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The 4 Stages of Your Fundraising Career: Where Are You Right Now?

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Not everyone is the same. And not everyone stays the same.

Those two truths are so obvious it may seem pointless to say them out loud.

But both are critical to the success of any team and the individual members of the team.

One of my favorite tools for evaluating myself and understanding others is the Consciousness/Competence stages of learning, a framework that emerged in management training in the 1970s.

This model puts all learners of any skill into one of four squares that help describe the journey we all take in our professional lives:

compconsc quadrant 1 e1636595833733

Square 1: Unconscious Incompetent: The Beginner

You don’t know how to do fundraising, and you don’t know what you don’t know.

There’s no shame in starting here. In fact, there’s no way to start at anything without spending some time in the unconscious incompetent stage. 

The term “incompetent” is sometimes used as an insult. It shouldn’t be. It’s just a fact of life that everyone starts without knowledge before they gain knowledge.

When you’re in Square 1, it’s your job to move into Square 2 and beyond. (Or to move into a different profession if you realize this isn’t what you want to do.) The jump to Square 2 can be very quick and easy. It’s more a decision of the will than of amassing knowledge. Just admit you don’t (yet) know the secrets of fundraising and start learning! That’s all it takes to move.

There’s just one problem. There’s a sort of catch-22 about being in Square 1: It takes knowledge to know what you don’t know. How can anyone know what they don’t know? 

That’s why most of us need a helping hand to move out of Square 1. 

The fact that you are reading this indicates that you are already in Square 2 or higher. If you have a colleague or friend in Square 1, the greatest thing you can do is “pay it forward” and be the help they need. It just takes a kind and patient word of advice and encouragement. 

It’s not on you if you extend a hand and they don’t take it. 

Some people choose to stay in Square 1 permanently. You’ve probably known one or two of them. They become living demonstrations of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that form of cognitive bias where people with low ability overestimate their own ability, and people with high ability underestimate it. It’s difficult to move out of a low-ability state, and even more difficult to move someone else out of it.

Square 2: Conscious Incompetent: The Apprentice

You don’t quite know how to do fundraising, but you are fully aware of that.

This is often the most exciting stage of your career. It’s where you grow the most, and where you see your learning transform your work. And you often don’t have any bad habits holding you back! 

The word “incompetent” may be in the name of this square, but that’s not the important thing: the reality is the growth you achieve at this stage. A Square 2 person is basically a super-learner, the way a young child is. 

When you are in this stage, your top job is to learn as much as possible. To really focus in on building your ability. Read books and blogs voraciously. Attend conferences if you can. Find a mentor. All these things will pay huge dividends.

If you know someone in Square 2, support their learning. And enjoy seeing them grow!

Square 3: Conscious Competent: The Craftsperson

You know how to do fundraising, and you know what you know.

This is where you become proficient. You know your stuff. You’re putting your learning to work. Square 3 is a rewarding place to be.

It’s important that you keep learning at this stage. But your growth rate is slower than it was at Square 2. That’s okay! It’s slower because you have fewer growth edges to add to. Just be sure you don’t get complacent and stop learning.

Square 4: Unconscious Competent: The Master

You know how to do fundraising, and you do it with impressive ease and consistency.

It’s a cool place to be. But let me warn you: Square 4 is the most dangerous stage.

Your competence can — and will — “erode.” The fundraising world is not static. Changes in technology, donor media habits, economic and cultural conditions can fundamentally transform the work you do. On top of that, you just plain forget stuff.

A Square 4 person who is not mindful of the changes around them can rather suddenly be in Square 1 — without noticing!

Here’s what you must do: Spend some time in Squares 2 and 3.  

Square 2: Learn new things that you know nothing about. Re-engage in that state of not knowing all the answers.

Square 3: Re-learn and review things you already know. 

Have conversations with people in Squares 2 and 3. Find things they know that you don’t. Discover new ways of looking at old things.

At Square 4, you’ve “arrived.” But it’s critical not to rest in that state for too long!

Most of all, whatever Square you are in right now, make it your business to help others on their journeys. Because we’re all better when we work together!

Want some one-on-one help for building your relationships with your top donors? Schedule a free 25-minute call with Fundraisingologist Sean Triner. He’ll give you great free advice, and help you identify your best path forward. Click here to book your call.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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