Big or Small Charity? What to Consider When Looking the Right Fundraising Job

Fundraisers looking to make a move should consider how a small or large nonprofit fits their career ambitions and way of working. We asked development officers and consultants to suggest questions to keep in mind.

Are you entrepreneurial ...

Enterprising fundraisers are often drawn to small or midsize nonprofits, says Marc Pitman, a fundraising consultant and author of Ask Without Fear! "Littler shops reward people who are good at being self-starters and having ideas and who move in quickly to make them happen," he says.

Think of being in a small, nimble boat versus a cruise ship, says Scott Koskoski, who manages eight fundraisers at the Morris Animal Foundation. "I want to hold the map, I want to hold the steering wheel, I want to feel the water on my face as we’re charting the course for the organization."

... or do you thrive on structure?

Jobs at larger organizations often come with defined duties and responsibilities. This can appeal to individuals who like to improve systems, not build them. Those who succeed at large nonprofits typically like working with a big team and show patience when they meet with bureaucracy, says consultant Andrea Kihlstedt. "It takes someone who isn’t going to get frustrated by the complexity and can remain focused on the ultimate goal of helping the donor fulfill their vision."

Do you want to spend most of your time with donors?

Though small shops typically offer a blend of internal administrative work and direct interaction with donors, fundraisers often say they don’t get enough time with their group’s backers. Many large organizations, however, have frontline fundraisers who devote nearly all of their time to donor work. Consultant Brian Saber, for example, was formerly the chief Midwest fundraiser for Brandeis University, his alma mater. He was "the lone ranger" in Chicago and had lots of freedom to be in the field with donors.

Do you prefer an internal role ...

In some larger organizations, fundraisers might spend more time managing staff and doing operational work that may involve little or no contact with donors, says Jethro Miller, who oversees around 100 fundraisers as chief development officer for Planned Parenthood and its political arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

... or hands-on mission work?

Some small and midsize groups are more closely connected with their organization's mission on a day-to-day basis. The development team of 12 at Harlem RBI, which organizes tutoring and sports activities for children in East Harlem, spends a lot of time with the kids the group serves. "We are much closer to the work we’re doing here in our community," says Megan Hodges, the charity’s development director. "You just have a much more mission-focused experience."

Are you a specialist ...

If you’re looking to get deep in the weeds of a particular aspect of fundraising — donor relations, say, or special events — larger nonprofits might be a better fit, as they tend toward staff specialization, says Mr. Saber, who helped develop the Asking Styles Assessment test with Ms. Kihlstedt.

A caveat: The larger the organization, the more likely you will have to fit into a proscribed role, he says. "For someone who likes to try out one thing and then shift if it doesn’t work out well, it can be challenging to work inside a big organization."

... or a renaissance person?

A lot of small or midsize organizations ask one fundraiser to juggle tasks that might be handled by a dozen different people at a larger group. If you like to mix up your day-to-day work or want an introduction to a variety of fundraising roles, smaller organizations may offer the better chance to be a generalist. If not, you might quickly burn out.

Still not sure how you fit in?

Consider taking a personality or ability-assessment test — like the well-known Myers-Briggs, the in-depth Highlands Ability Battery, or the free, fundraiser-specific Asking Styles Assessment. The tests can help you consider how to find the best fit, Mr. Pitman says.

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