Out With a Whimper

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Many fundraisers are neither memorable nor impactful, and when they leave an organization, they go out with a whimper, not a bang.

I’m as upset about this as you must be. One may think there’s a bevy of great fundraisers out there, but that’s not my experience. A lack of authentic mentoring contributes to this “excellence” problem. As a field, we do a poor job mentoring younger fundraising professionals, for sure. Further, while we have more fundraising certificate programs and graduate degrees than ever before, few nonprofits know what the credentials mean. The viability of the ultimate fundraising credential, the CFRE—Certified Fund Raising Executive, is always up for debate:  Should I obtain it, or not.  Anyway, most people don’t even know it exists. It’s certainly true that with the establishment of the AFP fundraiser’s code of ethics in 1964, we’ve come a long way as a profession, but what we do is still generally misunderstood or over simplified. When I wrote What Do Fundraiser’s Do? that piece was the most widely circulated of my articles that year and generated a lot of responses. I personally try where I can to teach people what we fundraisers do and to teach fundraisers how to be really great, not just good. Added to these issues is that many nonprofits don’t know what to look for when hiring fundraisers. Perhaps this piece will help clarify that.

If you’d like to be a great fundraiser, then you’d be wise to incorporate these three aspects into your fundraising DNA:

Know the Bigger Revenue Picture

I recently spoke with a fundraiser who wasn’t aware that his agency had lost 90% of their overall revenue. He thought everything was peachy because his work was successful. When he was laid off, he suddenly discovered he had had a great ride, but it was on the Titanic. The point is that you must understand the agency’s whole revenue picture, not just your role in raising one part of the funds. In the case of my colleague, he was in charge of the 10% of the revenue pie related to private grants and individual giving, but the agency relied on government licenses for the other 90% of the revenue and had lost its licenses due to malfeasance. In my recent book, The Nonprofit Fundraising Solution, I explain the bigger revenue picture in chapter four, Higher-Level Thinking For Greater Fundraising Performance. Ignore it at your own peril.

Embrace Conflict and Have Intentional Conversations

Some of us are more comfortable with conflict than others, but be assured if you’re trying to make changes you will encounter conflict and would be wise to have a plan for dealing with it. Here’s mine: I prefer to have tough, intentional conversations in calm moments. Those readers who are parents will probably know what I mean. Talking to a kid when they’re upset is often not wise, and yet sweeping the reason for their being upset under the rug is not wise either. Instead, mindful parents usually wait for a calm bonding moment to have a tough talk with their kid about how they’re sabotaging themselves or being unpleasant to their friends or siblings. As fundraisers we need that same skill set—empathic listening, knowledge of the practical steps to take, positive reinforcement that the change we seek is achievable—in order to talk with our superiors about what it takes to produce the fundraising results they seek.  And it’s never just one conversation, but multiple ones.

Stay Put, If You Can

Many fundraisers don’t stay put long enough at their agency to have a significant impact. Where are we all rushing to? Our work is called DEVELOPMENT for a reason. It’s a developmental process that takes time. Fundraisers are often judged failures because we didn’t bring in enough revenue fast enough; but often, once we leave, the money starts flowing, usually six to 18-months later, as a result of our work. There’s a time lag. One faith-based retreat center with which I worked was living on planned gifts that had been secured by a development officer 12 years previously, yet most of the board rated that fundraiser as ineffective. When I pointed out that their current income came from his work, they didn’t believe me! I literally had to do a forensic audit of their current revenue to show them that 85% of it went back to the planned gifts that he had closed. That fundraiser had stayed put for eight years, and his work had a two-decade-long impact on that organization. Yet many fundraisers leave their agencies far too quickly, therefore their impact is insignificant or greatly reduced. I realize there may be extenuating circumstances requiring you to leave, but when you see the surveys that show how little time fundraisers last at organizations, it’s nonetheless troubling.

These three points are meant to start a conversation, not to end one. This list is by no means exhaustive. Do these three aspects resonate with you? I offer them to inspire us to excellence and greater impact. What points would you modify or add?

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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