Fundraising’s best and brightest share their journeys
14 June 2022 at 8:39 am
“If an opportunity presents itself and the time is right for you, go for it”
A packed crowd filled the room at FIA Conference 2022 to hear from three of the country’s best young fundraisers about what they’ve learned over their careers so far.
The session featured three previous winners of FIA’s Young Fundraiser of the Year: Steffi Chang, Alexandra Struthers and Alan White.
Each presenter spoke about the challenges they’ve faced to make it in the busy world of fundraising, how future leaders can get ahead, and what their managers can do to assist them.
Chang’s passion for fundraising began when she started a role as a face-to-face fundraiser 12 years ago.
“I was one of the people with a t-shirt and clipboard trying to stop people on street corners,” she laughed.
And while she said this was an amazing start to her journey in the industry, it was also where she first encountered racial microaggressions.
Donors would make comments on her southeast-Asian appearance, suggesting that people “like her” weren’t usually generous or caring. Meanwhile, a recruiter told her that he would normally pass over people with Asian-sounding names.
Fast forward several years and Chang decided to make the move to a career in philanthropy. She recalled “feeling like a fish out of water” in her new role and wondering how she would succeed in the career or connect with donors who, more often than not, were Caucasian.
“I had a real onset of imposter syndrome: who was I, an immigrant girl, who didn’t know anything about their world?” she said.
In what turned out to be a significant turn of events, she was matched with a mentor in her company: a queer Asian man who showed her how he operated within the philanthropy environment.
“He used all the intersections of his identity to strengthen his connections with the donors. And seeing that, and him mentoring me, really helped to help me find my way. Without that kind of mentorship, I don’t think I’d be where I am today,” Chang said at the conference.
In 2020, she was announced as the winner of the FIA Young Fundraiser of the Year award. She said it was “momentous” that someone like her, “who you often see on the brochures and appeals, who usually is the face of the beneficiary, [was] up there and accepting this award”.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are important to Chang, who used her presentation to call on fundraising and philanthropy organisations to embrace the benefits that diversity can bring – from greater financial returns, to a better understanding of donors.
Now working for Plan International as philanthropy manager, Chang said she champions inclusion and equity every day within the organisation. She helps to mentor and advocate for junior staff and is part of the anti-racism council within Plan.
She challenged organisations to think of five factors when considering diversity, equity and inclusion:
- Consider what “merit” means and don’t ignore diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Foster inclusion, for example by mandating unconscious bias training for staff or celebrating cultural days.
- When recruiting, go to the source – go to the cultural or other groups that you want to include in your workforce.
- Be explicit in job advertisements about who you want to hire by including phrases like “all gender identities, culturally and linguistically diverse people and neurodiverse people of all abilities”.
- Remember that diverse employees aren’t just there to talk about diversity issues, they’re there to contribute to your organisation and its decision making.
Struthers used her presentation to reflect on the power of opportunity.
She began in the Red Cross just after the Boxing Day tsunami and said a “spectacular manager” encouraged her to take on more opportunities at Red Cross. The manager also advocated for her within the organisations.
Struthers said she made the most of every opportunity that came her way when it was offered, and she advised young fundraisers to do the same. She said building strong relationships with leaders and colleagues was crucial to opening doors.
“Particularly leaders that you resonate with and you get along with and you respect and admire, you can learn from those relationships. You never know where the opportunity will lead,” she said.
She joined Make-A-Wish Foundation and met many mentors who helped her grow into her career. While there, Struthers won the Young Fundraiser of the Year Award in 2015 after her team decided to nominate her.
“I was blown away by their generosity and passion,” she recalled.
In 2020 she joined the Leukaemia Foundation where she once again had “opportunity after opportunity” thrown at her, along with a number of challenges. She took on the role of acting CEO just as the pandemic hit and when it became apparent that there was no one to lead HR, she leapt into that role too.
“I could have at any point said ‘that’s too much, it’s too hard’. But, you know, if an opportunity presents itself and the time is right for you, go for it,” Struthers told the audience.
But she admitted, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The biggest challenge Struthers has faced over her career has been poor leadership, which she said had created obstacles at all levels.
“[Poor managers] can squash people’s desire to learn and grow and develop, and will also make them leave your organisation,” she said.
For those young fundraisers looking to develop their leadership skills, Struthers recommended three pillars of learning: learning about self, learning about others and learning about the profession. Together, she said these skills would help a person become well-rounded and relevant – ready for the next opportunity to step forward.
Currently director of fundraising and marketing at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, White won Young Fundraiser of the Year in the FIA Awards in 2019.
White considers himself a “generalist” fundraiser and said when he started out in the career, he didn’t want to specialise in any one area; he wanted to learn and become good at all of them.
“I recognise that specialists have so much value to an organisation. And how many great philanthropy specialists, or events specialists, or digital specialists do we know? But never forget the people that aren’t specialists, they’re asking the right questions to help the specialists’ journeys,” he told the FIA audience.
He’s especially proud of being a fundraiser and being able to use his skills to lift others up.
Describing himself as ambitious, White told the audience how he got a taste for philanthropy at university while studying law, when he took over the Student Philanthropy Council.
Through this he discovered a love for fundraising and helping to change people’s lives. After applying for multiple jobs, White landed a role with Oxfam when leaders decided to “take a risk” and hire him.
“If you’re in the room and you’re a young fundraiser, persevere and push, continue to push, knock that door down if the door is not open for you. If you’re a leader in this room, I’m asking you to take risks on people, take a chance on people,” he said.
Now a leader at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, White said that, looking back, he was satisfied with his career path – from shuffling envelopes to managing multiple teams.
He paid tribute to the leaders who had pushed him on in his career, prompting him to seek out learning opportunities and chances to take the next step or the next position or get involved on a new project.
“They gave me the tools. They gave me the opportunity or they opened the pathway,” he explained.
He encouraged leaders to have conversations with their staff about their ambitions and plans for the future, and to put development plans in place to help them get there.
White also encouraged emerging leaders to find a manager or mentor who could help them achieve their career goals and build their skills for the future.
“What are your goals? Have you told anyone? And how will your employer help you get there in the future? Challenge them.” he concluded.