How Did You Get Here? | npENGAGE

How Did You Get Here?

By on Feb 8, 2011


Those of us who have been “in the business” for a while probably can’t even count the number of times we have been asked “How did you ever get into development?”  Of course, the first hurdle is getting others to understand what exactly “development” is.  After nearly 30 years “in the profession”, I still frequently have to provide some facts:  “Development is, essentially, fund raising and no, that doesn’t mean I am selling candy bars.”

Once we get past that, the inevitable next question is, “Did you actually go to school to learn to do this?”  Well, no, in the strictest sense of the question, most of us didn’t.  Back in the day—which in this case means 20+ years ago, there weren’t any programs in what has come to be known as “Non-profit Management”.  Most fund raisers could probably give you a unique story of how they got where they are.

Common denominators crop up, however, and, if you listen closely, you might be able to see that, in fact, perhaps many of us did, in fact, go to school to learn to do “it”.  We just didn’t know at the time just what “it” would be. Undergraduate degrees were often English, Public Relations, Education, or Communications.  Some of us sought out university or other non-profit jobs simply because other positions, such as those in teaching, weren’t plentiful, didn’t pay well, or didn’t offer as good of benefits.  Personally, I opted for a college admissions position because it paid 25% more than teaching—and included a car!  No small deal when you are 22, broke and trying to make ends meet. However, I stayed in a non-profit setting long after my need for a steady paycheck was paramount.  The reason was pretty simple—I had found a mission in which I believed.

That experience could probably be echoed by many other development professionals.  While many may not actually have planned on a non-profit career, they may have stayed because of a true commitment to the cause.  Today, however, the career landscape has changed; in some ways, dramatically so.  Young men and women are often motivated to obtain degrees in non-profit management—a program not even available back when I graduated from high school in the 70’s.  (Well, I can’t say that for sure –truth be told, I never thought to check.)  According to the Non Profit Quarterly, “The Seton Hall University directory of nonprofit management program currently lists more the 250 college and universities offering undergraduate, graduate and post graduate courses.  Wow.  Who would’ve thought?

So, perhaps the question today has become more complex.  Rather than simply “how did you get here?”, maybe we need to explore, “Do you need a degree in non-profit management to get here-or further?”  I have my own opinions on that, as do many others.  I will share some of those thoughts with you next time.  In the meantime, I would love to hear what you think.  Email me at and tell me your thoughts. 

*Laura Worcester is a senior consultant at Target Analytics.


Laura Worcester, senior consultant at Target Analytics, joined Blackbaud in 2001.In her current role she advises nonprofits on utilizing screening results in identifying and evaluating best donor prospects. In 25+ years of fundraising experience, Laura has served as the chief advancement officer for numerous organizations and managed her own consulting business, providing grant writing services to arts, educational and health care organizations. She’s presented at development conferences and has been a regular contributor to Blackbaud’s blogs with selected posts being reprinted in journals such the NonProfit Times. A traveler since her study abroad days in Denmark, Laura’s committed to passing this enthusiasm on to her teenage daughters. Her family’s travel adventures were just featured in a neighborhood magazine in her suburban Milwaukee community. Contact Laura by email.

Comments (5)

  • Laura:

    Just wanted to say what a great blog! I am in charge of prospect research at WKU and when accepted a position as an assistant here working in prospect research and stewardship almost six years ago (I took over prospect research full time about a year later when the prospect researcher took an MGO position), I had no idea what prospect research was. But once it was explained to me I knew I could use the skills I had been taught to earn my journalism degree from Colorado State in 1984. Finally, a use for the money my parents had spent!

    Anyway, it really has been a great fit and I too love the job because it can lead to a greater good, and someone often gets to share a story of how a professor or administrator or other person here at WKU helped them once they are reconnected. I can often play a role in that, which to me, is really cool.

    When people ask what I do, I explain it very similarly to how you did – I work in fund raising, helping the officers identify and learn about the people they want to approach for gifts. If they knew it was so much more their eyes would roll to the backs of their heads, but I think it is a truly fascinating profession. Things have changed immensely since I have been involved – social media being one of the biggest changes – and it will be interesting to see how it changes in the next five years.

    So, truthfully, I don’t think someone needs to have a degree in non-profit management to be successful in this business. I think if they have a heart for people and getting to know what matters to them, then that is a starting point that can get them off to a successful career in development – no matter the either –from behind the scenes team members to those who are the faces of the university and its programs.

    Theresa Clark
    Prospect Research Coordinator
    Western Kentucky University
    Bowling Green, KY

  • Mark Emerson says:

    Great post! I just returned from the CASE Development Researchers conference and this very question was a “theme” for the faculty hosting the conference. It was interesting to hear the winding paths that got people into research and advancement…including the application of skills developed in the for profit world to open up new career opportunities for them.

  • I stumbled into the Development Office following a short decade or so in journalism — magazines, writing, editing, a little radio. I was working a term position in the Communications office of my local university when the prospect researcher position became open. The researcher was just down the hall, but I had little idea what she did. As it turned out, my background was a good fit for the job, as it then existed. During my five years in that position, I slowly shifted from generating in-depth profiles to doing more data mining for proactive prospect identification based on affinity to our institution. That got me interested in Annual Fund, which caused me to accept a position at Dalhousie University in Halifax NS, where I am now.

    So there was no plan; one thing just led to another. None of it was foreseeable, and therefore seeking out an education to prepare me for it was never an option I considered. Learning has happened on the job, over the Internet with counterparts at other organizations, at conferences and via training, and through involvement with professional groups such as APRA.

    I have no strong opinion about whether a degree would have been superior, or represents an urgent need in our professions, but I lean towards 'no'. Mind you, when I was a young journalist, I recall there was a lot of negative feeling about university journalism degrees among people working in the profession, which I'm guessing has since vanished as more university-educated workers came on board. One primary concern was over “credentialling” — the worrying prospect that a journalist might someday require official approval and a piece of paper in order to enjoy the same rights and media protections as other working journalists.

    In hindsight, that concern may have been overblown. If anything, we've gone the other way, as it seems anyone can mimic the practice of journalism these days. I'd prefer to read/hear an educated journalist, but that doesn't mean a Masters in Journalism as much as a solid grounding in both the humanities and social sciences — and the hard sciences if the journalist is writing about medicine, say. The “license to report” fear would seem absurd today.

    Perhaps I feel the same way as the older journalists 15 or 20 years ago — not crazy about the prospect of credentialling or licensing being linked to a piece of paper — and maybe my fears are just as unfounded.

    • Tracy Cadigan says:

      Thanks for the comment Kevin! I feel, more often than not, your college undergrad education does not necessarily point you in the direction of your career. Working for a nonprofit usually happens when you realize your committment to a cause.

    • Laura Worcester says:

      Great thoughts, Kevin–and I can truly relate! I think your characterization of “stumbling” into a development position is a term many of us could use to describe that first fateful job. While I have already related that I entered non profits as an admissions counselor because it paid more than teaching (and included that car!), I moved to development/prospect research because it was a great work study job while I was in Graduate School. I ultimately left grad school and stayed in development–and that was over 25 years ago. I have always enjoyed my varied development positions–and I, like you, opted to move to Annual Giving rather than stay in research–and I have never “lost ” a job due to lack of a graduate degree. But, younger graduates may feel differently…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *