive changes that you are bringing to your current organization through your work in quantifiable numbers,” Carlos said. “If you increase the number of donors or the size of the average gift, keep track and document your work. That is going to be your strongest case for your next employer.”

One thing that Carlos doesn’t see changing? The importance of drive. 

“You have to be a good communicator–you have to go to the right people to fund a project and make a compelling case for why they should support your specific mission instead of something else,” he said. “Very successful fundraisers get fired up by the challenge of closing the gift. The thrill is to be able to close the deal, and it takes a specific type of person.”

Are you ready to make an impact for an organization through fundraising? Explore our open searches now.