'It was a revelation': why I did a degree in fundraising | Brogan Rehill

Scandals have eroded trust in charities, so I hope my BA in charity development is one step towards making the whole sector much more professional

I am just about to graduate from the very first undergraduate degree in fundraising, set up at the University of Chichester in 2014, after the Institute of Fundraising highlighted that there was not a single one in the UK or US.

The last two years in fundraising have been difficult. There have been a series of scandals – the collapse of Kids Company, then Olive Cooke – and it has eroded public trust in charities. The Institute of Fundraising was stripped of its responsibility for setting professional standards and the regulator closed down.

We’ve now got a new fundraising regulator but fundamentally nothing has changed – charities are still self-regulating, and if we don’t learn how to do this better, the Etherington Report made it clear that more severe statutory regulation is around the corner. Fundraising needs an ethical framework, expertise built up from research and more high-quality training. Put simply, it needs to professionalise.

I had worked with faith groups as a teenager through my church, then I spent a summer doing the National Citizenship Service. It made me realise that I wanted a career where I could go home knowing I had made a difference. At the time I didn’t know that fundraising was a job; I’d done quite a bit over the years, but always as a volunteer. Then I saw an article in my local paper about the degree, which was a revelation.

I applied to study fundraising because I wanted to give myself the best chance I could. I didn’t know the charity sector at all; working in it was just a big idea, there was no detail to my vision. On the degree I got to study things you’d expect, like grant makers, major donors, direct response marketing, and community and corporate giving. But we also looked at how third-sector projects are designed, managed and reported on, alongside a range of other topics such as organisation behaviour, event management and strategy.

Without doubt, the degree is the best thing I’ve done. There were times when all the technical details felt a world away from “making a difference”, but that brought into focus the need for an academic qualification. Fundraisers need such a breadth of knowledge to do their job well. It requires skills in so many different areas: the day-to-day work – knowing how to look after donors properly, making sure you are compliant with regulations – but you just can’t make strategic decisions without the full picture.At the end of my first year I started volunteering part-time for a local charity, then I applied for an internship with StonePillow to help with their annual fundraising event, The Big Sleep Out. It was a great experience, with a really lovely team of people, and it was also my first opportunity to use what I’d been learning on the degree. I identified another £13,000 that StonePillow could easily gain through Gift Aid, by using an innovative approach at their furniture upcycling centre.

I could have done the volunteering without a degree, but it was the formal education that enabled me to see how each aspect of the organisation fits together to make something bigger. That’s what made it possible to have such a big impact. After my internship ended, the team at StonePillow put me forward for a job at a new charity, UK Harvest, where I’m already working with a few months left to go at uni.

Fundraising degrees have the potential to transform the sector. With the new regulator and potential prosecutions for data protection breaches, charities must have an increasingly in-depth knowledge of codes of practice and current legislative frameworks. They can’t rely on existing staff members, who have learnt through years of experience, to teach all this to new recruits while juggling their own job, too. Fundraisers need to be prepared.

I really hope that I will be the sort of fundraiser who thinks creatively and is innovative, and it would have taken me a very long time to see the profession that way without the degree. It got me into a fantastic job, but I believe I will be a better fundraiser for having the luxury of three years to really think about how it works and why.

Brogan Rehill is a final year undergraduate on the charity development BA (hons) at the University of Chichester

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Brogan Rehill

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