Conflicting Agendas Kill Major Gift Programs
It is always amazing to me how smart, responsible adults can kill or at least smother a very good thing. I’m talking about the case at a southern university, which has 15 colleges and one major gift officer assigned to each college.
When I first heard about this situation I thought, “Wow, 15 major gift officers (MGOs) at a university, all working together to bring in much needed revenue. This is great!”
But as I dug into this further, this bright light started to dim.
I found out that due to recent cutbacks and the need to get work covered, the deans from each college had given their MGOs additional, non-major gift work to do, which, in turn, reduced their ability to raise money. This is sounding familiar.
The good news was that the university hired a development professional to head up the major gift program (good idea), but the bad news was that there was a poor lady installed in the central or corporate office, with hardly any ability or authority to either influence or redirect the choices of the powerful deans in each college.
So, you have the almost impossible situation of conflicting agendas—on one side is the head office, central office or whatever you want to call it, and on the other side is the college and its dean.
And whoever designed this system has set up a budget where half of the cost of each MGO is given to each side and the supervision of each MGO is split evenly between the parties.
Now, here is the interesting thing: The university is in trouble financially. That’s why they have had to cut back, but someone upstairs either does not see or does not care that the very solution to their financial woes is sitting right in front of them with those 15 MGOs.
So, the development professional—that poor soul in the central office—must cajole, debate and influence each dean to do the right thing and has so far not experienced much success. Essentially, most of the deans are comfortable with their MGO doing non-major gift work, while the college, specifically, and the university generally suffers financial hardship.
It seems that most of these deans are comfortable with a low level of fundraising activity in their college, and they allow mediocrity because they “like” their MGO. And this is happening even when the total college fundraising dollars do not cover even the salary of their MGO!
And when the head of development sends monthly reports to the dean and the MGO on contacts made, asks submitted, current phase of each prospect and dollars in the door—when she sends those reports and points out that the number of contacts and asks per month are nowhere near what is either needed or agreed upon—the reply from the deans is usually, "No worries. Good things are happening in development".
“Good things are happening in development.”
I’ve heard that phrase so many times that it would make your head spin. In fact, I read a similar statement not too long ago in an email that sounded exactly like the situation I am describing here.
The MGO is doing nothing, but is liked by the authority figure, so the summary statement by the authority figure on the state of affairs is, “Things are going great, and I appreciate all that (name of MGO) is doing.”
Never mind that the facts tell a whole different story.
I’m telling you this story because this situation, where authority and responsibility is split between two parties, is not uncommon among charities of all types. It is first an organizational design problem, secondly a management/leadership problem and lastly, confusion about the roles of technical people. Let me dig into these three points.
1. An organizational problem. It is always amazing to me how leaders/managers like to make their organizations very complex. Looking at some organizational charts, you would think the folks involved were sending a colony to the farthest reaches of space. It has layers and layers of complexity, which I expect it would have at lower levels of the chart, but that complexity is also at the top. There are really only three major functions in an organization, in my opinion (emphasis on the word “major”), which are product, sales/marketing and administration/operations. In the nonprofit world, substitute the word program for product. An organization exists to provide a product (or service), markets and sells that product or service and manages the infrastructure (finance, HR, operations, etc.) to deliver that product via an administrative
The problem with many organizations is they are not organized this way. So, in the case of the university and many educational institutions, the leaders put the acquiring revenue responsibility (sales/fundraising) primarily with product people (deans). Doesn’t make sense. I know, it’s convention and “we have always done it that way.” It still does not make sense, and it causes problems. The dean’s major responsibility, in my opinion, is the integrity of the product—not fundraising. Just like in a medical institution, the surgeon is delivering the product. He or she should not, necessarily, be in charge of fundraising. So, this is one area where it starts to go wrong.
2. A management/leadership problem. The leader/manager who creates the situation I have been describing in this post is the real problem. As a wise person once said: “The fish stinks at the head.” It is the leader’s responsibility to create a system where there is no conflict of authority or responsibility and where the organizational design is done logically, efficiently and right.
I have to wonder if the leader of that university truly understands what the root cause of his financial problems is. I know this university; it’s got an excellent product. It is the leadership that has lost its way—probably because they are copying business models that are outdated and useless. Oftentimes, politics (not practicality or wisdom) govern all the decisions on organizational design and responsibility for fundraising. And when I say, "the fish stinks at the head," I do not mean to demean leadership, because most often it is good. I mean to say, the problem rests with leadership. They should correct what is wrong here.
3. Confusion about the roles of technical people. Technical people are those folks in the organization who design, create and manage the product/program/service offer of the organization. The good ones are pretty powerful people. They create great things, and they are amazing people, but they are not usually good fundraisers or major gift people. Yet leaders, because of their prominent contribution to the organization, give these technical people the authority to rule the entire castle not realizing they undermine the very foundation of the enterprise by doing so.
I do know why this happens.
It’s because, historically, we leaders have valued management people more than technical people. We have paid them more. We have given them more prominence and authority. We have disproportionately lifted them up. So, if you are a technical person in this environment, it is no wonder why you need and want to be a manager. You lobby and work your way into a position, then fail at delivering the very values the position requires. In the case of those deans or the program person in your organization, if we would just let them be the technical people they were meant to be and we honored and valued them as much as we value the management folks, we wouldn’t be in many of the situations we find ourselves in.
Well, what can I tell that development professional at the university about how to get out of the fix she is in?
- One idea is for her to show the top leader this post and have a discussion about the situation the university finds itself in. Maybe starting a non-threatening dialogue about the subject would be helpful.
- Another idea is to talk to the leader or managers about the connection of organizational design and delegated authority to the financial woes they are currently experiencing. I often find that if I talk about how to solve the money problem, people listen. I know this is delicate politically, but the money angle is a pathway for this discussion.
- Perhaps several of the 15 deans could be persuaded toward this point of view and, together, they could go to leadership about how to solve this problem.
- Failing all of that, perhaps the development person just needs to go find another job. Because if she doesn’t she will surely fail if this situation isn’t turned around.
These are not easy things to solve; I know that. And oftentimes our discussions on major gifts have to do with donors, MGOs, budget packaging, offers, asks, cultivation and stewardship. But every once in awhile, the organizational monster raises its head and the very thing that is blocking the MGOs success is the organization itself.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.