Episode 9: Liz Tait – How to create a career that makes your heart sing

Episode Notes

We spend so much of our life at work, it clearly makes sense that we should aim to make this time rewarding and enjoyable. But how can you increase your chances that your career will take you in a direction that makes you really happy?

In this episode of Fundraising Bright Spots, Rob Woods talks to Liz Tait, Director of Fundraising at Teenage Cancer Trust. When it comes to career development, Liz really knows what she’s talking about – she has taken specific steps over the last two decades that have helped her enjoy and develop her career as she wanted; and she’s also devoted a great deal of time to helping others do the same, both as a leader in charities, and in voluntary roles such two years spent as Chair of the Institute of Fundraising Convention Board.


  • OWN IT – No one is going to do it for you. The most important thing is to make a decision, to decide to take responsibility for your own career and the direction you want to go in.
  • SERVE YOUR COLLEAGUES / FRIENDS – As a manager / leader be aware what a difference you can make to other people’s beliefs about their own abilities. Very often you can see their potential in a way that is larger and more positive than they can currently see for themselves. It was this feedback from an early manager, Mark Astarita, that helped Liz start to better understand her own potential.
  • HOW TO FIND OUT WHERE YOU WANT TO GO – A powerful exercise Liz recommends is to find five real jobs (using job descriptions) that you think you’d like to do. Crucially, they are not necessarily things you can currently do, but things that appeal to you.
  • NOTICE PATTERNS – Then either notice the patterns that recur, to increase your clarity of where you’d like to head…
  • GO DEEPER – Or if there are several directions, you now have something concrete to explore and research, to get greater clarity if one direction will make you happier than another.
  • NOT NECESSARILY UP – Your best path may not be greater responsibility. Not everyone needs or wants to get promoted. It can be just as valid to move sideways, stay doing the same thing or something completely different.
  • FIND WAYS TO CLOSE THE GAPS – And once you have a target in mind, start finding manageable steps you can take to close the gap so that you will be able to apply for, and get this kind of job in the future. The first time, this process took Liz 18 months, but this is exactly the process she followed to get her first Director of Fundraising role, WHICH SHE LOVED.
  • DECIDE TO MAKE TIME – Even if you’re very busy, Liz believes it is possible to make some time for some personal and professional development. The three most important tactics you could use to make this likely to happen are:
  • A) SOMEONE IN YOUR CORNER – Find a buddy, a mentor, friend or coach who you share your ideas and aspirations with.
  • B) MAKE IT REGULAR – Schedule a time, even just once a fortnight for 30 minutes, when you will review what you’ve done recently to take you in the direction you’d like, what you learned from it (often different from what you may have expected!); and what your options are for the next step on the journey.
  • C) MAKE A PLAN – this does not need to be complex. Just a single sheet of paper with simple, imperfect notes showing where you want to get to (and why!!); what the gaps might be that you need to fill; ideas for how you might do that; (and anything you’ve learned so far along the way); next steps.
  • BRAINSTORM TACTICS – There are many tactics you can do to close the gap. None of them are astonishing. They tend to compound and help each other, rather than one tactic on its own being the whole solution. They include:
  • FOR INSTANCE – Getting a mentor; being a mentor; going on a course or training programme; reading books, blogs; meeting others for coffee; listening to podcasts; becoming a trustee; job shadowing within your charity; volunteering for projects outside your immediate job, either in your charity or in the wider sector (eg IOF volunteer committees / Special Interest Groups)…
  • BELIEVE – The most important element in all of this is to believe that it is worth the effort. Ie Do you / can you believe it is possible to find your dream job, that you will be really happy doing? If so you are much more likely to take the steps to improve your skills and experience to get there. Talking to and listening to people like Liz who have made this journey can only help you believe and so keep going.


‘Don’t let other people’s expectations of you restrict what you choose to aim for.’ Liz Tait

‘Seek relentlessly what you are going to love, what’s going to make your heart sing.’ Liz Tait.

‘Schedule a time once a fortnight. Go to a coffee shop with a notebook and write down what you’ve done and what you could to get you closer to your dream job.’ Rob Woods

Do you want access to the strategies and support that have helped Tony?

In Episodes 7 and 8 Tony talks about some of the training resources from the Bright Spot Members Club that have helped his fundraising progress. If you’d like to find out more about the training films, coaching and events that club members receive, follow this link.

Full Transcript of Episode 9

Hey there, folks, this is Rob Woods and welcome to Episode 9 of the fundraising bright spots podcast. This is the show for anyone who works in charity fundraising and wants ideas and inspiration for how to enjoy their job, raise more money and make a bigger difference. And on this episode, if you have a nagging feeling you should be doing something about developing your career, either because you sense you just need to make a change, or because you don’t know what you want to be doing in your next job… Or because you really struggle to make time for personal development to help you feel more qualified to apply for a future job…then you’re going to find this session both encouraging, and also practical, because today I’m talking to the fabulous Liz Tait, who’s now Director of Fundraising at Teenage Cancer Trust, and who has also served as Chair of the Institute of Fundraising National Convention Board.

It was no accident that she found herself playing this role that so important to the professional development of so many fundraisers as it was a logical extra step in a career in which Liz has spent a great deal of time and energy, working not only on her own skills and development, but also on generously doing things to help other people make progress when it comes to the theory and practice of self development and career development, she really walks the walk and so I’m thrilled that she was able to join me to share the tactics that have helped her in her own career, and which she has shared with lots of other fundraisers along the way.

This session includes tactics for how to get ideas for your best career direction, even and especially when you feel stuck as to what that might be. It includes ways you can increase your motivation to actually make time for activities outside of your day to day job that will improve your skills and confidence to land your dream job. And it includes advice to help you go after a job that you will really enjoy as distinct from something that you might happen to be good at, but which doesn’t make your heart sing. Over the last few years. I count myself very fortunate to have interviewed Liz on several times and every time I’ve finished those conversations, both helped by her wisdom and encouraged by her warmth and her example of what is possible when you put your mind to something. For me, this conversation was no exception, and I hope you find it as helpful as I did.

This episode of the fundraising bright spots podcast is brought to you by bright spot mastery programmes. So if you need to increase income and corporate partnerships, or major donor and trust fundraising, these programmes will help. As well as the advanced strategies you learn on the training days, you’ll receive one to one coaching to help you put those powerful techniques into practice. To find out more about the corporate mastery and major gifts mastery programmes, head over to brightspotfundraising.co.uk.

Just one more thing. When I listened back to this episode, I discovered there was a glitch in how the recording was working at my end, which means that there are times when the sound quality when I’m talking gets a bit distorted. We did our best to make this clear at The Edit, but it’s still a bit jumpy in places. But I do hope that you can nevertheless make out what I’m saying when it does happen. Anyway, I decided to get the interview out there sounded perfections and all because I really want you to hear what Liz has to share. And I’m delighted to say that whenever Liz is talking, the sound quality is nice and clear.

Hello, Liz, welcome to the podcast.

Hi there, Rob. I’m pleased to be here.

Good. So Liz, we’ve had various chats over the years that have really helped me and the last time I think I interviewed you, you were at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home but you’re now at Teenage Cancer Trust. Is that right? How long you been there?

I am. I’m coming up to my first year at Teenage Cancer Trust and it’s been a really fantastic journey so far really brilliant, vibrant organisation with bags of ambition, so it suits me well.

Great, so in today’s interview I wanted to get your advice to do with the bigger picture of managing a fundraisers career or someone’s got, you know, they’re not sure whether they’re staying in one job for too long. Or if they would at some point like to reach director level, various things you’ve learned along the way because I know sometimes you said people come and ask you for advice. I’d just like for our listeners to get us a sense of some of the things you’ve picked up along the way. But just as a way of leading into that, and please give me a tiny snapshot of your journey so far.

So actually, this year, I’ve been a fundraiser for 20 years. So I went straight from university doing a marketing degree and knew that that was what I wanted to do. And I was very passionate and very lucky to land my first job actually a charity called Plan International, when I was almost 21. So I started young and really feel so privileged to have worked in a sector where most days it doesn’t feel like work. And it’s incredibly rewarding.

I also feel very lucky to work with some brilliant people and I think that it’s often the people you work for and with that really enable you in your career. So I’ve got a lot of people that I have to thank for the progression that I’ve made in my career. But a time that was really formative for me was when I was at the Red Cross, and I look back now and still remember it with a huge amount of fondness. It was an amazing time to be there working for Mark Astarita when he was the fundraising director and he put an awful lot of faith in me as a 25 year old coming into manager, a team that was overseeing an investment in direct marketing at that time.

So it was it was my dream job and I was very lucky. But what I learned towards the end my time at the Red Cross was just how much you can do to take control of your own career and your own progression. So it was almost 10 years into my career where I had a bit of a light bulb moment and began to understand what I was capable of, but equally what I could do to influence and what I did in in the future, and I think it’s important for me to share that I decided at that time, I wanted to work towards a Director of Fundraising role, but then planned that for 18 months before I even went to an interview, and the Red Cross were incredibly supportive, in that time, to enable me to get the experience and the professional development to take the step up. And I don’t think that organisations, charities or indeed companies we’re good enough at creating our own plans, we often have something tagged on the end of an appraisal and our PDP where we tend to kind of list one or two training courses that we might want to go on next year or Breakfast Club with Rob Woods that we might want to attend, but we don’t often.

And I think as managers, we’re often guilty of not thinking beyond those formal training opportunities. So I mean, I can talk a bit more later if it’s helpful about the kind of steps I took, but it was it was that time and that planning and that support I had that enabled me to go from being a specialist fundraiser in direct marketing to a generalist fundraised into a more senior role and then moved on to Battersea and was there for eight years, a very, very happy years that were also with a lot of hard graft features in there too. But I really am grateful for the time I had there and the opportunity, I had to create a whole new fundraising team. I guess it was during that director of fundraising role at Battersea, that’s enabled me to take on this great gig now at Teenage Cancer Trust and to be in another brilliant organisation with big plans ahead. So that’s kind of a bit of background, but happy to talk more.

Thank you very much, Liz. One thing that I find really interesting is that notion of a moment in particular, the one where as a hard working fundraiser, we’re just doing the day to day as well as we can, we might be aware of some things we’re good at and better than we used to be, but we’re also was aware of, you know, some of our frailties and, and I think very often, a person can be unaware of just how well they’re doing and how high their potential might be. So could you think back and offer any views on what it was that helped you kind of think differently and think bigger and dare to believe, to really go for a more senior trajectory?

Yeah, well, I think it comes back to the people that I worked with who almost forced me to think about it and encouraged me to do that, which was a great, great starting point, their mother, Mark Astarita was quite clear to me that he would have been disappointed if I didn’t go for some more senior level at a time when I didn’t really even think that was an option. And the Red Cross I then went forward to a programme that they had at the time, they were investing in a Talent Programme for the first time and I was lucky to be on that. And that made me think differently because I was suddenly on a programme where they were investing time and energy in me, but they also expected me to do things as well.

So the guy who was running that programme, we only had eight of us, so he popped up quite regularly at the end of my desk. And asked me what I was doing in terms of my development. So I suddenly had someone who was holding me to account. And you know, when time gets busy as fundraisers, we’re always busy, there’s always more we can do. And it’s very, very easy to do nothing or to not plan to do anything around your personal development or to do things by chance or to go on one or two short training courses.

But suddenly, I had someone saying what’re you going to do, there was also making me write it down and reflect on it and plan what I was going to do next. So that was really helpful, and it made me realise that having someone holding to account was really important. Equally taking the time to plan and to do around personal development was also really important and to enable me to fulfil my responsibility to this guy called John. I will block out Monday evenings in my diary. That was the time was right. This is personal development time. I didn’t stop me doing things other times too. But that was the time where each week I would sit back and plan what was coming next was it was I going to and go meet with a buddy next week, connect with a new mentor; was I going to get involved in another project? Can I do some shadowing of someone else in another area of fundraising. So I had that time. Set aside and when time is precious, I think if you’re serious about it, you do need to commit the time to it and put that that time aside not just for the big things, but for the all the small actions that when you take them and up to something much greater and more significance.

And what I would find was one thing would often lead to the next so if I shadowed someone on a certain project, or I met with a certain mentor or buddy, it would often make me think slightly differently about something or it made me think about okay, the next thing that I would find really useful would be there. So at the time, it became quite organic quite quickly and enabled me to gain quite a lot of momentum around my personal development. And I’m ashamed to say it’s not a practice that I continue to this day in the way that I would like to. But that’s, you know, again, life has got even fuller with children, but it’s certainly something that I would advocate, if people are thinking about, how do I move on in my career? What is it that I want to do next?

So if the listeners are thinking, well, that’s nice, Liz, your charity had a deliberate programme… So that clearly did make it so much easier, because there was a structure, and even if there were days when one didn’t instinctively have the time or the willpower, that structure just forced something to happen, some time to be spent there. But even if not possible, the advice I hear you’re saying is just schedule some regular time once a week or once a fortnight, you know, in an evening or in a coffee shop for 45 minutes. Take one particular notebook each time in which you track what you have been doing and how that’s going and what you might learn from it, and what the other things are in your plan that you haven’t got around to yet, but you might like to.

So that sounds very doable. But only if we were really serious. It’s not going to happen unless actually, we’ve decided on a particular direction we’d like to go in.

Absolutely, I’m fundamentally believe it’s about personal responsibility. And actually, most of us can take those steps at any one time, even if you don’t have the equivalent of john popping up at the end of your desk, and we’ve all got friends or family members or colleagues who can help hold us to account and we can potentially have a role in in doing that for others, too. So I think so much of what we can do around our personal development is relying on ourselves and not other people. So we shouldn’t wait for others to create those opportunities. There’s a lot that we can do ourselves to create opportunities to learn.

Yeah, well, although I think it is really interesting, the lesson you learned, you are on the receiving end of a colleague telling you something that you on your own may not have done or was done as quickly. And that’s a really useful thing to the listeners, who are managers who are leaders of just what a difference that can make to others to your colleagues into the sector. Could you just speak to that idea momentarily, when the shoe is on the other foot of what you’ve learned to do as a leader in giving that slightly more directive and challenging feedback and encouragement to people in your teams.

So the starting point says as managers and leaders we need to understand the individuals and what it is that motivates them and what career progression means to them. Because often when we think about it, we think it means upwards progression. And we think it means kind of bigger job title, bigger pay, those kinds of things. Whereas, to me, what I’ve learned over the years is for different people, it means different things. So as a starting point, when I’m talking to someone that I work with, whether they’re a direct report or not about career progression, I often ask them to do an exercise that I had to do kind of 10 years ago as part of the programme, and it was an exercise that really helped me identify where I wanted to go.

And it was really simple. I was asked to go away and find five job descriptions, but job descriptions of jobs that really caught my eye thing was I thought ‘Yes, that’s the kind of thing I would like to do next’. and the one rule was to not rule things out or to not rule yourself out of things. So you could go away and look for look at jobs that you would usually have said, ‘No, I haven’t got the experience to do that, or that’s not for me’. So as a first step, taking away that restriction that I would usually put on myself, I went away, and I came back with five job descriptions that were pretty much identical. They’re all director of fundraising jobs. So that was quite a clear answer to me in terms of what I wanted to do next and what I wanted to aspire to.

Do you think the act of being forced to do the legwork of that research, at some level brought you greater clarity that that was what you wanted?

Yeah, absolutely it did, because previously, I would have looked at those person specs and thought, well, I haven’t got that experience, or I haven’t done this. I don’t know that and I wouldn’t have taken it seriously. And I think that was the next stage of the exercise, then was to plot out all if that’s what you want to aspire to. And this is what’s in the person’s spec. How do you make sure you’re best placed to apply for this kind of role? So what are your gaps and how do we go about filling them? And that’s quite a simple but powerful exercise again that any of us can do at any time. And it’s something I’ve done quite a lot with people over the years. And often I found that people come back with five different job descriptions.

So it doesn’t always, you know, give clarity in terms of what next but it can sometimes lead to then discussions about a more exploratory approach to CPD or continuous professional development. Because if that exercise identifies there were a few areas that really get you excited. You can then design your own development plan around really understanding that different disciplines, all those different career paths and, and really exploring whether they would be right for you or not. So I think I’ve always found that to be a really useful exercise, even if it doesn’t give a really clear answer. It gives a pathway for a development plan. So that’s something that I would encourage managers to do to begin to understand their people and what’s right for them.

So thank you, Liz. And if I could interject there. There’s a couple of things I really like about that. Number one, we’re just doing this as an exercise as research rather than ‘I need a new job. Look at look at the job description. Oh, no, I can’t, am not qualified for any of those. Right. I’ll just go back to what I was doing’, so instead it’s a look into the future way as way of doing it. But then crucially, what I love about it, the question is not what are you able to do…it’s what would you love to do? You quite deliberately switch off the judging bit of our brain which says don’t be a fool, you can’t do that you’ve never you’ve managed Corporate Fundraising before. So quite deliberately doing the exercise in that way allows a person often to get greater clarity on what they want. And then you can do the gap filling for what we might do to help us get there. Yeah. But also that I think the other thing about it is I sense not only clarity, but also it might evoke more pull motivation, kind of being inspired to the dream of what you do want rather than push motivation, which only lasts so far if you’re trying to get out of what you don’t want. So it’s that spark of inspiration. I think it’s a really surprisingly simple tactic that can do those helpful things.

I think so and when I say that I planned for 18 months to move into a director of fundraising role it was that process I got started it because I could then say exactly what my gaps were and what I learned was I would be best place to go for director role, if I had three examples against each kind of element of the person spec. So it doesn’t mean that I had to have done corporate fundraising personally. But if there were different insights or different examples I could draw upon as part of an interview that would enable me to have confidence. So a lot of the process was about confidence building, I think, at the time and again, I don’t think you need to be in a big organisation with a shiny programme to enable you to do that. And so if you’re really serious about it, you can do that yourself, and with the support of others around you.

It seems like so much of it is more likely to happen if you can get just one person who can be your partner in crime.

Yes, it might be a former colleague who you always got on well, I mean, there might be a paid coach, but more likely, it’s just some to kind of mentor, you can have some of these conversations with for a little extra accountability. Because after you ask them to help you, you know, probably you don’t want to let them down for being willing to help but be just for that outside perspective, because very often, I think we might overthink our weaknesses and not see our potential and someone who knows as well. I mean, they might not always be right. But I think it’s much more likely that they can see the wood for the trees in our potential than we necessarily can always do ourselves.

I’d agree with that. And I think it’s also important to stress the career progression should be a plan based on what’s going to make you happy. And what’s going to really enable you to do something you love every day and it’s going to give you that great feeling at the end of the day, and helps you get out of bed in the morning, go to work. And I think what I’ve learned over the years, particularly working with others around their career development, is that it’s not always about upward progression. Sometimes it’s about doing something else entirely. Or sometimes it’s about a lateral move. Sometimes it’s about accepting, I love what I do. And I don’t want to move up, I might want to do it for a different organisation, but actually, I’m really happy. So I wouldn’t want anyone to listen to this and think that it’s all about upwards movement. I think what I’m advocating is thinking about your career and professional development based on what’s going to make you really happy and enable you to fulfil your potential.

Yeah, and I really like that distinction between what you really enjoy doing compared to what you’re good at, because many of us, you know, people in the charity sector, we work hard, or we could have achieved a really good level of competency in something because we just had to and we didn’t want to let the organisation down. And so we could fall into the trap of assuming that because I’m good at it, my colleagues tell me I’m good at it. That means that’s what I should do next.

And I really love that example, I’ve forgotten the author’s name but he tells the story of a concert pianist who just felt a bit flat with everything, including her job and through a conversation with her mom or friend she did these kinds of thinking about and then she studied to be an accountant and she was much happier – I love that example precisely because it confounds some of what we expect – that ultimately, is it meeting your needs you know, we all have personal psychology and what makes us tick and what makes our heart sing and for that person piano playing outstandingly was not it. But yeah, but doing the various disciplines of order and, and system and process of accountants, she really did.

So it’s a really helpful distinction I think of what would make your heart sing rather than what do you get it?

Absolutely. And I think it’s so important to take time to think about that, and do that exercise where people find out what’s important to you. I’m sure you can find it if you Google it. And it’s essentially going through different factors, the influence your satisfaction at work, and I think it helps you identify what are the most important thing was about the next role that you go for? When I was at the Red Cross, the most important thing was identified where the person I was going to work for actually was really important.

And equally, being able to be involved in something that was about making big change and delivering real growth. So I decided they were the most, the two most important factors to me more important than size of team size. Those kind of factors. So it’s key to take the time to think about what are those two or three things that will make you unhappy if they’re not there, or indeed really happy if they are. And, you know, a real reality. For me thinking about moving on capacity, those two factors didn’t change, actually, it was still those two things were really important. But layered on top of that was the ability to make work, work with my personal life and my family.

Life was kind of a third dimension that’s coming more recently, I would suggest that when you’re planning your next move to take the time to think about that, too, because there are so many different things that make you thrive or make you happy in a job, not just the job title or the role. A lot of other factors come into play.

And do you have any thoughts about, you know, obviously, there’s all sorts of tactics one could do to try and get those experience in certain areas to fill in the gaps. Could you talk a little bit about what has worked for you or advice for us in realising what various options we’ve got to get better at the thing that currently isn’t in our role?

Sure, I’m a big believer in being your best person, and pushing yourself forward and just saying, Yeah, I’ll take that piece of work on or I’ll do X, Y, Z, but also for voluntary within the sector. I think that’s been a big part of my life the last 10 years and undoubtedly helped me understand the charity sector better, which therefore enables me to do a better job. So I would encourage people to think about the volunteering opportunities that are out there within our sector, to think about getting involved with other charities being a trustee, to really understand good governance and fundraising in different organisations to give you a different view on the world.

And I would also really encourage, making as many connections in the sector as you can, so I get a lot of advice and strength and joy from meeting with others, be they other fundraising directors, consultants, people at other levels within the profession who have different backgrounds. So I’m a big believer in finding mentors and buddies wherever you can, and taking the time to meet with people who want to draw on your support and seek your advice as well. I think you often learn just as much from them so dedicating the time to that I think is really important. And something I did, busy was I was, at least once a week, say yes to meeting with another fundraiser. And I got more from it. And then I’m sure they got from meeting with me, but yeah, making the time for those coffees. I know it can be really hard when there’s a lot to be done. But undoubtedly, you will find this time well spent.

Because so often what we get from any of these times tactics that’s most valuable is what we expected. We go only for one reason, for instance, to help. Yeah, we get we get involved in a particular volunteer group or whatever, for one reason. And then actually, we leave with something that’s far more valuable than what we expected to reason we expect it to be doing it for.

Yeah, absolutely.

I’d love to talk on it on Liz. But I think we should wrap up this section of the interview fairly soon. But I guess my last question is, it may be something you’ve already covered, and you want to go into more depth or just something brand new. But if you were advising the Liz of 10 or 15 years ago about any other element to do with making the most of and nudging on in a helpful direction, or career, or any other idea advice, you think that these would have benefited from hearing.

I think certainly, it’s important to encourage yourself, don’t just wait for others to encourage you. So don’t let other people’s expectations of you restrict what you do. Don’t let other people tell you can’t do something or actually be better for you to take another step in your career or to go into a similar role. really take the time to think about what’s right for you. We spend a lot of our time at work. So, to help you make the right choices about your career and where you work, you need to put the time in and don’t limit your ambitions. Just seek relentlessly what you are going to love and then she say what’s going to make your heart sing?

Fantastic advice. Thank you, Liz. Fantastic advice. Thank you so much. So we need to finish this interview fairly soon. And already I hope your ideas will have given people really good food for thought and maybe a little inspiration to take things in the direction they want to go in. If people wanted to follow up with you. What’s your Twitter name?

So my Twitter name is Liztait one word.

Brilliant. So, Liz, thank you so much for making time for this call all your ideas and advice. I look forward to catching up with you soon for another interview. But for now, Thank you, goodbye.

Thanks so much, Rob. Thanks for having me.

I hope you enjoyed Liz’s ideas about how you can work out where you want to get to, as well as her tips to help you do what it takes to get that job you’ll love. If you’d like to see a summary of these ideas, do check out the Episode Notes on the blog and podcast section of our www.brightspotfundraising.co.uk website. And if you found today’s episode helpful, please do leave us a review and share it with other people so that these sessions can reach and help more and more fundraisers.

In case you’re curious about any of the fundraising courses we offer the in-house training days or our one to one coaching or the mastery programmes in major gifts or corporate partnerships. And again, all that information is on brightspotfundraising.co.uk. Finally, and most importantly, thank you so much for making time for your own professional development by tuning in to listen to this podcast. I look forward to the next episode, when we’ll be sharing more ideas and bright spot stories to help you raise more money, enjoy your job and make a bigger difference.