Nonprofit Hero Beth Breeze is the Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent.
Nonprofit Heroes is our series of interviews with industry experts, successfully proven fundraisers, and nonprofit heroes with stories and tips to inspire your charity to use technology to your advantage and do good, better.
First, a little about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent.
What was your first job?
My first proper job (after a lot of waitressing, pub work and lifeguarding as a student) was as a Fundraising Officer for the Cardinal Hume Centre, which helps homeless young people in London. That was as close to a dream job as a newly-graduated, idealistic and penniless 20-something could hope for.
From my first day I felt I was doing something useful and fulfilling: I met interesting people, had a fair amount of autonomy, and got paid a reasonable salary. What’s not to like about a job like that?
But even at the time, I knew my view wasn’t widely shared: family worried it “wasn’t a proper job”, friends asked how I could bear to “beg”, and my then-boyfriend, who worked in sales, told his colleagues (admiringly, I think) that “Beth makes a living out of selling nothing!”
Responding to those reactions and trying to explain how fundraising works and what the job actually involves, turned into my second career in academia where I now research, write and teach about charitable giving and philanthropy.
How did you get into fundraising, and why?
Like a lot of fundraisers, I grew up immersed in asking and giving as quite natural things.
My parents weren’t by any means rich but they gave what they could; I was energised by Blue Peter appeals (I still can’t throw away old stamps or milk bottle tops without a pang of guilt); and I organised fundraising events and a Traidcraft catalogue sale at my school.
Realising it was possible to do this for a job was quite an eye-opening moment!
Tell us a bit about the programmes you run at Kent.
We’ve offered undergraduate teaching on volunteering and on the third sector for some years now, but these are ‘elective modules’ taken by students who are on campus to take a degree in English or Physics and everything in between.
I felt sure there was unmet demand from people who only want to study our sector, just like it’s been possible to study Business or Social Policy for decades – why not a degree for people who want to work in the Charity sector?
So in 2016, with the very generous help of funding from Pears Foundation, we launched the first degree in Philanthropic Studies outside of North America. It’s a part-time Masters programme taught over two years by distance learning so it fits around students' day jobs and family commitments.
The students are absolutely amazing, I’m really enjoying going on the journey with them and I can’t wait for the first graduations in stunning Canterbury Cathedral next year.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in fundraising?
I would definitely encourage them, as I firmly believe that the main problem facing the charity sector is too few askers, which results in too few donors.
But this talent crisis is not only about the quantity of fundraisers, it’s also about the quality of asking, so I would encourage them to seek out professional development from day one, that includes reading books about fundraising, finding a mentor, attending conferences and – hey! – studying with us could help!
I imagine you produce and see a lot of research on the subject of giving. Can you give us some highlights and insights from recent research that you've seen?
One of the great joys of my job is being part of a global research community and having first sight of new studies conducted by colleagues based in Centres for Philanthropy all over the world.
It feels invidious to pick out any one in particular but the book I’m currently reading is ‘Generation Impact’ by Sharna Goldseker and Michael Moody, which is a fascinating study of the changing charitable attitudes and behaviours of the next generation.
Charities, particularly fundraisers, have been battered over recent times. Does the public really have as much of a problem with overheads and executive pay as the attention in the tabloids suggests? And if so, what can be done to change that perception?
I share the frustration of fundraisers with this constant stream of tabloid-led attacks, which politicians and other influential people often repeat, without taking time to consider the facts.
I think that most donors are far more understanding of what it takes to run a charity well, and they do largely appreciate how fundraising works and are more forgiving when things go wrong than is broadly assumed.
The problem is that the views of non-donors (who constitute around a third of the population) get thrown into the mix, and drown out the voices of those who actually deserve a stake in this argument.
I’m aware that charities and fundraising are not perfect, and we all strive for continual improvement.
But I’m not interested in being part of a non-donor’s post hoc justification for why they don't give: it’s a lot easier to say “They pay CEOs too much” than it is to admit that you’re not willing to look for a good charity that you would be comfortable supporting, say one that’s entirely run by volunteers if salaries are such a deal-breaker for you.
The great thing about the sector is the diversity of causes. I know this is an impossible question to answer fairly, but if you could pick one charity whose work is worthy of our attention, which one would it be?
The diversity in our sector is absolutely something to celebrate. We give philanthropically because we understand that however high the tax rate, there will always be more that could be done to make life better for other people and the environment.
So if we feel that more could and should be done on an issue that matters to us, then we are free to put our money where our heart is. And of course that includes campaigning to persuade government to spend more on that area.
Personally, I am most moved by the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. I admire their bravery in surviving and escaping turmoil, and their efforts to re-build a home and a life for themselves and their families far away from everything they know and everyone they love.
I doubt I would have their resilience and courage, and I am deeply sorry that rich countries are not more welcoming.
I have volunteered for a local project mentoring young refugees and my biggest donations go to a range of charities working on these issues, including Help Refugees who have a marvellous social media presence that really connects donors to the cause.
Most of us can point to someone who has inspired us in our careers. Is there anyone that has inspired you?
Cathy Corcoran OBE is soon to retire after leading the Cardinal Hume Centre for fifteen years, including a period when I was on their Trustee board. She is calm, warm, funny and apparently unflappable!
I think it’s important to stay in post for an extended period to build relationships with supporters and because it shows a commitment to the cause and the organisation.
High turnover is a serious problem amongst fundraisers and I often repeat advice given by that indefatigable fundraising guru Jeff Shear: once you’ve got some basic knowledge and experience as a fundraiser, contact the charity that it would be your dream to work for and tell them.
They need people who truly care about their mission, and you will do your best work, and stay around for the long-term, if it’s more than a job.
On a lighter note, a few quickfire questions:
- If you could save three records / cassettes / CDs / MP3s / streams to take to the desert island with you, what would they be and why?
My music tastes are completely stuck in my uni years – why bother listening to anything other than Billy Bragg, Kirsty McColl and Deacon Blue?
- PC or Mac user?
My husband works in Macs so I’d be crazy not to pick that – my best marriage advice is: marry your own 24/7 IT support.
- Is your smartphone an iPhone, Android or other?
Ermm, probably an iPhone but see last question, that task is delegated!
- What’s your current favourite app?
Skype brings the world to my office – this past week I have used it to work on papers with colleagues based in the Netherlands and in Australia, to support students living across the UK, and to catch up with practitioners on the front line of fundraising. I’d spend a lot more time on trains and planes without it!
Thanks Beth for being our nonprofit hero!
The New Fundraisers: Who organises charitable giving in contemporary society? by Beth Breeze, is published by Policy Press, priced £24.99. A 20% discount is available for orders made using this link: https://policypress.co.uk/the-new-fundraisers.