Where are we Headed, as a Field? Sarah K. Nathan Interview

Sarah K Nathan PhD

Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I am so excited to interview today Ms. Sarah K. Nathan, PhD, who will be speaking at the Fundraising Career Conference April 6 – 8, 2016. And one of the things that I’m really excited about why she’s speaking for us is because we often sort of have our heads so far down into our day to day tasks that we don’t ever look up and ask, who are we really as fundraisers? How can we help fundraisers be the best they can be for our organizations? So to answer this questions, I am so excited to interview her today. Hopefully you’ll come to her session and learn even more about her exciting research. So Ms. Sarah K. Nathan, who are you and what do you do?

SN:Hi, everyone. Like Mazarine said, I’m Sarah and I have a dual role this year. I am an assistant professor of nonprofit management and philanthropy for Bay Path University located in Western Massachusetts, a small town called Long Meadow. For Bay Path, I teach and advise online graduate students in our nonprofit management and strategic fundraising Masters degree program. I am physically residing in Indiana. So I have a half appointment at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I’m also a graduate of the Lilly Family School, the first school of philanthropy in the world. At the Lilly Family School, I’m doing a variety of projects. One is this national research project that I’ll share more about with you, about the fundraising profession. Another really great project that we are really excited to release this week is Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, fourth edition, which has become a real classic text in the fundraising world. The fourth edition is edited by three giants in the field, and I served as the managing editor for this book. It has been revised with all of the most recent research about philanthropy and fundraising. Yet it still remains true to its original philosophy and the maxims of Hank Rosso, another giant in professional fundraising. So that’s been a really exciting project to be working on.

MT: Yeah, that just came out. So I’m totally going to check that out. Thanks for sharing about that, Sarah.

SN: Yeah, thank you. I hope everyone checks it out.

MT: And so what are you teaching at the Fundraising Career Conference in 2016?

SN: I’ll be sharing my research called Fundraisers: Their Careers, Stories, Concerns, and Accomplishments.

MT: Wow. So tell us about your project and how it came about.

SN: Great, yeah. Happy to. Fundraisers: Their Careers, Stories, Concerns, and Accomplishments is actually the replication of a study that was done in the mid-1990s and published in a book of the same name. But very few people actually know about this study. So in the mid-90s, individuals from AFP and what was then the Center on Philanthropy wanted to know who fundraisers were. This is a time in the 90s that fundraising still was not really considered a profession. It was considered a field, a job. But there really wasn’t a solid body of knowledge or shared knowledge yet in what we now are calling the profession. So Jean Temple and Ted [unintelligible 00:04:07] did this national study of about 1,800 fundraisers all over the country. The survey was done on paper, literally. They mailed the surveys and then received them all back and had to hand tabulate them. Thankfully now that we’ve replicated the study, we can do it all electronically.

But anyways, so in the mid-90s was this very first study of the fundraising profession, then considered a field, and wanted to understand how people became fundraisers, what their career paths were like, and the issues that they faced. We’re really excited now to have replicated that study and begin to understand how the profession has changed over about 25 years.

MT: Wow. So that just sounds fascinating. I mean, I think for all of us who kind of fell into fundraising, we’re not really sure what the history of it is or where we come from. Then for people who hire fundraisers, it’s nice to hear, okay, here’s what changing about the field and about the profession. And your study is going to be out in a book later this year.

SN: Right.

MT: So I’m going to just skip to this question. What has your study revealed so far?

SN: One of the most exciting things that we were hoping to find and in fact now have good data to validate is that the average age that someone first enters a fundraising job has come down. So in the mid-90s, people were about 33 years old on average when they began their first fundraising job. Well, we know a lot has changed in the last 25 years. There’s more opportunities for professional development. There’s more opportunities for nonprofit management education at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, and we knew that the profession was growing. More people were doing it. More nonprofits needed fundraisers. So we were hoping to find that the average age has come down, and in fact it has. Today the average age that someone first begins a fundraising job is age 30.

MT: Wow. And what are some other responses that you’ve been finding in your study?

SN: So I’m sure everyone listening or reading is aware of this narrative about fundraiser turnover, right? There’s inverse supply and demand. That is true. There are more fundraising jobs than there are qualified fundraisers. But a lot of really negative dialogue related to fundraiser turnover. We have some exciting data, I think that will change the narrative related to turnover. Yes, there is turnover at the lower levels. But you know what? That’s true of almost all professions. Once fundraisers get about ten years of experience, they’re staying in a job on average five years, which we think is pretty good. It’s actually more than in the study in the mid-90s. So that number is going up, and we feel really excited to know that.

We also know – we just did this analysis this week, actually. It’s really exciting. That fundraisers have higher commitment to the profession than they did 25 years ago. So the number of people saying that they’re committed to the profession, that they are going to stay in fundraising, has gone up pretty significantly. We think that’s really exciting, that people are very committed to fundraising as a profession.

MT: I love that. I love that. So many people I talk with are like. . .

SN: We do too.

MT: Like, I’m just not good at it. I’m like, no, you’re just not in the right situation. You can succeed if you’re set up to succeed. So I love that. It sounds like people are realizing that it’s just something you have to get better at.

SN: Sure, and need more experience doing it, and also need training and education. Another interesting finding is that almost 70% of our survey participants said that they primarily learned fundraising through professional development. That is, conferences and workshops, webinars. Just like the one our attendees will be part of through the Virtual Fundraising Conference. So that’s really great too. There is so much need to educate fundraisers, and it’s really great that you’re part of that, Mazarine.

MT: Oh, thank you, Sarah. Well, I love that you’re part of it too with Bay Path University, and anybody in the whole country can come and learn from you. They can come and learn from me. So I love that. So for people who are executive directors and not necessarily frontline fundraisers, they might be struggling to hire the right fundraiser. I understand that your research might uncover some things about that. So why do you think some people struggle to hire the right fundraiser and hold onto them?

SN: Well, part of it is this inverse supply and demand issue that because there are so many more fundraising jobs, it is easier for individuals to leave jobs and go to others that pay more. It’s especially true in the education subsector and the healthcare subsector. Just by virtue of their size and kind of advanced professionalization, they can attract and pay more for their fundraisers. So that’s one of the things that we are finding, and anecdotally I heard in some of the interviews people really feeling this tension between small shops and the large universities and healthcare institutions and their huge fundraising operations. That the small shops oftentimes feel devalued in the sector as a whole or in the profession. So I think that we have a little bit of work to do to change that and educate those fundraisers as well. So your question is why do executive directors have a hard time hanging onto them? Well, part of it is the supply and demand, that there are just so many opportunities. I think we have a little bit more analysis to do to really understand that in a deeper way.

MT: I love that. That’s actually consistent with what I’ve heard from other interviews that I’ve done around this issue, and also with Penelope Burk’s donor-centered leadership research, which I’m sure you’ve read.

SN: Absolutely.

MT: Right. That’s one of the number one reasons people leave is the salary. So for people who are listening who are executive directors and CEOs in nonprofits who are smaller, who are not in healthcare, like big institutions, I hope that they take from what you just said that they need to pay people more. If they say they can’t, perhaps they could do a part time basis paying a higher dollar amount per hour. That might help them hold onto people.

SN: Yeah, and I would certainly refer people to Penelope Burk’s work. While salary is not the only reason people stay, you know, it is a part of the reason people stay or leave. But it’s not the only reason. So there are certainly other things that companies, nonprofits can offer to fundraisers, and frankly to all of their employees, to make it work in their lives, whatever those other benefits may be. Flexible work hours, more vacation time, whatever those things are. There’s certainly ways to make up for less salary.

MT: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s not just about the money. But that’s one of the big findings that she had, I know. Then what’s one mistake you see people make over and over when trying to hire and manage fundraisers? Has the research revealed anything about that?

SN: I don’t think so. I don’t think we have uncovered anything in our research about that. Because our research is really coming from the individual fundraisers’ perspectives and not necessarily the hiring manager’s perspective, I don’t want to claim to have an answer to that question just yet. I think we have a little more work to do, and our study is a pretty comprehensive study. There’s so much we can do with the data that we just haven’t got to yet, which is a good problem to have. And hopefully by April we’ll have more of that analysis done that we can share with your participants.

MT: I love that. Will you be able to give us a synopsis of the research as sort of a take away from your session?

SN: Absolutely.

MT: Wonderful. I think everybody could really benefit from learning about sort of the past of the profession, the future of the profession, and where we are right now based on your research.

SN: Right. I’m happy to share that.

MT: I really appreciate that. Oh, thank you.

SN: Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity to share it.

MT: It’s so important. It’s so important that more people see this as a profession, and it sounds like they are. So that’s really, really good news to hear from your research. I guess I had a question of anything else you’d like to add?

SN: I want to hold onto a couple of things before our time together in April. So I think those kind of three topics that we previewed today are a good teaser to what I have in store for April.

MT: I love that. So that’s lovely. So how can people get in touch with you?

SN: You’re welcome to email me through Bay Path University, and my email is

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