Transformative Change Depends on a New Kind of Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofits are no longer guaranteed a free lunch. We have to work harder than ever to raise the funds we need, which—as we have seen in many instances around the world—leaves us vulnerable to accusations of hard selling. The potential impact of this on trust and confidence—and therefore our ability to support the world’s most vulnerable communities—is worrying. After all, this isn’t just about money. It’s about people, animals, our environment. And in some cases, it's quite literally the difference between life and death.
However, despite the criticism that has been directed at our sector lately, little seems to have changed. It appears to be business as usual for many charities. That’s unfortunate, but not surprising. The social impact sector is built on passion, which is good. What’s not good is when passion for the mission translates to stubborn adherence to practices and mindsets that support the status quo. And it does—too often, especially when the status quo seems to be working.
The Resource Alliance has been working to identify the root problems around this issue, scope out potential solutions, find new pathways forward and create disruptive change. We haven’t found all the answers, but what we do know is that this isn’t just about refining and improving the tools and techniques we use. Although that’s important, this is about more than that. It’s about organizational culture and values systems. And more than anything, it’s about leadership.
We need big, transformational change in the sector, and that relies on leaders who are fearless enough and innovative enough to make decisions to ensure the long-term success of their organizations and the achievement of their mission—even when those decisions are difficult, unpopular or a little scary. Especially when they are.
Understanding the donor experience
The right kind of nonprofit leadership enables supporters to feel connected to the cause. Poor leadership tends to have the opposite effect. It can manifest in short-term, transactional fundraising versus longer-term relationship building with a shared value set developed between the charity and the donor.
When was the last time you asked your donors why they support you or how they feel about being a part of your work? At a previous organization where I served, we asked donors of all giving levels why they gave and literally recorded their answers. We then brought everyone from the organization—board and all—into a theater, turned down the lights and asked them to just listen. It was immensely powerful to hear the words directly from our donors and helped the whole organization truly connect with and understand their thoughts and feelings, and to see them as the integral part of the organization that they were. When we thought about our cause and our impact from the perspective of the donor, it opened up internal communications, helped to unite our fundraising and programs teams, and influenced our ongoing approach to donor communications.
Relationship fundraising expert Ken Burnett talked about how his mother felt about the frequency and format of the mailings she received when became a “lapsed” donor. The fundraisers were focused on reactivating the file, with seemingly little consideration of the person at the end of the letters. “They are always shouting at me,” was how she described it.
“I worry more about fundraising leadership now than ever. I’m not sure it is necessarily worse but that fundraising needs leadership more," Burnett said. "We really need to seriously examine how we do things. We need to find a way of keeping donors longer, of improving customer experience—and we need strong fundraising leadership to help us do this.”
He’s not alone in this. Other fundraisers are raising the same concerns.
“We need to understand what it is that makes us different and why we have the right to ask for money,” said Ruth Ruderham, director of development at Prince's Trust International. “Even organizations that have been out there for a long time don’t always understand this. Nonprofits really come into ascendance when they find their why; they are so much more able to connect with the public.
Joe Jenkins, director of fundraising and supporter engagement at The Children's Society, agreed that while money is important, great fundraising leaders focus their attention beyond that.
“They don’t just deliver more cash,” he said. “Their strategic vision, insights, supporter focus and clarity of core purpose help transform the approach of the whole charity and its impact in the world.”
Taking the long view
This difference between “transactional” and “transformational” nonprofit leadership may hold the key to understanding why we’re experiencing such challenging times. Transactional leaders tend to be solely concerned with keeping the ship afloat and making sure everything flows smoothly today. Annual budgets are reviewed with a fine-toothed comb, and fundraisers are under intense pressure to generate returns now. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, place attention on long-term results and leading change, as well as the short-term. These change-makers focus on how they can develop a sustainable resource engine to deliver superior performance relative to their mission, through innovation, motivation and collaboration.
To that end, great nonprofit leadership goes beyond the fundraising department. It unites the entire organization. It helps program co-coordinators understand donor motivations, helps the finance team understand the likely returns of particular techniques, and helps everyone understand that the success of the organization in honoring its mission is dependent on all teams working together in a holistic and collaborative way—whether they have a direct role in generating income or not.
“Great fundraising starts and ends with the organizational purpose and objectives—so fundraising leaders must provide that organizational perspective, to lead both fundraisers and colleagues across the organization,” Jenkins said. “Good fundraising leaders transform their organization’s success at fundraising; great fundraising leaders transform their organization.”
Fundraising is the muscle behind the mission. To deliver the vital work we are so passionate about, we need enabling fundraising environments—where resources are aligned to create value and where the traditional fragmented silos we have been working under have been broken down. Great fundraising leadership will drive this change.
What is great fundraising leadership?
Great leadership is about breaking boundaries and asking difficult questions, about doing something different. It’s about emotional intelligence, effective communication, informed decision-making, calculated risk-taking. It’s being willing and able to stay in one place long enough to implement transformational change. It’s choosing the right people, and equipping them and inspiring them to take risks, to innovate, to grow and deliver. And it’s about making fundraising everybody’s baby.
But what are we doing to support, encourage and grow our leaders and change-makers? To give them the foundation they need to be able to innovate and inspire? Why do we assume that people will suddenly become fantastic leaders simply by receiving a promotion?
Leadership may be innate for a few, but for most people it needs to be nurtured and developed. Leadership skills need to be taught. And yet so few of our leaders, current or future, receive training in this area. We need to provide opportunities for personal and professional growth so that our teams have the skills they need to truly shine. Imagine what we could achieve if we did.
“There are a lot of people in our sector who recognize the importance of changing the quality of leadership and the need to bring on a generation that is bigger and better than we currently are,” Burnett said. “This should be encouraged. We should put a lot of effort into training the leaders of tomorrow.”
Jenkins agreed. "There is much more we can and should do," he said. "We need to inspire more current leaders to turn their efforts from good to great and share their experience with others, and we need to create more opportunities for fundraising leaders of the future to receive the support, training and guidance they need to realize their potential.”
Fundraising leaders who have had the courage to make transformational change, to break down barriers, to try innovative ways of working and who apply leading-edge thinking to their approaches should be applauded and supported. Furthermore, these examples should set the standard in our sector.
May we all strive to support each other—and especially our next generation of leaders—as we take the next steps, the right steps, to achieving the change we want and need to see in our sector and for the benefit of us all.
Kyla Shawyer is CEO of The Resource Alliance, curator of the International Fundraising Congress, happening Oct. 18-21 in the Netherlands. This year’s theme is "Asking the Right Questions" and will encourage delegates to look at things differently and challenge old thinking in order to achieve fearless, transformational change in their organizations that will lead to better fundraising, deeper engagement and, ultimately, more success in delivering their mission.