Last week, CompassPoint and the Haas, Jr. Fund released “UnderDeveloped,” a new report focused on the state of nonprofit fundraising and – more specifically – the challenges that organizations face in recruiting and retaining strong development professionals and the underlying issues that often create those challenges.
As someone focused on the role of boards in leading their organizations and a former development professional, I read this report with great interest. But I think that the report didn’t fully acknowledge the role that fear of fundraising plays in development director success and retention. The report makes reference to a reality of which professional fundraisers are painfully aware: Most people are scared to death of fundraising and avoid it at all costs. The result is that development directors are often in the unfortunate position of trying to convince board members – and even chief executives – to do something that they hate.
According to BoardSource’s 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index, 40 percent of CEOs report that their board is reluctant to actively engage in fundraising. And, if you’re a development director reporting to a chief executive or working with a board that hates to fundraise, the options are quite limited: 1) Stay in the position and risk being blamed for poor fundraising results, or 2) Leave. No surprise, based on the data shared in the report, which was summarized in a Chronicle of Philanthropy article that appeared yesterday, many development directors are opting for the latter.
So what can boards and chief executives do to make sure that their organization doesn’t suffer from this all too common challenge? Well, the report offers a lot of great suggestions, and I would add a few more.
- Recruit differently. The report flagged the importance of training boards differently, but if you want to build a culture of philanthropy in your organization that includes a board that is engaged in and committed to fundraising, then you need to start with recruiting boards differently, not training them differently. To try to train an existing group of people to embrace a culture of philanthropy can be a bit like trying to train a group of employees for a position that they weren’t hired to do. Insist that your board is honest and up-front with potential board candidates about the importance of fundraising to your organization and the expectations for individual board members to participate in fundraising. And don’t elect anyone who isn’t genuinely excited and committed to be a part of those efforts.
- Support and evaluate the fundraising team: Your fundraising team comprises the board, your chief executive, and your development staff. The board and chief executive need to evaluate their fundraising performance just as rigorously as they would the development director’s. Boards should conduct 360-degree assessments of chief executives that enable the development director and other senior staff to provide honest feedback about the CEO’s performance. And chief executives should consider the board’s and their own fundraising performance when evaluating the development director’s performance. The reality is: If even one portion or member of the team isn’t successful, the rest of the team’s ability to deliver results is negatively impacted. Being honest about that will enable you to work together to solve your performance issues, instead of the development director being singled out and therefore penalized or driven away.
For chief executives:
- Support a fundraising partnership. You need to take the partnership between you, your development director, and the board very seriously. Your board members should know and trust your development director, and your development director should know and trust your board members. Make sure that you position your development director as a partner and leader, rather than as an implementer of board strategy or a secretary to the board’s development committee. That’s the only way that development directors – and the recommendations and strategies they put forward – will be taken seriously. And that’s what you need to motivate and inspire the board to be a part of a successful fundraising strategy.
- Step back before you search. The “Underdeveloped” report flags the need to apply a transition management approach to the development director search, and I couldn’t agree more. If you have a vacancy in the development director role, take the opportunity to step back and consider the long-term fundraising opportunities for the organization and what type of skill set you need to drive that growth. Engage the board in that conversation, as well as the rest of your senior team and – if applicable – other members of the development team. Just like in a CEO search, you need to make sure that you’re hiring the right candidate for the future, rather than a replacement for the previous leader. This is especially important as different types of fundraising require different skill sets, and someone who has been successful in one area might be a fish out of water in another. If you don’t take the time to think through your long-term opportunities and needs, you may end up with a development director who actually resists or avoids those opportunities due to his or her own fear or lack of expertise.
- Self-reflect. Be honest with yourself and your development director about your own fundraising strengths and limitations. Your development director should be a sounding board, coach, and partner to you when you’re feeling unsure or nervous about a fundraising meeting or effort, but they can’t play that role if you’re not receptive to it. If you don’t open up lines of communication that show trust, candor, and a willingness to accept and incorporate feedback, you’re losing out on a valuable resource to you and your organization. And your fundraising results will suffer, not to mention your relationship with – and retention of – your development director.
Fundraising can be challenging, but it also creates opportunities for huge reward and satisfaction. After all, securing support from a donor or funder is a powerful affirmation of your organization’s mission and purpose and an opportunity to fuel the important work that you do. The more that fundraising leadership teams – board, chief executive, and development staff – work together to create fundraising success, the more all of our organizations will be able to accomplish.
I think it’s possible. What do you think?