by Sarah Jane O’Neill, Philanthropy Company

When I gave up pursuing a professional acting career in the late nineties, it wasn’t because I didn’t love the work.  What I knew, even in those early days of my career, was that however much I was enthralled by the creative process of performance, I was fundamentally unsuited to the life of an actor.  Even if you’re a star, you are still a hostage to the telephone and to the whims of others and what I wanted most was to be a driver, not a passenger. It’s the ability to shape my own career that drives me to work as a consultant major donor specialist these days. Personally, I find the baggage that comes with an employed role at a charity too heavy to carry.

Anyone who saw the long and lively thread on Facebook’s Fundraising Chat on the relative value of working in-house versus working as a consultant, will recognise these perennial themes – more flexibility, less politics, better pay, more respect.  I would argue that it can be distilled down to one very simple principle: let fundraisers fundraise.

The Curse of the ‘Team Player’

It seems in most organisations, the higher you climb in the profession, the further away you get from front line fundraising.  Your working day becomes consumed by line management and internal processes and your role is largely about inspiring and guiding others.  As admirable as that may be, is it always the right route?  One Fundraising Director told me that she wondered if she could even remember how to raise money as she had, in her own words, become ‘just a high level coordinator’.

It’s important to say here that those who have a gift for managing and mentoring teams are in possession of a rarer skill than we might like to imagine.  They should be nurtured and celebrated, but it is not a path for everyone and it should not be seen as the pinnacle of a career in fundraising.  

It’s my view that we need more stand-alone fundraising roles – particularly in major gifts – and flatter hierarchies in development teams so that all the talent is being given a voice. 

Yes, of course, someone must ultimately lead, but organisations should be looking to dial down the crowd-control because for many fundraisers it is crippling creativity.  No-one can have five direct reports and perform at their optimum capacity in the external world if 75% of their job is forcing them to look inwards.  

Critically, we need a change in attitudes about what it means to be senior in the profession.  The sweet spot in any career comes when you are able to align your personality with your purpose.  Just because you don’t want to lead teams of people it doesn’t mean you are not a team player, nor does it make you a misfit.  You are probably someone with an aptitude to create a significant return on investment and I believe charities need to make more space for this kind of leadership.

Getting Out of Each Other’s Way

There is much talk of White women in the sector needing to step up and be allies to people of colour and LGBTQ+ folk and I couldn’t agree more.  But we also need to be allies to each other.  We need an active culture of womxn supporting womxn across all charities with more mentoring, more opportunities to shine and more honest conversation.  We need to understand that there is enough of the pie to go round and most of all we need to get out of each other’s way.  

I could write a thesis on the amount of times this didn’t happen for me in-house.  One line manager told me I wasn’t permitted to communicate at all with the Chief Executive unless it was through her.   If you’re an accomplished major donor fundraiser and there are strictly imposed layers of hierarchy between you and the most important outward-facing person in your organisation, you may as well just go home.  There should be some dotted line accountability, but wedged between a CEO and the onerous responsibilities of middle management, certainly made me ask myself: 

“Do I  want to be the filling in this sandwich?”

I remember one very senior major gifts fundraiser turned consultant saying of being in-house, “It’s like being on a football team because you have a reputation for getting them in the back of the net, but no-one will let you off the subs bench.” 

A Word on Listening

Good listening is the cornerstone of any successful fundraising and it’s ironic that a common complaint in development teams is that they’re not being listened to by the people who have hired them.  I can only imagine how infuriating it must be when a well-paid consultant comes in, only to voice what the Development Team has been saying for years, like it’s some big new idea and to watch as things finally start to happen. I would encourage senior leaders to practice active listening with fundraising teams and to ensure that their ideas are tested to help retain fundraising talent. 

One of the reasons I have recently joined The Philanthropy Company as Associate Director is that I believe consultants are at their most potent when they can work in harmony with the in-house team whilst still maintaining their outside, aerial view.  Consultants can help build bridges between long established silos and bring new specialisms that charities are keen to test.  But most importantly they can shine a light on the art of the possible because when you are mired in the day to day, that isn’t always easy to see.  

So let’s lighten the load for fundraisers and make them want to stay.  Let’s get more off the bench and onto the pitch because it’s only then we can see how good their game can be.  

Sarah Jane O’Neill is Associate Director at and can be found on Twitter @s_joneill.