In December 2014, I received an email from a fundraiser. He had been reading my three-part NPQ column, “Measuring Fundraising Performance vs. Fundraiser Performance.” (Part IPart IIPart III)

Here’s what my secret correspondent wrote me:

“There’s a darker side that seldom, if ever, seems to be addressed: What if the fundraiser(s) are in over their head and the results are obtained despite—not because of—the fundraiser? This is, in my view, the topic that will not be spoken of—ever.

“When I worked in the for-profit sector, only an occasional individual would point a finger at others to explain away his/her shortfalls. Never would the group—the team—say, ‘Hey, it’s not our fault; it’s theirs.’ Yet, I see mediocre or poor development folks do so.

“Not surprisingly, highly successful development folk don’t talk in these terms. Why? Because they’ve done the work, learning, teaching to ensure that they, their team, and their organization will be successful.”

As you can imagine, I’ve been ruminating on what this fundraiser wrote to me. And, finally, I’m responding. That’s the purpose of this column.

So here goes…

Complaints from Fundraisers

  1. Fundraisers often complain about board members. These same fundraisers may complain about their boss and other staff.
  2. Often, the complaints are valid. Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?
  3. “Bob Smith has all those great contacts. But he won’t use any of them on our behalf. How did he ever get on this board?!”
  4. “If one more board member suggests a golf tournament, I’ll quit. Yes, I will.”
  5. “I can’t believe how cheap Mary Smith is. She doesn’t give us a very big gift.”
  6. “Yet again, my boss said he wouldn’t sign the direct mail letter because it wasn’t in his ‘voice.’”
  7. “My board members just won’t help with fundraising.”
  8. “The economy has affected our fundraising.”

Look in the Mirror

Fundraisers send me emails begging for advice, asking how I would respond to items one through seven. I wrestle with all these issues—and more—with my clients. And there’s one piece of advice that pretty much always works for all fundraisers:

“Yes, sure, express your frustration—but. Make sure you take time to look in the mirror.”

I acknowledge the frustration. I remember it during my service as an executive director and as a chief development officer. I regularly serve as a board member—often as chair of the fund development committee—and as board chair. I observe the non-participation of board member(s). I sense the staff frustration.

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But I always remember—even as a leadership board member—to make sure to look in the mirror.

I did that. I still do that.

Why? Because items #1–7 all depend upon the willingness and competence of the fundraiser to enable board members—and the boss, and program staff, and everyone else, too. (Click here to read my earlier NPQ column about enabling.)

Responding to Fundraiser Complaints

Let’s start with Complaint #1: Bob won’t use his great contacts.

First, what’s the board member recruitment process for your organization? Do you know enough about governance to engage in conversations with your CEO about board member performance expectations? Are you clear that the board does governance? That the board and its members are not, primarily, a fundraising team? Can you facilitate all of this well?

Do you engage with board members? Do you speak with them one-on-one to understand their interests and anxieties? Do you help them find a somewhat comfortable way of helping with fundraising?

(By the way: How do you define fundraising? I hope you aren’t thinking about asking for money only. There’s so much more to fundraising than the asking point. Do you know all the steps and the neuroscience and the psychology and communications and all the rest? Can you help board members apply that, in partnership with each other and in partnership with you?)

Do you expect Bob to trespass on personal and professional relationships? Do you think that’s good fundraising? (Because it isn’t!) Do you help your board members identify those who might be interested—and do a gracious introduction?

Number #2, board members and special events like golf tournaments: Can you effectively analyze the relevant trends about fundraising events and explain their applicability to your organization? Do you explain such trends and their implications before someone suggests an activity that isn’t that appropriate?

Number #3, board members like Mary who don’t give what you think they should give: So how did you decide how much Mary (or anyone else) should give? Do you know her financial situation? Do you understand the limitations of all your board members?

Do all your board members—and staff, too—understand the case for support? Do you recognize that your donors of money and time, including your board members, are the heroes in the organization? Do you help them understand what they accomplish by giving?

Number #5, the CEO who won’t sign the solicitation letter: Can you prove that your letter follows best practice? Do you know best practice in direct mail? If yes, why can’t you explain to your boss why you’re right and he’s wrong? And if you don’t know the body of knowledge and best practice in direct mail, then why are you writing the letter?

Number #7, a bad economy: Of course, a bad economy can affect fundraising. Just read Giving USA, whose research tells us this. But there will always be ups and downs in the economy. So if you’re focused on loyalty (donor retention), then that helps fundraising in a bad economy.

I’m leaving the other fundraising complaints for you to respond to yourself. Begin by looking in the mirror.

Do you analyze why your board members don’t help? Have you ever asked them why they don’t help? Do you help them help with fundraising?

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Have you ever served on a board, so you’ve experienced what it’s like to have the fundraiser exhorting you? Do you feel like you have adequate support and guidance—darn good enabling—from your fundraising staff? And, by the way, does the CEO effectively enable you to do governance well and to be a top-notch board member?

Concerns from My Secret Correspondent

Now, think about these insights from my secret correspondent. Some really great points. I’ve seen them all done by fundraisers who should know better. Or done by people who shouldn’t be in the fundraising business.

In my early years, I know I must have behaved this way. I saw glimpses in the mirror. How about you?

  • Bad fundraising performance #1: The fundraiser didn’t handle well leads suggested by several board members.
  • Bad fundraising performance #2: The fundraising staff didn’t ask for specific support from a specific board member, and explain why, and provide support.
  • Bad fundraising performance #3: The fundraising staff doesn’t spend much time learning about the program. The fundraising staff doesn’t collect stories from program staff. The fundraisers rarely observe a program or talk with client beneficiaries. This produces weak solicitations, bad links with our heroes, the donors.

In Conclusion

Now, let me add some of my own concerns to those of my secret correspondent…

No. Stop.

I’m always writing about how to be a better fundraiser. What the “right” things are to do. Every book. My blogs. My e-news.

The point of this column is to serve as a reminder to us all. Maybe it isn’t “their” fault. Maybe it is our responsibility. Look in the mirror.

The point of this column is to get fundraisers to talk with each other about each other and our profession. Are we all looking in the mirror often enough?

When it comes to bad fundraising, there’s enough responsibility to go around.  But if I had to pick the one most responsible, it would be the fundraiser. It’s the fundraiser’s job to know the right stuff, to constantly and continually learn the new stuff, and to enable others.

The right stuff is far more than fundraising techniques and tactics. Fundraisers need to be organizational development specialists and know all the stuff in my monograph, “Choosing Your Road: Organizational Development Specialist or Just Another Fundraising Technician.” The fundraiser is the expert, the resource, and the leader. The fundraiser must translate information into applicable knowledge for others. The fundraiser must serve as guide, support system, and trainer.

And if you want to do this but your organization keeps denying you, then find another job. You deserve better.

Keep looking in the mirror.