The curse of the journalism degree

If you’re looking for a good fundraising writer, you might want to talk to folks with journalism degrees. They know how to gather information, write clearly, and meet deadlines.

On the other hand, one of the worst qualifications you can seek for a fundraising writer is a journalism degree.

Here’s why: A principle of journalism is conveying the story in an objective, uncolored, facts-only way. This is very difficult to achieve, so a lot of effort goes into teaching and learning the skill. And that’s great, because that’s how news reporting should be. (Would that it actually were more often.)

But objectivity is completely inappropriate for fundraising. Effective fundraising copy is wildly biased, incredibly subjective, advocacy to the max. Properly written fundraising should make a journalist’s hair stand on end.

So be aware. Those journalism majors bring some useful skills to the party. But you’re going to have to radically re-program them on objectivity before they’re ready for the fundraising Big Leagues. And not everyone is willing or able to be re-programmed.


Comments

6 responses to “The curse of the journalism degree”

  1. You make great points about journalists’ fact-finding, attention to detail and ability to make deadlines. With the rise of social media and “citizen journalism,” it’s refreshing to underscore the reporter’s responsibility to objectivity. All that said, there is one area where journalists have exactly the right qualifications for fundraising: persuasion. If you’re considering a former journalist as fundraiser, ask for samples of editorial page or commentary writing. You might find that your journalist candidate is exactly the right fit.

  2. You make great points about journalists’ fact-finding, attention to detail and ability to make deadlines. With the rise of social media and “citizen journalism,” it’s refreshing to underscore the reporter’s responsibility to objectivity. All that said, there is one area where journalists have exactly the right qualifications for fundraising: persuasion. If you’re considering a former journalist as fundraiser, ask for samples of editorial page or commentary writing. You might find that your journalist candidate is exactly the right fit.

  3. Rochelle Avatar

    Continued thanks for your column, Jeff – I do enjoy reading it. Today, however, I find myself quite agitated by your post and wanted to share my thoughts.
    I have a journalism degree. I’ve also had success as a strategist and persuasive copywriter (for nonprofits and business alike). I’ve never had to be “radically re-programmed”, as you put it!
    I think the problem is not what degree someone has, but what they are capable of doing. I’ve never met anyone whose skill set is limited to their college qualification. I have met a lot of people who are limited by being closed-minded, whether it’s about how to adapt their skills to suit a new context, or employers who could miss out on a fabulous hire simply because the candidate didn’t tick a ‘past experience’ box which, in reality, wouldn’t give a clear indication of their capacity anyway. (I don’t mean clear cut criteria – you wouldn’t hire an accountant who had never studied maths; I mean criteria which rule people in or out based on an imagined capability rather than a thorough assessment of their actual capabilities.)
    Your suggestion to beware journalism majors does not take into consideration that not all journalism is objective and fact-driven; colour pieces and profiles are by their very nature subjective and emotive.
    On a semi-related note, I often hear nonprofits say they struggle to recruit (and then retain) people with the appropriate skills for the job. Perhaps that’s because they’re making assumptions based on arbitrary judgements like ‘beware journalism majors’ instead of intelligently assessing an individual based on what they can actually do.

  4. Rochelle Avatar

    Continued thanks for your column, Jeff – I do enjoy reading it. Today, however, I find myself quite agitated by your post and wanted to share my thoughts.
    I have a journalism degree. I’ve also had success as a strategist and persuasive copywriter (for nonprofits and business alike). I’ve never had to be “radically re-programmed”, as you put it!
    I think the problem is not what degree someone has, but what they are capable of doing. I’ve never met anyone whose skill set is limited to their college qualification. I have met a lot of people who are limited by being closed-minded, whether it’s about how to adapt their skills to suit a new context, or employers who could miss out on a fabulous hire simply because the candidate didn’t tick a ‘past experience’ box which, in reality, wouldn’t give a clear indication of their capacity anyway. (I don’t mean clear cut criteria – you wouldn’t hire an accountant who had never studied maths; I mean criteria which rule people in or out based on an imagined capability rather than a thorough assessment of their actual capabilities.)
    Your suggestion to beware journalism majors does not take into consideration that not all journalism is objective and fact-driven; colour pieces and profiles are by their very nature subjective and emotive.
    On a semi-related note, I often hear nonprofits say they struggle to recruit (and then retain) people with the appropriate skills for the job. Perhaps that’s because they’re making assumptions based on arbitrary judgements like ‘beware journalism majors’ instead of intelligently assessing an individual based on what they can actually do.

  5. Jeff,
    Your post is an interesting one but I disagree. I am a former newspaper sports editor and radio news reporter who is now a successful fundraiser at a major university. I have done training sessions for AFP, CASE, etc. in which I point out that my journalism training has been quite helpful. Two points to consider:
    1) Observational skills — journalism training can help a fundraiser become quite adept at assessing prospective donors. For example, observing the artifacts (photos, trophies, etc.) in a prospect’s office can be highly helpful in the work of a fundraiser. I personally honed my observational skills during my enjoyable time as a journalist.
    2)Information seeking skills — you mention objectivity being a potential hazard. Actually, an objective approach can be quite helpful in my fundraising efforts. At least initially, I approach my prospects from an information seeking, rather than soliciting perspective. I am simply asking people their opinions and folks generally liked to be asked for their advice. If the fit is good, the asking comes later.
    I am deeply thankful for my journalism training and absolutely believe it has been a great asset in my fundraising endeavors.

  6. Jeff,
    Your post is an interesting one but I disagree. I am a former newspaper sports editor and radio news reporter who is now a successful fundraiser at a major university. I have done training sessions for AFP, CASE, etc. in which I point out that my journalism training has been quite helpful. Two points to consider:
    1) Observational skills — journalism training can help a fundraiser become quite adept at assessing prospective donors. For example, observing the artifacts (photos, trophies, etc.) in a prospect’s office can be highly helpful in the work of a fundraiser. I personally honed my observational skills during my enjoyable time as a journalist.
    2)Information seeking skills — you mention objectivity being a potential hazard. Actually, an objective approach can be quite helpful in my fundraising efforts. At least initially, I approach my prospects from an information seeking, rather than soliciting perspective. I am simply asking people their opinions and folks generally liked to be asked for their advice. If the fit is good, the asking comes later.
    I am deeply thankful for my journalism training and absolutely believe it has been a great asset in my fundraising endeavors.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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