Send the Elevator Back Down: How to Invest in the Next Generation of Fundraisers
Kevin Spacey said, “If you have done well in whatever business you are in, it is your duty to send the elevator back down and try to help bring up the next generation of undiscovered talent.”
I’m not sure when Spacey’s iconic role in “The Usual Suspects” became the go-to for life advice, but I surely agree with the sentiment. I would add that for those of us who are nonprofit fundraisers that obligation is particularly urgent. Simply put, there are not enough effective fundraisers to secure the capital needed to advance the important objectives of our sector.
“UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” first quantified what we have all suspected for some time. Rampant fundraising staff turnover and a shallow talent pool is impeding the growth in resources so many organizations require. Some experts have challenged the study, pointing to comparable turnover rates in other sectors. Since successful fundraising is so dependent on relationships, turnover is crippling. To grow both our profession and the impact of the sector, each of us must invest in deepening the talent pool. We must nurture and cultivate new fundraisers to ensure they stay and become more effective.
There are simple, but deliberate, investments we must make in those riding up in the elevator.
Throw them in the deep end
My grandmother taught me to swim by pushing me off of the edge of a dock. Jarring, but effective. For those new to fundraising, it is important that, as quickly as possible, we give them projects and prospects to own. I do not think that means giving them a stack of prospects to cold call with an expectation they will come back with millions in pledges. However, I do think owning a small event or a modest portion of a portfolio is the quickest way to develop an understanding of the dynamic relationships fundraising requires.
Bring them to your donor meetings
The way you interact with donors and describe your mission is not something that is easily taught. It can be observed and mimicked by bringing your more junior team members into donor meetings. Over time, you can then have them handle certain points of the conversations and offer them feedback on their performances.
Encourage professional development
There are academic courses and credentials that we should encourage those new to the field to pursue. As the first two points would indicate, I have a preference for experiential learning. However, the growing body of academic work and opportunities for professional development can widen the perspective new fundraisers have access to. Engaging in the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and pursuing recognition as a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) are great ways for fundraisers to connect to the larger field and to expand their knowledge and abilities.
Encourage them to read and ask questions
I stuffed envelopes for my first job at a nonprofit. I read every single thing that went into the envelopes and asked lots of questions about why we were sending what we were. In retrospect, I can see how annoying that may have been. To the credit of my then boss and now friend, he took time to answer every question and explain the “why” behind every piece of mail. I learned as much then as I have in the nearly 20 years that have since passed.
Make it fun!
Laugh. Joke. Recognize that, at times, what we do is entirely absurd. The importance of the missions we fund and the pressures to fuel the accomplishment of these missions via philanthropy can be daunting and produce very serious atmospheres. At times, that can be warranted, as we are engaged in serious work, but it is not work any of us can do from behind a frown. Create an environment people want to be part of. Your donors will notice and, more importantly, your staff will stay longer.
Spacey’s character is right. We have to send the elevator down, and doing so is the only way we will sustain our profession. But, let’s ensure the elevator has the tools these newcomers need in it and that they are not riding alone.
Craig Shelley (@craigshelley) is a vice president at Orr Associates Inc. (OAI), a consulting firm to the nonprofit industry with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. He specializes in serving as an integrated fundraising, leadership and strategy partner to leading nonprofits.
Prior to joining OAI, Shelley served in a variety of positions with Boy Scouts of America, most recently as national director of development and corporate alliances. He serves on the board of directors for Association of Fundraising Professionals New York City Chapter and the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York’s Nonprofit Excellence Awards Selection Committee, and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).