Earlier this summer, The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed fundraising challenges at Rensselaer Polytechnic, which they attributed to leadership that had demoralized the advancement staff. Reading anecdotes about how not to lead got me thinking about how we should be leading fundraisers. Yes, many of the tenets of good leadership in other sectors and professions are transferable, but having worked alongside professional fundraisers, and as one myself for nearly 20 years, I can say we are a unique breed and particularly susceptible to poor leadership and the ensuing poor performance.
I have had the good fortune to personally experience many examples of great leadership. Regrettably, I’ve also seen firsthand the way poor leadership can negatively impact fundraising results. Bad leadership results not only in poor morale (as in the Rensselaer example), but also in ineffective execution and, ultimately, the underfunding of vital philanthropic missions. It is a sad indictment on those with responsibilities for leadership that many of our society’s persistent challenges remain unsolved, because their fundraising functions are not well led.
Nonprofit leaders, including CEOs, chief development officers and board members, can benefit from being mindful of how they inspire, measure, recognize, collaborate with and engage their fundraising teams.
It is critical to connect our fundraising teams to our missions. Most fundraisers are secretly aspiring—or retired—program staff. Like everyone in the nonprofit sector, we were attracted to this work because we wanted to do good and change the world. Then one day, we got diverted into fundraising and found ourselves walled off from the very benefits and beneficiaries of the work we were fundraising for.
As well as inspiring them, exposing our development staff to our programs and program staff provides them the anecdotes they need to engage and motivate donors. One day of arts and crafts with pediatric cancer survivors can sustain weeks, and maybe months, of donor visits, call reports and spreadsheets. Deliberately engaging fundraisers in programs on a regular basis breaks down the silos between program and fundraising staff that exist in most nonprofits.
These two groups should work (and play) together! As a fundraising leader, I’ve always pushed to integrate, or at least, not isolate work spaces and (at the least) plan annual social outings with my operational counterparts. At one point I went so far as to having a door between departments removed from its hinges. Proximity matters!
Measure and Recognize
Most professional fundraisers score high on personality tests that measure goal focus. Fundraisers are achievement-oriented. It is one of the things that draws us to this work. We derive enormous satisfaction when funds are raised and campaign goals met and beaten. As leaders, we can leverage this personality trait and reward it. We should set out to measure not just funds raised, but the activities and inputs we know are necessary to achieve these fundraising goals—pipeline values, prospect visits, etc. Competition and public recognition of those achieving these benchmarks keeps our teams engaged and doing the work we need them to do.
Collaborate: Be a ‘Player Coach’
I grew up in the 1980s and caught only the tail end of Pete Rose’s phenomenal baseball career and, sadly, the subsequent scandals that tarnished his legacy. What stood out for me were the several seasons where he was both a player and a manager. He was an inspiring leader who could also pick up a bat and go on the field and show you how it was done.
Over my career, I have seen fundraisers respond much the same way I did as an adolescent to Pete Rose. Leaders that cultivate donors, make solicitations, recruit board members, and jump in and help at a special event are leaders fundraisers will gladly follow. Soliciting philanthropic investment is easy to talk about. It is extremely difficult to do, and fundraisers are inspired to work alongside of and for those they deem to be effective at the craft. As chief development officers, it is imperative that we manage our own portfolio of donors, however small, to prove to our teams we can and will get in the trenches. Make asks. Secure gifts. Get declined. It sets the example and strengthens the resolve of our teams.
Engage as a Thought Partner
We need to be available to engage and brainstorm with our teams. Fundraising can be a lonely job. We hear “no” more often than we hear “yes,” and few people outside of work really understand what we do. Fundraisers crave the opportunity to think out loud about donor strategies and have few people to do that with. We need to be that person for our teams. Fundraising teams value and appreciate our input when we devote time to deeply understanding and discussing their specific challenges with specific prospects. Good leaders bring fundraisers into the planning, strategizing and leading for their organizations. As a result, the fundraising staff is happier, better informed as fundraisers and incentivized to contribute ideas and efforts that yield results far beyond just revenue.
Leaders who can embrace all of these characteristics will have an enormous impact on their organizations and leave a legacy that persists long after they have passed the mantle to their successors!
Craig Shelley (@craigshelley) is a managing director at Orr Group, which provides nonprofits with strategy, fundraising, leadership and management solutions and has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Craig brings an entrepreneurial approach to fundraising, nonprofit management and strategy. Prior to joining Orr Group, Craig served in a variety of positions with the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as the national director of development and corporate alliances. He serves on the executive committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter and the editorial advisory board for Nonprofit PRO, and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).