Major Gift Officers… or Magicians?

Magician 5

A recent survey of 335 chief advancement officers in higher education reported that colleges and universities will be seeking median increases of 16% in their gift revenue for the 2015 fiscal year, while one in four of those institutions are planning for income growth of 25% or more. (“Colleges Plan on Big Jump in Fundraising Next Year.”) By most any standard, those are very large increases for established fundraising operations.

The recent survey, which included nearly 100 respondents whose organizations failed to meet their fundraising goals this year, shows that leaders in higher education are placing more pressure on their top fundraisers… to bring in more money.

If you are serving at one of the institutions that’s projecting that kind of ambitious growth this year, what gives you confidence in your ability to achieve such a bold target? Or if you don’t have full confidence, what is giving you pause? Do you think the national giving picture has improved this much since the Great Recession? Or are such aggressive projections being driven by pressure from administrators and governing boards and not by a realistic assessment of historical trends and current realities?

During my three decades in institutional advancement I have witnessed far too many examples–both in my own organizations and those of colleagues–in which fundraising goals were established without any meaningful analysis. All too often the patterns evident from recent outcomes were disregarded, significant revenue growth was expected without applying any new resources, current pipeline activity was not considered, and donor readiness was ignored. Instead, ambitious growth was demanded simply because someone wanted or needed the new dollars to fulfill their own narrow objectives.

As sportscaster Al Michaels declared in 1980 at the conclusion of history's most famous hockey game: "Do you believe in miracles?"

As sportscaster Al Michaels declared in 1980 at the conclusion of history’s most famous hockey game: “Do you believe in miracles?”

In many instances where revenue growth is unilaterally imposed, these aggressive expectations may not only be unsupported by serious analysis, but whatever evidence does exist actually points to the likelihood of a contrary outcome. (See adjacent illustration.) And of course once such spurious targets are formally adopted, they become the responsibility and burden of the fundraising team, which is then expected to beat the odds, if not perform a true feat of magic.

If unable to reach an aggressive and unreasonable new target, fundraising teams will be scrutinized, criticized and held accountable. And if the fundraisers are somehow able to “pull a rabbit out of their hats,” their likely “reward” for doing so will be the assignment of even more ambitious goal for the following year.

Are you and your fundraising team ready for these pressures? Will you be able to deliver such miracles this year? If aren’t ready, what are you doing to become prepared? Better yet, what can you do to push back on arbitrary and unrealistic targets? My BWF and TalentED colleagues would love to hear your thoughts, stories and suggestions, as well as work with you to overcome these challenges.

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