Changes Ahead: 5 Steps to End Impostor Syndrome Within Your Fundraising Team
Above Photo Credit: Jorge Bermudez
Am I good enough? Do my colleagues find my contributions valuable? Does my work truly move the needle or am I swimming around in circles?
In fundraising teams, impostor syndrome is about more than one person’s feelings of inadequacy—it is about the leadership’s commitment to building an office culture dedicated to eliminating the conditions that allow impostor syndrome to thrive. Here are five steps to end impostor syndrome within your fundraising team so you can unlock your team’s full fundraising potential.
1. Understand what impostOr syndrome is—and isn’t.
First identified by researchers in 1978, impostor syndrome can be briefly defined as an individual’s “collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”1 If you think impostor syndrome couldn’t possibly lurk within your team, think again. Up to 70% of individuals experience such feelings at some time in their lives.2 It is only when these feelings become chronic and severe that impostor syndrome comes into play.
For fundraising professionals, impostor syndrome may manifest as feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt when working with donors or on high-stakes projects; voluntarily taking on unachievable goals—or conversely, avoiding failure by evading new responsibilities or opportunities for career advancement; staying silent in staff meetings for fear that a self-perceived lack of knowledge or experience will label them as “frauds;” or downplaying their own success, attributing it instead to luck or efforts other than their own. The result: The fundraiser fails to progress, and the fundraising team’s potential is stifled.
Until recently, advice on “correcting” impostor syndrome has disproportionately focused on the individual and so-called “self-improvement.” One expert recommends rewriting “mental programs,” reframing failure as a chance to learn, talking about feelings, and visualizing success3 Another says to focus on learning rather than performance and keeping things in perspective.4
While these suggestions may provide a helpful short-term Band-Aid for some individuals, they also clearly assume impostor syndrome is purely an internalized phenomenon individuals need to deal with and overcome. But impostor syndrome is more than that—its presence within a fundraising team can indicate the need to address systemic issues embedded within the office’s culture.
2. Be honest—is your office culture causing impostor syndrome?
Similar to other professions and despite progress, constructions of leadership and professionalism in fundraising tend to be based on white, male, heteronormative, cisgender, economically privileged, ableist norms. Who does that leave out? Everyone else. Given this, it is not surprising that research shows that women, people of color, and presumably others who do not identify with traditional leadership constructs are likely to be disproportionately and adversely affected by impostor syndrome. It also means “impostor syndrome directs our view toward fixing [people] at work rather than fixing the places where [people] work.”5 This must change.
As difficult as it may be to admit, if you detect the presence of impostor syndrome in your workplace, it is possible your fundraising office culture may be partially responsible. The cause is relatively simple to identify but challenging to address: namely, most fundraising offices are so focused on raising funds and meeting donor expectations little time is left for self-examination regarding office culture. As a fundraising leader, do you build time into your schedule and your team meetings to:
- Have honest discussions about what it takes to be a successful member of your team?
- Talk explicitly about what constitutes “leadership behavior”? Is there the perception that it is easy for some team members to be seen as leaders while it is more difficult for others to achieve the same status? What factors are behind this?
- Openly discuss impostor syndrome when it occurs, and identify why team members may be experiencing it?
- Encourage and pay for staff to participate in ongoing professional development?
To root out impostor syndrome, address questions such as these for one clear reason: they create opportunities for productive, change-making conversations that surface office culture biases and limitations that can undermine team member success and advancement.6
3. Move the conversation on impostor syndrome from feelings to data.
While fundraising is built on relationships, a successful fundraising team also acknowledges and appreciates the importance of data to drive decision-making and progress. The effort to eradicate impostor syndrome within your fundraising team needs to be data-driven as well.
Experts suggest studying data you have about occurrences of impostor syndrome—whether it’s from conversations you’ve had with team members, staff satisfaction surveys or other sources—to help identify barriers or issues that need attention. Also, review your fundraising team’s performance criteria and average time to promotion. Specifically, look for signs that there are advertent or inadvertent biases in your processes and outcomes. Finally, make sure measurable outcomes, skills and behaviors form the bedrock of your performance criteria—not intangible estimations of “leadership potential” or similar fuzzy conceptions open to interpretation.7
4. Create mechanisms for change—along with accountability measures.
Lasting change hinges on more than training and new policies—it requires that members of your fundraising team commit to “walking the walk” and not just “talking the talk.” If your office culture has conditions that need to be examined because they foster impostor syndrome, determine accountability measures to address them.
While accountability starts with top leadership, every member of your fundraising team needs to be part of making change happen. Ensure everyone has some level of accountability in moving change forward. This isn’t about a handful of enthused staff members leading the charge. Every person must have buy-in. Your team’s collective success rides on how empowered and confident each individual feels.
As experts note, “organizational change becomes effective when managers at all levels are held accountable to those changes.”8 Addressing impostor syndrome doesn’t happen overnight. Change—particularly when it comes to office culture—requires time and attention from everyone.
5. Sponsor—don’t just mentor—your future fundraising leaders.
As a leader, there is one thing you can do immediately to mitigate conditions causing impostor syndrome: mentor your future leaders, who may experience impostor syndrome most acutely. Engage with them. Ask them if they’re feeling confident about their accomplishments and progress. Praise them for their successes. Offer constructive suggestions when they fail. Some staff members may hesitate to ask for help. Solid leaders know to create safe spaces for conversations by posing constructive questions, such as do they have the resources they need to succeed? Are there work situations where they have experienced self-doubt or felt inadequate? What were the circumstances? What do they suggest can help create a more inclusive team environment that encourages everyone’s success?
In addition, be aware that mentoring—which generally focuses on how a mentor can directly help an individual through one-on-one interaction—may not be enough. Particularly for women, people of color, and others who do not identify with traditional leadership constructs, sponsorship—in which the mentor goes a step further to provide the mentee with support in front of external audiences—is vital. Encouraging your future leaders to earn their CFRE certification is just one example of how you can support them in gaining external validation for their accomplishments.
One expert suggests current leaders practice the ABCDs of sponsoring future leaders by:
- Amplifying the accomplishments of future leaders with others;
- Boosting future leaders through recommending them for new responsibilities and opportunities;
- Connecting future leaders with others in the current leader’s network; and
- Defending the future leader when others are behaving dismissively toward them.9
Particularly for staff whose professional support network is still under construction, your support as a leader is crucial.
Creating office cultures in fundraising that brings out the best in team members is never easy, but it is rewarding both in terms of the fulfillment of human potential and the fundraising division’s bottom line. Fundraising can’t afford impostor syndrome if we want to grow a profession that supports the talents and growth of all of those who are called to build sustainable philanthropy. What we can afford to do—and are compelled to do—is make sure our conceptions of fundraising leadership are diverse, inclusive and supportive so no fundraising professional experiences impostor syndrome due to factors that we can work together to change.
1 Overcoming Imposter Syndrome (Harvard Business Review—Gill Corkindale, 7 May 2008)
2 “Feeling Like A Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing”. (The Open Notebook—Sandeep Ravindran, 15 November 2016.)
3 Overcoming Imposter Syndrome (Harvard Business Review—Gill Corkindale, 7 May 2008)
4 Everyone Suffers from Impostor Syndrome—Here’s How to Handle It (Harvard Business Review—Andy Molinsky— 7 July 2016)
5 Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome (Harvard Business Review—(Harvard Business Review—Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, 11 February 2021)
6 End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace (Harvard Business Review—Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, 14 July 2021)
7 End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace (Harvard Business Review—Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, 14 July 2021)
8 End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace (Harvard Business Review—Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, 14 July 2021)
9 Don’t Just Mentor Women and People of Color. Sponsor Them. (Harvard Business Review, 30 June 2021)
Eva E. Aldrich is president and CEO of CFRE International, the first globally recognized fundraising credential. Previously, Aldrich was associate director of public service and The Fund Raising School at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Before that, she was a member of the consulting team at Johnson Grossnickle & Associates and was assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Franklin College. Aldrich has been widely published in fundraising journals and is one of the editors of Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, 3rd Edition, from Jossey-Bass.