The Vicious Cycle that Stops You from Raising Money (Part 1)

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Here’s the scoop: Development officers quit. Bosses fire development officers. Boards don’t play. Organizations don’t get it. This vicious cycle threatens financing of the sector. And this has been going on for years and we aren’t really fixing it.

Hmmm. Anyone worried yet?

The scoop is old news if you work in the nonprofit sector. The scoop is old news if you read CompassPoint’s report, “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” released in January 2013. (Both the Chronicle of Philanthropy and NPQ wrote about the report online.)

So when I’m presenting or talking with clients, I ask everyone about “UnderDeveloped.” Lots of people remember the report. But mostly no one seems to have talked about the report. And I mean talked about the report, which means having read the report and thought long and hard! I mean engaged in conversation within the development staff, with the chief executive officer. I expect the board and the development committee to have read the report and talked about the implications. I expect institutional leadership to compare the research findings to their own organizations.

If you haven’t done all this—as a fundraiser, a CEO, a board, a development committee—it’s not too late! Do it now.

Compare the research findings to your organization. Compare the research findings to the fundraising profession. Compare the research findings to your fundraiser, your CEO, yourself. Step back and look at the nonprofit sector as a whole.

And even if you talked about this report back in January 2013, have you made changes? How is that going? Do you need to examine the report again?


I hope you’re worried.

“UnderDeveloped” isn’t a surprise to anyone that I’ve spoken with. The research isn’t a surprise to the trade publications, to fundraisers, to consultants.

So why haven’t we fixed it yet? I’m not sure why. Seems too big a problem? Not really. Laziness? Maybe we’re focused too much on getting quick money for mission rather than making changes required to raise more money over time.

I think one big problem is because too many people—in particular, bosses and boards—don’t believe there is a body of knowledge. Yet there is. And being ignorant of it is a self-inflicted wound that slowly kills.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

First: You. Read the report. Who is “you?” Everyone. Bosses and boards, read the report. Development committees, read the report. Professional associations, read the report and figure out how you can better develop professionals. Bosses, figure out what you are going to change in your organization to make fundraisers want to stay and work with you.

And fundraisers: Read the report. Make sure you understand what the job is. (See the job descriptions for executive director and development officer in my website’s Free Download Library.) Make sure you know what it takes to do the job. Learn the body of knowledge. Develop your fundraising skills. (See all the resources that I suggest in my NPQ web columns and in “Simone Uncensored” on my homepage. Also, visit CFRE International and download the Test Content Outline.) Develop the skills necessary to assess what is happening in the organization so you can lead the change process.

Hey—you fundraisers! Decide if this is the work you want to do. For just a second, look in the mirror and just be honest.

Follow the comments from experts in the field. Lots of people have written about this report. Keep the report alive in your institution until you are darn sure that you’ve fixed everything.

So, here goes: my thoughts about “UnderDeveloped.” Maybe you want to use my thoughts, along with the report, to make changes in your organization and in yourself.


Why does this report matter?

Because nonprofits could raise more money if they had more engaged organizations, supportive bosses, board member participation, and adherence to the body of knowledge.

I believe that nonprofits deserve more money to do important work. But only if nonprofits do fundraising well. More and more, I tell nonprofits: Shut down! Close, if you cannot do the basic fundamentals of fundraising well. Quit whining about how you don’t have enough time and the work is hard. Quit whining that you must focus on mission and clients and fundraising doesn’t warrant focus. Just stop it.

I believe that the nonprofit sector is critical to a democracy. I believe that charitable support, through financial investment and volunteer time, is critical. But financial investment isn’t growing. Just read the 2011 report, “Growing Philanthropy in the United States,” by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang. For the past 40+ years, annual U.S. giving is estimated to be only two percent of average household disposable giving. That percentage has not changed. Even in the economic boom years, that percentage doesn’t grow. Giving remains static.

That’s pretty sad. And we cannot blame our citizens. The nonprofit sector—its fundraisers and bosses and boards—just doesn’t do fundraising that well. This is our challenge and our opportunity. Read the “Growing Philanthropy” report. Compare your performance as a fundraiser, as an organization. Read “UnderDeveloped” in partnership with the “Growing Philanthropy” report.


The “revolving door” and instability in the development director role

It’s bad enough to know that development directors often stay only briefly. It’s quite another thing to read the actual numbers about lengths of vacancies in filling those position: Six to 12 months or more. It’s even more stunning to read that 50 percent of responding development directors plan to leave their jobs in two years or less. (Executive directors plan to stick around longer!)

Why are development directors leaving? Some just don’t like the work. It’s just a job. So when you interview candidates, find this out. I recently helped an organization interview candidates for the chief development officer position. The organization used me to ask the right questions about fundraising body of knowledge and expertise and experience. But the organization knew the right questions to ask about commitment and leadership.

But I’m much more interested in the comments about how bad it is to work with some nonprofits. That’s what I observe as a consultant: the dysfunction and lack of readiness on the part of bosses and boards to create a culture of philanthropy and a culture of fund development. I get regular calls and emails from fundraisers who are tired of fighting and trying to make change within their organizations.


Various and sundry thoughts about why fundraisers leave their jobs.

Read page 19 of “UnderDeveloped.” Note that executive directors and development officers “often disagree about the fundraising culture in their organizations.” No surprise: chief executives think there is a stronger fundraising culture than fundraisers do. I’m thinking that the fundraisers may be more right.

Mostly, I’m thinking: Has the organization (staff and board members) articulated a shared vision of a culture of philanthropy and a fundraising culture? Does the organization operate in a donor-centered manner and monitor its performance in this arena? (Read Adrian Sargeant’s work. Check out Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications and Stronger Relationships, co-authored by Tom Ahern and myself.) Does the organization (staff and board members) understand that loyalty is the holy grail of fundraising?

Then, I’m thinking: Does the fundraiser understand all this stuff? Because the fundraiser has to explain all of this to her boss, to his board, to staff colleagues. I’m not explaining all this stuff in this blog. But I’ve been explaining this for years in my blogs, in my NPQ web column, in my NPQ articles, and in my books. And I regularly recommend bloggers and books and e-newsletters that talk all about this stuff.

Then, I’m wondering: How effective is the fundraiser—and the chief executive—at enabling others to understand. (You can read more about that in PDF posted in the Free Download Library on my website.) You can know something, but you have to make it real to others. You have to explain the “why,” not just the “how,” to others. You have to engage others to build their understanding and ownership and willingness to change.

You, the fundraiser, and the executive director have to facilitate others to participate. But far too many executives and fundraisers are not effective enablers. See the handout on enabling in my website’s Free Download Library. Read all about enabling in my book Strategic Fund Development. The 2011 third edition of this book from Wiley Publishing includes more enabling functions and more explanation.

In my experience, far too many fundraisers (maybe most?) leave their jobs because the organization sees fundraising as a means to get money for mission. Too many organizations don’t understand philanthropy and fund development. Too many organizations—and the bosses and boards and other staff—devalue philanthropy, and think of fund development as “dirty but necessary.”

Too many organizations don’t embrace systems thinking and learning organization business theories. Too many bosses, staff colleagues, and boards don’t realize that everything in the organization affects fund development and donors. Too many organizations isolate fundraising and the fundraiser.

Too many organizations see fundraising as a “necessary, somewhat dirty activity” to allow the organization to fulfill it’s so very important mission. Too many organizations don’t understand that donors give through your organization to fulfill their own aspirations.


That’s it for this column. My next column, Part 2, focuses on other issues in the report.

  • Elaine Fogel

    Simone, I believe there’s one important thing missing from this report. It doesn’t mention the brand at all. The best fundraisers will struggle if their organizations do not invest in their brands. (If these orgs still think branding is about their logos and designs, they are dead wrong.)

    If organizations do not embrace a customer orientation culture, they cannot live their brands. Every touchpoint counts in providing exceptional brand experiences both internally and externally, no matter organizations’ sizes. Fundraisers can bring in a ton of money only to experience donor attrition if their organizations do not have strong brands and a solid customer orientation. Fundraisers cannot do this alone.

    When internal stakeholders truly understand their roles in delivering amazing, mission-centered brand experiences, then, and only then, can they embrace a culture of philanthropy and their roles in it.

  • Simone Joyaux

    When I first began to read your comment, Elaine, I panicked. I am soooooo tired of “branding.” But I’m tired because organizations think it’s about logos. Because organizations think “branding” means how you talk about yourselves. Donors, clients, customers brand organizations.

    Yes, indeed, customer centered, donor-centered, quality and mission-centered. So fundraisers do have a tough time if the organization isn’t donor-centered, customer-centered, mission-centered, quality-centered. And fundraisers have to fight for this.

    Thanks, Elaine!

  • Lorna Visser

    Thanks for telling it straight, Simone. I, too, am tired of the whining. If you are in the social-profit sector raising funds to fuel your mission is part of the job — a BIG part of the job. If you don’t want to do the work of raising money, then don’t operate a charity. Raising money for your organization is a component of attracting the positive energy you need: volunteers, community advocates, financial donors, in-kind donors, business supporters, sponsors, board members, committee members, etc.