Advice to a newly-minted Fundraising Director
Becoming the Fundraising Director of a national charity was a goal I set myself quite early in my career. Once I attained this ‘lofty’ position, whilst my fundraising skills were well honed, the learning curve suddenly steepened. As the manager of a large department and a key member of the wider leadership team, new skills had to be learnt quickly and some old habits broken.
Whilst I suspect some things in life have to be learned through personal experiences (the hard way) there is room to benefit from the experience and mistakes of others. So here are my Top 10 tips for new Directors of Fundraising.
My top tops for a new fundraising director
- Fully embrace your place at the ‘top table’ – Don’t let misdirected humility and self deprecation undermine your position of leadership. That’s no good for anyone. You’ve earned this, so don’t be intimidated. Your new peers may have more years experience, but never see yourself or operate as a ‘junior director’. Look into ‘imposter syndrome’ if this tip resonates. Fully play the role you’ve been given. Remember, you are always being watched! Your conduct and standards of behaviour can have enormous effects (positive or negative) on your team and the credibility of the organisation.
- Consistently sell a vision for your department – Leave no-one on your team in doubt as to what standards are expected, both personal and professional. Deal with transgressions swiftly and consistently. Use a number of methods and situations to explain what success looks like. Be prepared to repeat yourself – often.
- Really know you numbers (financials, fundraising targets, historical data etc). There is often a lot of this to remember, so keep a summary with you at all times. Refer to it frequently, until the numbers are imprinted on your mind. Easy recall will enhance your authority within your team and across your peer group.
- Trust your team of experts – You don’t have to be the guru of every fundraising technique. Hire the very best people you can afford, trust them to get on with their work, but remember you are entitled to question them and expect evidence for the conclusions they come to. Delegate the tasks, but never delegate responsibility for the outcome.
- Manage upwards effectively – For starters, do follow the old adage of “under-promise and over-deliver”. But more than this, really get to the bottom of what your CEO deems is most important, beyond the obvious of hitting income targets. You need to influence the rules of the game. What could be (objectively speaking) a great year for your department, will not be seen as such if there is a mismatch between goals agreed at the star of the year and those achieved. Don’t allow yourself to be set up for failure by goals or targets that are not realistic and not suitably resourced.
- Fight for investment in fundraising – Do your homework; build compelling evidence for your arguments. Repurpose those same powers of persuasion you use when inspiring donors to invest. Stand up against those that would starve fundraising, by a misplaced devotion to reducing all ‘overheads’ at all costs. See Dan Pallotta’s excellent YouTube TED talk on the subject for encouragement.
- Use your political savvy – Understanding the political power dynamics within the trustee board is essential (See the last point). You can either be buffeted by them or harness them to achieve your goals and what is in the interests of the charity’s beneficiaries (mutually inclusive I would hope!). The key to this is getting to know each trustee personally to understand what motivates them. It may not be what you expect, or actually what they say it is. You’ll need to discern this yourself, partly based on their actions.
- Be an internal ambassador for fundraising – Don’t expect other departments to appreciate or even understand what your team does. Get out there and share the good news of how fundraisers support them in achieving their aims. Demand equal professional respect between your team and those working directly with beneficiates. Each needs the other.
- Take action now for 2026 – It is tempting to focus almost exclusively on this year’s needs. Be brave enough to lobby for the long view. What will the person in your chair in 10 years time be pleased you set in motion? A community fundraising programme, a robust legacy marketing cycle, a management training programme?
- Get a mentor or coach – You may now be the most experienced fundraising practitioner within your charity. So if you haven’t done so already in your career, you’ll need to look outside to find the people to learn from, challenge you and enable you to reach higher.
Lastly, relax and enjoy yourself! You’ve got one of the best jobs out there, one in which you can have an enormous impact on an important social issue, with people that share your passion.
Some recommended further reading:
- ‘How to Lead’ and ‘How to Manage’ two volumes by Jo Owen (pub. Prentice Hall). You’ll never look at management and leadership the same way again. Very practical, very clever, ideal for ongoing reference.
- ‘Four obsessions extraordinary executive’ by Patrick Lencioni (pub. John Wiley & Sons). I fully recommend working through Lencioni’s full works.
- ‘The Porcupine Principle’ by Jonathan Farnhill (pub. DCS) – Equally insightful and entertaining. Ideal to share with new recruits to fundraising.