There were a number of things I’d planned to do during lockdown. I had all the best intentions to do more blogging on The Altruist, but I wondered what I could say that hadn’t already been said. Improving the look and feel of this website was also high up on the list that I never bothered to make, but with technical skills not being my finest accomplishment, I decided to play to my strengths instead. So I created a series of one woman sketches on my phone to entertain my friends (and let’s be honest, myself) who I knew were anxious or bored out of their minds and I put them out on Facebook.
For the first time in my life I was getting to spend an inordinate amount of time alone – eleven weeks, how did we do it? – and whilst I was fortunate enough to be working, I used the downtime not to polish the areas of my life that needed improvement, but to revel in what I was already good at. It was only when I was invited onto the IOF’s First Thursday event on Resilience, Being Agile and Well-Being that I started thinking more about the importance of focusing on personal strengths and how aligning your personality with your purpose is the most potent thing you can do for your career.
The pandemic has reminded us all of the newness of fundraising as a profession. We weren’t affected by the mass unemployment in the 80s because we didn’t really exist (try googling ‘fundraising in the 1980s’ and see what you come up with). Raising money for charity when I was growing up often meant well-meaning ladies rattling tins after church or holding village fetes where you guessed how many sweets there were in the jar. On a more national and ambitious scale, it was something Blue Peter did on a Thursday Night.
For many of us, we swerved another asteroid after the financial crash of 2008 when it was our ability to generate much needed cash that gave us our value in the workplace. Yes, there were casualties, but ultimately as a sector we felt we were more recession-proof than others and certainly more in demand. The depth and scale of the Covid-19 crisis has handed us a very different set of circumstances and as we move through to the uncertainty of autumn, it’s important to remember that it isn’t our ability to raise money that gives us our true and fullest value, but the myriad soft skills that enable us to get there. Many of the skills that fundraisers already possess are exactly what employers want and whether you stay in the sector or whether you move on somewhere new, we should all be individually recognising and celebrating them.
So what are these amazing abilities? Well, it wouldn’t be too difficult to align them with the findings of LinkedIn Learning who revealed earlier this year that the top five soft skills most desirable to employers are creativity, collaboration, persuasiveness, adaptability and emotional intelligence. As fundraisers, the central tenet of what we do is to persuade. Every time you write a case for support you are demonstrating the power of the why. Every donor meeting you take you are attempting to take someone on a journey with you. If you’re preparing for a job interview, it’s worth mulling over some of the specific ways that you create, collaborate, persuade, adapt to new circumstances (we’ve had plenty of experience of that recently) and operate in harmony with others and their feelings in your current role. Most fundraisers will have a multitude of examples they can share.
Get to know your individual strengths
As a society we are obsessed with focusing on weakness. How do we get you better at that thing you’re not very good at? We hear it throughout school in our end of term reports and often it continues to rear its unhelpful head in our appraisals at work. Part of this is to do with our Anglo-Saxon work ethic and natural mistrust of anything that feels easy, but it is in stepping into our sweet spot where the biggest successes can happen and it shouldn’t feel like pushing water uphill.
Even if you’re not actively seeking work right now, start to think about the things at which you naturally excel. These aren’t your skills – which are tangible areas you can work on and improve – but your individual strengths. The things that feel like breathing in and out. The parts of your job that make you think ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this’.
Perhaps you are a young fundraiser in the early stages of your career and you have a natural gift for relating to people from all walks of life and an ability to meet everyone on a level. This is an invaluable strength that not that many people have and it will open doors for you. It will also mean you’ll hear a fair bit of ‘who does she think she is?’ during your career, but take this as confirmation you’re on the right path and keep going. Recall a specific time that you were able to bring this strength into action and be able to talk compellingly about how it benefited your cause.
The last time I heard the word pivot so much it was being bellowed at me on a netball court in 1987 and, like many of the words this pandemic has spawned, it should probably be driven along the cliché highway and then off the edge of a cliff. However, the principle behind it really does matter. It’s possible that fundraisers of the future will need to be able to move with greater ease through different disciplines and, as some major charities begin to merge, the ability to change and collaborate with others will be key.
Now more than ever (yes, sorry I went there) squeezing yourself into an ill-fitting job description just isn’t going to cut it. If you’re an Individual Giving Manager and have a talent for the written word, perhaps you can offer to help your Trusts and Foundations team with their grant writing? Maybe you could start by breaking down a small section and taking ownership of it or giving them a few hours of your time to research new trusts? They are probably going to be the team most under pressure right now and are also the most resilient to redundancy, so it won’t do any harm to be able to demonstrate your adaptability in this area. Likewise if your organisation is planning a campaign and you’re someone who buzzes with creative ideas, get involved and pitch some of them to your Comms team. You are most likely to know the kind of words, images and stories that will resonate with your donors so regardless of your job title, make sure you make your voice heard.
Develop your Emotional Intelligence
With the relentless march of AI, it’s probably not surprising that emotional intelligence is a new entry to the list of most wanted soft skills, having knocked time management off its number five spot in LinkedIn’s research. Again, this puts fundraisers way ahead of the game. If emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise, utilise and manage emotions in positive ways, we exercise this muscle every day with our donors. We manage relationships, uncover motivations and find ways to tell stories that will elicit gifts and engagement. A smart machine might be able to analyse a compound problem and present a series of perfectly aligned solutions, but it struggles to navigate the complexities of the human heart.
This is why the idea of emotional intelligence being a poor cousin to the intellect is becoming outdated, with more employers realising that all the technical and cognitive knowledge in the world is of limited value without the power to relate. Whilst a great deal of work is being undertaken to try to make AI more in tune with our inner lives (like the ability to recognise micro-expressions and vocal inflections – creepy), humans remain king in this arena and I would hazard a guess that in the not too distant future, emotional intelligence will be the number one hot skill for which employers are clamouring.
It’s true to say that EI comes more naturally to some people than others, but there are practical ways to becoming more attuned to how people are feeling. Getting better at listening is a great place to start and Zoom calls actually lend themselves well to this as we try hard not to talk over one another. Listening with intent is the ultimate act of generosity and it tends to be much harder than people think. By asking more open questions in meetings and really trying to be in the moment, you can listen and observe rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next.
In a heavily contested job market, it will be focusing on the strengths you already have, those things that come easily and naturally to you that will give you your potency and make you stand out from the crowd. As a fundraiser you are already carrying with you a highly sophisticated set of skills that you probably don’t even know about. Get to know them and yourself a little better and trust that they will get you through because to quote Oprah (and I always seem to manage to) when you align your personality with your purpose nothing can touch you.