It’s time to rethink the “frontline fundraiser”
Chapter Leadership Brief 11.4.2022
By Adam M. Doyno, MPA, CFRE
Executive Director, CUNY SPH Foundation
Director of Development, CUNY SPH Graduate School
As our profession emerges from the pandemic and its consequences to both nonprofits and many of the constituents we serve, it is time to rethink the wartime moniker of the “frontline fundraiser” in favor of a more equitable and accurate term.
For one thing, it implies that the lead fundraiser is a swashbuckling rainmaker enabling all the other functions of an organization - from researchers and grant writers to program managers – to exist. This creates a hierarchy that runs counter to the culture many nonprofits seek to build as we work towards common goals.
Having myself toiled over strategy and preparation materials for major fundraising meetings earlier in my career, I can attest that the folks working exclusively in front of a screen, going cross-eyed over a spreadsheet or database, are as critical to the overall success of the “ask” as is the person making it.
For another, the term conveys a combative, conquering approach that I believe is outdated, and possibly offensive, to the donors who are considering partnering with us. Those relationships are best realized when we cull our resources creatively to achieve better outcomes for the people and communities we serve.
So where did this term come from and why is it so prevalent? To try to get answers, I turned to the Internet, with predictable and unsatisfying results. Consultants trying to transform you or your fundraising staff into a frontline fundraiser. Books and classes about how to evolve into a frontline. Webinars through an affinity network to become “frontline” ready.
I next reached out to fellow fundraisers, friends that I have made or worked with or for over the course of 16 years. Amongst all the feedback I got from very respected individuals throughout our field in different domains and sectors, there was one mystifying common thread: there was no common definition.
When I dug deeper, I could see that the term – which seems to have emerged to prominence in the early to mid 2000s – is used haphazardly to describe those individuals making the “ask.” Some were ambivalent to the term but felt younger fundraisers saw meaning or value in it. Some wore it like a badge of honor. Some went so far as to say that its meaning has evolved over time and now implies anyone who works in advancement and not just those who are meeting prospects. Others felt it evoked an allure for the fundraising role – and a great deal of responsibility.
What this told me is that the term has no real definition - but does have a major impact on our profession’s ability to hire and cultivate fundraisers and staff.
So, let’s take a fresh look at the role and its part in our organizations – and begin to reimagine how we describe it.
Some organizations do need rainmakers: fearless individuals who exude passion for mission and charisma in a way that wallets explode in their mere presence. But not every nonprofit needs this type of fundraiser and not every fundraiser should be expected to be this person.
In fact, we as the Association of Fundraising Professionals can redefine what “frontline fundraiser” – and indeed “frontline” itself, means.
I’m not sure that these phrases need to exist, but they are not going away anytime soon. That is why we as an organization should take a leadership role in this discussion. Much like a Donor Bill of Rights, or Code of Ethics, our group is uniquely positioned to spark this conversation.
We must ensure that these words are not being misused or misunderstood by fundraisers, executives, or volunteers. This includes articulating and elevating what it means to be part of the advancement team, even if they do not sit at the table where the "ask" is made. While many fundraisers take great pride in the term, we should carefully consider how it lands with our colleagues whose skill sets lie in grant writing or prospect research, and how it shapes an organization’s culture.
Much like in a restaurant, in our industry there is the front of the house and the back of the house. Without those behind the scenes who prepare the food and orchestrate the logistics, those in the front have nothing to offer our guests.
In particular, when what is being offered are strategies for greater equality and commonality, we must hold ourselves and our terminology accountable.