The happiest day in Vicki Rasmussen’s working life is when she phones a select group of fundraisers across Australia to tell them they’re going to be admitted to the fellows program of Fundraising Institute Australia (FIA).
“The response is generally overwhelming: a mix of shock, gratitude and humbleness. People can get quite emotional. I love telling them: ‘you were nominated, here’s why, and congratulations on this honour,’” said Vicki, chair of the fellows nominations committee.
Vicki certainly knows the feeling. Elected as a fellow in 2013, the Charlies Foundation for Research CEO said it was one of the happiest moments in her 30-year fundraising career. “To know that someone took time to nominate me because they thought I was a great fundraiser was incredibly moving,” she says.
Vicki’s a shine-bright exemplar of who gets in. Nominated for managing successful multi-million-dollar campaigns for some of Australia’s most respected nonprofits, she’s also gone beyond the call of duty as a tireless community fundraiser, sector advocate, FIA committee chair and member, awards judge, conference presenter and spokesperson.
When asked by former FIA chief executive Rob Edwards to head the fellows nominations committee in 2018, she didn’t hesitate. “FIA fellowship is a great way to acknowledge fundraisers who are often unsung heroes. We’re taught to thank donors, but we’re not so good at celebrating ourselves. This program lets us cast a net across the country to find the best and acknowledge them. But it’s also seen as valuable with the call to create a professional identity for fundraising. There’s still no formal degree or credential except the CFRE, so fellowship adds rigour to professional fundraising,” said Vicki.
The fellows program was embedded in FIA’s constitution 50 years ago. The peak body’s founders believed fundraising was a profession, like medicine or accounting. In addition to setting guidelines around ethical practice, they initiated a fellows program to encourage sector excellence.
Every June, FIA invites the community to nominate fundraisers they think rank among the best for career achievements, leadership, continued professional development and contributions to the sector. A nominee must possess at least a decade of fundraising experience and be an FIA member. But that’s not all: some years ago, the institute’s board decided a nominee must be a “fit and proper person.” Today, this includes passing FIA’s code course and demonstrating commitment to ethical best practice.
After a “robust” peer review by the committee, board members get the final say on who’s in, and members formally elect the fellows at FIA’s AGM, held during the annual conference. Fellows receive certificates, attend a recognition ceremony and are feted at a fellows drinks night at conference. To date, 90 fundraisers have made the list (and there are 24 emeritus fellows).
While an FIA fellowship doesn’t come with money or study, fundraisers like having the FFIA after their name. They say it makes them feel appreciated and nets them peer respect and a new network.
A matter of trust
Christine Anderson, Director of Fundraising at Australian Conservation Foundation, said the program also shows the wider community that the sector and fundraisers can be trusted. “I think the program is an excellent way to honour those achieving excellence in ethical fundraising. It shows we’re serious about doing right by donors. For me, it was a privilege to be chosen.”
Christine, one of just four fundraisers elected in 2022, was lauded for successfully launching new revenue streams and steering high-performance fundraising teams during COVID. She’s also undertaken extensive FIA volunteer work as chair of the Queensland state committee, member of FIA’s foundation and audit and risk committees and giving time as a mentor and awards judge.
“Being a fellow hasn’t changed anything career-wise for me. But the program provides more recognition for what we do. It adds credibility and it’s another way to celebrate what a wonderful profession fundraising is,” she says.
For he’s a jolly good fellow
Ross Anderson, Senior Manager, Gifts in Wills at The Lost Dogs Home, agreed FIA fellowship is important and can help to enhance your fundraising reputation. “People are curious and ask about the FFIA letters after my name if they see it written anywhere. There’s a level of credibility that comes with fellowship, and perhaps fellows tend to stick out from the crowd just a little bit,” he says.
Ross was awarded fellow status for developing successful gifts in wills programs for numerous charities and boosting community awareness about the need for bequests. He’s given untold hours of his time as chair, board member and spokesperson for FIA’s Include a Charity campaign. Ross has also spent the better part of 10 years heavily involved in FIA’s conference program committee.
“When I became a fellow in 2018, it was such a lovely way of being recognised by my peers for my commitment to sector-wide initiatives, which can be time-consuming. It’s also led to lots of great conversations with people about the importance of giving back to support our profession,” he says.
“In the workplace, being a fellow of FIA might help others who aren’t fundraising professionals themselves to consider my ideas and advice as coming from a place of solid experience and knowledge. At work, sometimes when I’m introduced to new staff members, people occasionally mention that they know me because I’m a fellow. I’m a very humble person and don’t really like public recognition, but it’s secretly nice when someone picks up on me being a fellow!”
Ross says being a fellow also enables you to meet fundraisers you might not otherwise have encountered. “You get to stand alongside and meet people you might never have crossed paths with because they work in another state or have a different fundraising speciality. Fellowship is a nice way of connecting an eclectic group of people with different specialities, contributions, locations and organisations.”
Feted by the vice-chancellor
Rebecca Hazell, the University of Newcastle’s Executive Director of Advancement, was elected in 2020 and said it was a humbling experience to be included and remembered. “I’ve been a regionally based fundraiser for 10 years, even though our fundraising is both national and international in reach.
Prior to living in Newcastle, I was active in FIA QLD and NSW, serving on state committees or attending or speaking at FIA events. But when I moved to a regional city, it was harder to travel to physical events as most FIA activities are in capital cities. I felt a bit distant from the network. Being recognised as a fellow reminded me I was part of a wonderful network of passionate and committed fundraisers and that I hadn’t been forgotten. I feel tied to the program because the fellows, and many amazing fundraisers out there, are people who share my values.”
Rebecca’s extensive volunteer work in two states counted for a lot, as did her stellar fundraising work as a consultant and her work with fundraising teams she has led for three universities during her career.
To her surprise, her workplace got excited about her win. Her team threw her a morning tea, and she was one of the university staff acknowledged at the monthly Celebrate Success event hosted by the university’s vice-chancellor.
“It was a welcome opportunity at the event to explain to the attending academics, who are certainly familiar with fellowships, that fundraising is also a profession with ethics, policies and a fellows program. They were interested in my story and it gave us common ground,” she recalls.
Rebecca says her FFIA had reminded her she could still be active in the wider FIA fundraising community no matter where she was based, and it fired her up to start volunteering through FIA again. Rebecca’s team recently partnered with the institute and other local FIA members to deliver a well-attended event for regional fundraisers hosted at the university.
She’s begun nominating other fundraisers for fellowship and other FIA awards and has joined the fellows nominations committee to give back. She’s also formally mentoring fundraisers through FIA’s mentoring program.
A step above CFRE
For Karen Armstrong, director at More Impact, being an FFIA is even more meaningful to her than other designations. “I like it even more than the CFRE because it’s uniquely Australian; it’s about recognising your service and commitment to the sector,” says Karen. “It’s creating a close-knit community that’s keeping the sector growing, not just individual charities.”
A fellow since 2018, Karen was lauded for her work steering the fundraising and marketing team at Cancer Council and for her later success as a consultant overseeing client fundraising programs. She was chair for Include a Charity and was heavily involved for years in FIA’s conference. She believes the FFIA enhances her reputation and recognises the role played in broader sector change.
“I have it on my LinkedIn profile. In general, I believe the FFIA gives people extra confidence you know what you’re talking about. It ticks a bunch of boxes. It shows others that you’re actively involved with the sector and have been around a long time. It offers a trust factor and a belief that you would do a good job,” she says.
Karen always attends the fellows networking event at the conference. “This is the place to talk to your peers about new ideas, inspiration and what conferences people are attending. It’s an important circuit. Being a fellow is good for your career, your network and where it can take you later.”
Now that we have the low-hanging fruit…
As FIA membership grows, the fellows nominations committee is looking to add to the list of fellows and wants to find what Vicki calls “the quiet achievers.”
“Historically, it was often ‘shiny’ people who became fellows. That’s not a bad thing. They’re the ones out there and great at what they do. But we think the circle should be wider. We realise many people are doing transformative work, but they’re not the ones speaking at events or on committees. They’re flying under the radar,” says Vicki.
Karen thinks this is a good progression of the program. “There’s a bunch of us who are always at conferences, volunteering or presenting. We’re low-hanging fruit, easy to spot. But the sector’s grown, and I see lots more people I don’t know at events. With so much growth, there are people we might be missing, especially younger ones and quiet achievers. The fellows shouldn’t just be directors or people high up in an organisation.”
Vicki said the committee is also adapting fellowship criteria to change with the times. For example, the 10 years of distinguished service no longer needs to be consecutive. This ensures that people who have taken time out for family or other reasons get a look-in. Diversity and inclusion are now vital factors to reflect the changing face of Australian society.
“Importantly, you don’t have to be older and retired to be valued and recognised by your peers. The fellows are for fundraisers at the peak of their careers. It gives us something to strive for. It’s not waiting until your retirement party to be thanked. It can happen a lot earlier,” says Christine.
Katherine Raskob is the Chief Executive of FIA