What to Think About Before You Take that Job …
I recently had an instructive coaching call with a director of development who has been in a new position for three months and recently had his first evaluation. There’s a lesson in it for all of us. You see, despite what he originally perceived to be his new employer’s long-term perspective, his boss expressed disappointment about his performance thus far. His boss was particularly disappointed that a six-figure solicitation had not been made during an initial meeting with a prospect who was unfamiliar with the organization.
I explained to him we consistently find that fundraisers and their employers often lack a shared understanding of how fundraising really works. I expect his employer is likely to begin churning through unsuspecting fundraisers every 12 to 24 months. Eventually, the organization may get wise to their patterns, but not before they have wasted several years of meaningful relationship opportunities.
Lest we assign blame to organizational leaders, we must understand that fundraisers are often quick to sign on with new employers who reveal all the signs of unreasonable expectations. Most fundraising professionals I know want to be admired for their abilities to turn things around and make things happen. Fundraising professionals must be forthcoming about what they are able to accomplish and be prepared to pass on employment opportunities if the expectations are unreasonable.
Arm's Length Fundraising
Many small shops and their fundraisers have developed a mindset that resembles systemic addiction—an organizational dependency on cheap, quick, shallow and low-risk practices—or what I call arm’s length fundraising. Professional turnover and donor attrition are side effects of such an addiction. Like most forms of addiction, arm’s length fundraising gives the nonprofit organization a sense of control, while minimizing risk and avoiding intimacy.
The first step toward recovery from a systemic addiction is admitting we have a problem; the next is aligning expectations.
In hindsight, the scenario my friend encountered with the major donor prospect would have been an ideal lens through which to align expectations during the interview process. There is an appropriate pace at which to cultivate and solicit major gift support. This pace, matched with an assigned list of prospects, can create a thriving major gifts initiative. Unfortunately, the interview process is often heavy with charm and anecdotes of past success, but short on an articulation of how to mature a fundraising program beyond believing that every major donor is a quick fix for the organization’s financial woes.
To combat the preference for a quick fix, especially in small shops, fundraising professionals and their employers must align on a shared understanding of effective fundraising. I find that it is important to clarify the roles that volunteers, board members and the CEO will all play complementary to the fundraising professional. When we fail to clarify roles, we tend to crowd a single lane of fundraising activity that inevitably results in competitiveness over who gets credit for what, confusion over who’s in charge and finger-pointing when goals go unmet.
An organization that refuses to improve its understanding of effective fundraising bars itself and its employees from the opportunity to achieve its goals, interferes with the development of the fundraising professionals’ expertise and prevents the meeting of revenue goals for which they were hired. Our missions demand that we take fundraising seriously. This begins with the interview process and, if hired, an effective onboarding process. Organizational leaders, and fundraisers alike, owe themselves a shared understanding of how effective fundraising works and an aligned expectation of how they intend to get there. For small shops, I recommend that the first fundraiser hired have pre-determined, written expectations. Similar to the structure often used with major gift officers, expectations could begin with an assigned list of donors, distinguishable patterns of cultivation, solicitation, stewardship and a strict accountability to a checklist of deliberate practices.
Jason Lewis, CFRE & AFP Master Trainer, is the managing partner of BetterSchools LLC, an Austin-based firm partnering with independent schools throughout the U.S. In addition to this role, Jason owns Lewis Fundraising, a company he founded and currently operates. Together with his team of fundraising professionals, Jason serves as fundraising counsel for a growing network of nonprofit organizations.
Since graduating from Eastern University’s nonprofit management program in 2010, Jason has been re-certified as a CFRE and recognized as a member of the AFP’s Master Trainers. Most recently, he graduated from the College of Executive Coaching. Jason’s forthcoming book, "The War for Fundraising Talent," is a critique of contemporary fundraising and an introduction to his provocative fundraising philosophy.