Rarely do development professionals set out for a career in philanthropy. Most young people—and even some adults—are unaware that fundraising is a career opportunity. When asked how they got into the profession, many development professionals reply that they just “fell into it” or that another fundraiser told them they “might be good at it.”

No one “falls” into a career. Rather, most development professionals have a unique set of experiences and skills that makes them well-suited for their career in philanthropy. Taking time to flesh out the high points of your career trajectory will give you greater credibility with both internal and external constituents.

You help other committed professionals—clinicians, academics, researchers—raise money for their important work. These professionals have dedicated their lives to honing their craft and advancing knowledge in their chosen area. When they ask how you chose a career in philanthropy, they are really asking about your level of dedication. They may be dismayed to learn that their development partner “fell into” fundraising.

Similarly, the donors and potential donors with whom you work have sacrificed their time and resources to build their own successful enterprises. Now they are interested in making a difference in the lives of others—perhaps through a transformational contribution. They, too, want to work with dedicated professionals who are passionate about their work, not someone who “fell into” the job or “might be good at it.”

Preparing and practicing your personal story about how you became a development professional is an essential component of establishing rapport and building a trust-based relationship with internal and external constituents. For some, their career path in philanthropy was triggered by a significant life event. Perhaps they lost a loved one to a disease, and now they are fundraising to support research that could lead to a cure. For others, the path may have been a more gradual series of professional—and deliberate—decisions. For example, a college job as an annual gifts caller sparked an interest in a career in development or, feeling unfulfilled with their career of selling insurance, they decided to apply their skills in sales to describing philanthropic opportunities to potential donors and, in the process, becoming an agent of transformational change.

Uncovering the forks in the road where you had to make your own key decisions about committing to and developing your career in philanthropy will pay dividends with internal partners, donors, and potential donors. An additional benefit of polishing up your story of how you became a development professional is that it reinforces—for you—your decision to make philanthropy your life’s work.

Psychologists have demonstrated that changing our mindset about a subject is critical to helping us change our behavior. We can reap huge benefits by simply thinking about a subject in a positive light. A study done by Stanford psychologist Dr. Alicia Crum demonstrates the power that changing one’s mindset has on a desired outcome. She tracked a group of housekeepers who, despite being active and on their feet most of the day, felt they did not exercise regularly. Dr. Crum divided the group in half and gave one group a brief presentation about how their work was good exercise, highlighting the calories their housekeeping tasks burned. Four weeks later, the group that saw the presentation had reduced their weight, body fat, and blood pressure while the control group—which did not see the presentation—had no change.

Like the housekeepers in Dr. Crum’s study, the mindset with which you approach your career in philanthropy could significantly affect your performance—either positively or negatively. In what ways might your work be affected if you think of your profession as something that you just happened to “fall into?” On the other hand, think about the intensity and focus with which you will approach your career if you take the time to examine the experiences and the deliberate decisions that were instrumental in shaping you into the development professional you are today.

The simple exercise of crafting a compelling account of your career trajectory as a development professional—one that that highlights the intentionality with which you walked that path—can be a powerful tool in building trust-based relationships with your partners as well as your North Star, guiding the important work that you do.


Chart success for your career trajectory by participating in one of our public workshops.

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