Versatile, Passionate Fundraisers

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Christel Allen Hair knows the truck drivers and the big check writers, the soup kitchen managers and the board members. She and her fundraising team at the Capital Area Food Bank occasionally help bring boxes of food to organizations in Southeast Washington.

Like other nonprofit fundraising gurus, she sees her job as much more than a paycheck. "When you believe in the organization and its mission, it's easy. You do not feel as pressured because you're asking for money" Hair said.

"It's about friend-raising," she said, making connections so those friends will give time, money or food, which keeps the organization running and "keeps people fed."

Becoming a director of fundraising -- in Hair's case the title is chief development officer -- means understanding the many avenues for raising money: e-mail, direct mail, telephone solicitations and special events. It means cultivating major donors, obtaining grants or foundation support and making sure everyone is properly recognized or thanked.

It's a field that is flourishing as the number of organizations grows and the need to find private donations does, too. Washington and its suburbs are home to more than 23,000 nonprofit groups, many of them national or international, and that number has risen steadily. Demand for fundraisers also is rising, especially those with experience or an ability to juggle myriad tasks.

Fundraisers often come to the job as a second career, as Hair did.

She worked as a buyer for Woodward & Lothrop, the local department store that shut down in 1995. She then moved into planning events and doing marketing for Inroads, which places minority youth in business internships. Most fundraisers' backgrounds are in public relations and marketing, business or education, although one in 10 lands a job straight out of college, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals 2006 salary survey.

Some may work with a group first as a volunteer, serving on the development committee or helping organize a black-tie fundraiser.

"If you volunteer at the organization and really fall in love with the group, you could end up working there," said Martha Schumacher, who spent nine years as director of development for Defenders of Wildlife and now runs her own District fundraising consultancy, Hazen Inc.

That's because fundraising requires commitment to the cause and a passion for the group's mission. It's also a jack-of-all trades job.

"You really have to be able to get your hands dirty," said Hair, who juggles meetings with donors and board members while planning events, sending e-mails, writing thank-you notes and reviewing grant proposals. She often takes work home and works 50 to 55 hours a week overseeing a staff of eight.

Multi-tasking and great time management are musts. Other crucial traits include budgeting skills, a willingness to learn new things and the ability to relate to "boss, donors, committees, volunteers, other staff," said Lilya Wagner, who taught fundraising and philanthropy at Indiana University and now is an executive at the nonprofit Counterpart International. "A fundraiser cannot sing solo."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company