When Elephants Fight, Grass Gets Trampled
The African proverb, "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled," speaks to the need for managers to be aware of how their actions affect those they manage.
I am bringing this topic up because too many managers do not care for their major gift officers (MGOs) as they should, which is why there is such a high turnover rate for this position in our sector. In fact, the major reason for MGO attrition is bad management. This is something we need to change.
You see, when there's a problem between two people, or a problem in general, it doesn't only affect the people whose problem it is, but everyone around them suffers from seeing them argue or in a bad situation. The grass gets trampled.
For instance, when a MGO manager is arguing or debating major gift program issues with his or her boss and that debate filters out to the MGOs on the team, it colors their environment and affects their attitudes. For many MGOs, this kind of thing is the beginning of the journey out of the organization.
I remember one situation when the CEO came into a meeting where the manager and our associate were meeting with the MGOs. He came in and took over the meeting. He demanded higher performance, criticized some of the strategies used and complained about one strategy that was executed wrong — basically ravaged and abused every MGO in the room. It was terrible.
There was another situation when a member of the finance team (in front of the MGOs) was aggressively questioning the current crediting policies in force and asked, “Why would a MGO get credit for [this or that]?” Now, I have no doubt that, in most of these situations, the motives of the finance person were pure (i.e. they don’t want any double-counting of the money, and they want to be assured that the cost of the MGO is causing real value).
Fair enough. But do they have to have the conversation in front of the MGO? No they don’t. And this kind of practice is what tears the spirit right out almost any MGO and starts them thinking about moving to a less hostile environment.
The part of the proverb where it says, "...it is the grass that gets trampled," is also saying that the ones fighting and debating will likely get over it and recover faster, but the ones affected will need time to heal, and maybe even more time then it took the ones debating to recover.
You, as a manager and leader, need to not only protect the MGO when these “management conversations and debates happen,” but you also need to help the MGO and their support teams recover from the event as well. I would assume that when these events occur and you have managed to keep them private, as I have suggested above, the content will eventually seep out of management and find its way into the heads and hearts of your major gifts team.
Just assume this will happen and take steps to assure them about the issues being processed. And these issues usually fall into three big categories:
1. Crediting Policy
The best way to deal with this is to publish a crediting policy that finance and upper management has bought in and approved. Then, there is no question. If you leave this up in the air, expect bad times to come your way. Believe me, the elephants will be fighting, and the grass will be trampled.
2. Overall Major Gift program Performance
When revenue is not reaching the expected goal, you, as the manager, need to be proactive in explaining what is going on. Usually, if you are following our system of major gift program management, the problem is not about bad MGO management. It is about a donor who you expected to give within their regular cycle, but then didn’t. Or a donor who fell on hard times and couldn’t give as before.
This is when the MGO manager needs to explain things up-line, with the core explanation being that the nature of major gifts is cyclical and, while the trend line is usually up, there will be reasons when giving is down. Make your communication be about the trend, not the ups and downs.
3. Individual MGO performance
If an individual MGO is not performing well, it is important to be quick and timely in your communication about what you are doing in the situation. Do not let this sit quietly in your environment, because it won’t be quiet. It will be loudly obvious. And secondly, your lack of initiation to solve, restore or deal with the MGO will be noticed. Take action to do all you can to help the MGO perform well. And if this is not possible, then compassionately design a path to another job.
As a manager of the major gift program, you have two important management jobs: The first is to secure net revenue to fund the programs of your organization, and the second is to steward, guard and care for the MGOs and the support staff in your care.
Both of these are equal in importance. Don’t forget that. You could reach your financial goals and lose your major gift team. And then your future as a manager and effective leader will be in question. That is not a good place to be — believe me.
Choose now to audit how you are managing your MGOs, and be sure you not letting the grass get trampled.
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.