Why is Critical Thinking So Important in Fundraising?

4 minute read

Charities could not exist without fundraisers. It’s an obvious truth. Their expertise underpins everything we do – and allows us to carry on doing it, even in the most difficult economic climate.

Yet, fundraising can be too quickly summed as about being ‘good at sales’. And as such, best done by brilliant communicators with a driving ambition to seal the deal. People who could as easily be selling cars, or life insurance. It’s an image that’s damaged our sector in recent years with media stories like the Olive Cooke scandal in 2016 leaving an impression in some people’s minds of a cut-throat profession divorced from the values on which charities were originally founded

But it’s an unfair analogy. While good communication skills and the kind of energy that thrives in a sales environment are definitely key attributes for a career in fundraising, there’s a lot more to it than that. More than anything, a charity fundraiser needs to use critical thinking skills in their role so that they can move with complete integrity between the charity and its supporters.

Why is Critical Thinking So Important in Fundraising?

What do we mean by critical thinking?

It’s an ability to come up with reasoned judgements that are logical and well thought-out rather than just accepting an argument and running with it.

Specifically, when it comes to fundraising, critical thinking means taking an analytical and questioning approach. It means learning from what’s worked before rather than jumping to a conclusion that ‘well, this worked for Cancer Research or it worked for Red Nose Day, so we’ll do the same’.

As Amanda Shepard, fundraising consultant and coordinator of Rogare’s International Advisory Panel, has said, using critical thinking in fundraising is about moving on from the ‘…copy-the-case study model where fundraisers learn by going to conferences to hear about how other fundraisers have succeeded’.

We’re aiming for a new culture in which fundraisers have the confidence to ask for the theory and evidence behind anything that they are told works, or is the correct best practice.

Amanda Shephard, Rogare's International Advisory Panel

This means a successful charity fundraiser needs to be:

  • Analytical
  • Creative
  • Open-minded
  • Problem-solving
  • Reflective
  • Questioning
  • Communicative
  • Decisive

And they need to use a combination of these skills to create original fundraising campaigns. Campaigns that will work because they’re based on a thorough understanding of the facts behind the campaign – and in-depth knowledge of what makes people donate to this particular charity. Their unique grasp of what makes donors ‘tick’ must feed into the original campaign idea.


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Translating complicated ideas into simple messages

A campaign can live or die based on whether the fundraising team is able to translate complex research into campaign ideas that can be easily understood by potential donors and supporters.

So, fundraisers use critical thinking skills to ‘stress test’ what they’re being presented with as the facts behind the campaign before they take it on. Whether they’re working with corporations, major donors, legacies or they’re trying to drum up support on the high street in a branded t-shirt and a charity tin – all fundraisers need to be able to persuade others to give by keeping the message simple.

It’s about taking something that’s complex and knowing how to extract the important bits, the key messages. And then have the confidence to communicate these messages in a way that’s clear and engaging.

Why is Critical Thinking So Important in Fundraising?

Critical thinking applies to knowing your donors too

Donors need to feel good about giving. So, a charity fundraiser will work hard to help their donors get the most meaning and satisfaction from their giving, their ‘philanthropy’.

It’s a relationship that a fundraiser will develop and nurture over time and they’ll use their knowledge of donor behaviour—as well the psychology of giving—to think around a campaign idea and make sure that it fits with what they know about what makes people want to give to this specific charity.

If a fundraiser thinks their donors won’t ‘buy’ this campaign—then it won’t work.



Fundraising as a profession

Recently, the Institute of Fundraising was granted permission by the Privy Council to apply to for Chartered status. That shows how seriously our sector is now taking the role of the charity fundraiser. It’s not just a job, it’s a recognised and prestigious profession.

Chartered status will mean fundraisers can apply for chartered membership and their professional status will sit alongside other chartered trades and professions like accountancy, marketing and civil engineering.

It’s about time. Charity fundraisers are passionate about what they do. Increasingly, they’re passionate too about the professional skills needed to do it – which include a range of critical thinking skills that mean they can perform their central role for the charity with complete integrity.

Why is Critical Thinking So Important in Fundraising?

How do you sharpen your critical thinking skills?

Whether you’re looking to break into charity fundraising – or you’re an experienced fundraiser already – it’s essential to see yourself as work in progress. Take responsibility for your own personal development by sharpening your critical thinking skills.

  • Keep up-to-date with your charity’s work and its current priorities. Build relationships across departments so that you’re on top of the latest research and policy initiatives and know who to ask when you need more explanation.
  • Stay abreast of sector developments by reading fundraising news on sites like The Guardian, Third Sector, The Institute of Fundraising…and us at CharityJob and CharityConnect. And find out what sector networking events you can attend.
  • Know what the competition is doing. Not so that you can copy it but so that you can learn from the good stuff and be aware of areas of sensitivity.
  • Initiate brainstorming sessions for your team and invite key people from other departments.
  • Look outside the sector for inspiration as well. Are there talks or events that could inspire new ways of thinking?
  • Take time out to review your own personal successes and failures. Objectively, what could you do better and what’s holding you back from doing your best?
  • Research courses and training opportunities for the field your charity works in as well as courses in personal development skills like creative thinking and communications skills. Find out too about the qualifications available from the Institute of Fundraising.

Fundraising is a job that allows individuals to shine. Just a quick search on Google or a look at Third Sector’s Fundraiser of the Week feature shows the truth of this by bringing up profiles of inspiring people who share a determination to make a difference – but are otherwise entirely different.

The key thing is to make this job your own by arming yourself with the critical thinking skills that will allow you to operate as your own best self. In this way, you can be a successful fundraiser while also building rewarding long-term relationships with donors and supporters.

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

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