A Challenge to Nonprofits: Make Professional-Level Fundraising a Strategic Priority
Anybody can be a fundraiser. It doesn’t take special knowledge or skills. It doesn’t require adherence to any type of regulation or code of ethics. And it isn’t really a profession. Except... it does, and it is. So why don’t more organizations make professional-level fundraising (also called development) a strategic priority and integrate it into leadership practice?
Fundraising for nonprofit organizations is an interesting study in organizational and team dynamics in that it is expected to be successfully accomplished by a constantly revolving group of people, employing a variety of methods.
Here are three examples of organizational infrastructure as it pertains to fundraising.
- At very small or new organizations, fundraising may be done completely by the board of directors, with no involvement from staff of any kind (usually because the organization is so small, it does not yet have paid staff).
- It may be accomplished by a paid executive director in coordination with the board of directors.
- In an ideal scenario, a fundraising professional (such as a director of development or a chief development officer), the executive director and the board of directors form a solid partnership in which each has an important role to play in the fundraising process.
Each of these examples involves a board of directors that has members revolving off and new members coming on each year (not all at the same time, of course!). The third scenario is what we’ll focus on here: Organizations that have paid executive and fundraising staff.
It is important to note that one of the principal responsibilities of a nonprofit board is to ensure the organization has the proper funding to operate and deliver services at the optimal level. They do this in part by being good financial stewards of the money the organization has. They also meet this requirement through giving personally to and fundraising for the organization. All boards are responsible for raising funds for the organization.
It is, however, the development professional that provides the groundwork to help the board be successful. They provide continuity by staying in their role while board members, by nature of the board of directors model, come and go.
That is why it is important to employ a development professional that:
- Has the right communication style and personality fit for the organization.
- Either has experience or is willing and able to take advantage of as many training opportunities as possible through local foundations or via trade associations like the Association of Fundraising Professionals (the board and executive staff must budget for such professional education).
- Their skills must run from the fundamentals of fundraising, to knowing and adhering to state and federal fundraising regulations, acting ethically and honoring donor intent.
It is perfectly OK for an organization to hire someone who has not been a professional fundraiser, but who has chaired charity events. However, they must do so with the full understanding that special events are not the same thing as fund development, and that if they hire in this way, they MUST budget the resources of money and time for the person to attend training and learn the full scope of the job. Personal connections and community profile are great things for a fundraiser to have, but they can’t be the only things. They must be supplemented with immediate and ongoing education on the fundamentals and processes of successful fund development.
It is possible that some organizations hire people who are connected in the community, but don’t know much about fundraising in hopes that they’ll be able to make big asks of their friends, saving the organization from investing further resources into fundraising.
The problem there is that fundraising is so much larger than just asking your friends for money. Having a healthy fundraising program is a complete process with many layers and moving parts, none of which can be ignored. We must follow industry standards and regulations in many types of strategic prospecting, cultivation, relationship-building, asking for funds and stewarding donors. There are new technologies and methodologies emerging every day. Someone also needs to know what to do with the gift once it is received; the process doesn’t end when the check is in hand.
This next statement is not going to make me popular with everyone, but I’ll write it anyway on the chance that it could spur nonprofits into evaluating their hiring motives. I believe some organizations purposely hire fundraising staff with no experience and do not budget for them to receive the necessary training, so that a lower salary can be paid and there is no one to question the organization’s strategy or tactics.
In a similar vein, I have seen nonprofits hire a person who has earned the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential because they believe that person will be able raise the funds all by themselves (it doesn’t work that way). However, what you get when you hire someone with the CFRE credential is a person who knows what processes need to be followed for successful fundraising, what questions to ask and the regulations and ethical guidelines to which the organization must adhere. In essence, they can help the organization play at the top of its game.
Sometimes, organizations hire a seasoned or credentialed fundraiser, then push back against conducting fundraising in a way that follows industry standards and ethics. This creates a scenario where the development professional feels like they have to fight to do their own job appropriately.
As one small example, in Florida we have strict regulations that govern what nonprofits can and cannot do with regards to auctions and “chance drawings” (raffles). The state dictates to the nth degree what must be disclosed in what way to make chance drawings legal. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to show the relevant Florida statutes to nonprofit executives who don’t believe they “really have to do all of that.” Showing the statutes is not the problem (some people call it “trust and verify”...accept that what the person is saying is accurate and ask for the backup documentation to keep on file that explains why it is so). As a development professional, it is the constant disbelief in what you say that can be a morale killer; it is disheartening to feel like your executive or board thinks you make up regulations to follow (why would anyone make up something that creates more work for themselves?).
Some organizations believe ethical or regulatory guidelines don’t apply to them, or they believe that if they don’t have anyone on staff who knows the rules, then the organization cannot be punished by regulatory bodies for not adhering. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Ignorance of industry standards and regulations is not an excuse for not abiding by them. Fines can still be levied, and tax- exempt status can always be revoked.
Whether it is fundraising methods and processes, like creating communications unique to different categories of donors, planning out strategy for major gift asks and appropriately documenting gifts and associated naming or tribute opportunities, or knowing and adhering to legal and ethical practices, nonprofits must function at the highest level.
Boards and executives must commit to having a fundraising program that follows best practices and industry standards. As I mentioned earlier, directors on the board revolve every few years, making development professionals the reliable glue that holds the fundraising program together. Board members must be responsible for being a significant part of raising money for the organization, and development professionals are the orchestrators that make sure the whole show runs smoothly, transitioning from one year to the next seamlessly.
Raising money for a nonprofit organization means raising enough to run at the optimal level, not just the bare bones. Leadership must be dedicated to capacity building — to generating and allocating funds for appropriate technology as well as necessary staff training.
Whether your organization hires someone because they are connected in the community, onboards staff right out of college with no experience or employs a CFRE, the success of a fundraising program lies in employing best practices, acting ethically at all times (and knowing what that means in the context of fundraising) and adhering to regulations. It is up to leadership — board directors and executive staff — to create an environment where fundraising at the highest level is not only possible but embraced. Trust, verify and go raise money to support your organization’s mission!
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.