The Authentic Fundraiser

black-and-white-1278713_1920I’ve had the pleasure of working with fantastic donors, volunteers, and fundraisers in my career, and one question I often pose is “what makes a good fundraiser?”. For development leaders and fundraisers, the answer usually circles around drive, work ethic, and charisma. I hear things like:

“I look for fundraisers with fire in their bellies.”
“The best fundraisers take huge risks and aren’t afraid of hearing no.”
“A good fundraiser hates to be in the office for long.”

When I talk to donors and board members, however, the description of a good fundraiser changes. Instead of talking about drive or risk-taking, donors I meet with say things such as:

” I’ve never met a successful fundraiser who was not a donor to the organization themselves “
“I was pleasantly surprised by how genuine her passion was for this project.”
“A lot of fundraisers erroneously feel like they have to have all the answers and fill the gap of any conversation, but the best I have worked with are okay with letting the donor have time to think and acknowledging what they don’t know.”

Our industry (and this blog) has spent a lot of time discussing what types of activities, qualities, and strategy distinguish top fundraisers. We circulate data about turnover and the talent shortage and the struggles of recruiting qualified candidates. In the midst of all of this we can lose sight of a key element underlying all other success: the authenticity of the individuals we hire. In fundraising we must look to build staffs that are as skilled for the work that they do as they are inspired by the organizations for which they work. Elements like skill sets, competencies, management styles, etc. can be developed, coached, trained, and molded. What we cannot easily influence is the reason why fundraisers chose their profession and their ability to come off as genuine* to donors.


*I use the term genuine here to emphasize that there isn’t one “type” of personality that makes fundraisers successful. For an example of this in action – check out the Introvert-Extrovert Fundraiser Infographic


Something Worth Reading: Toxic Employees Hurt More Than Superstars Help

One of the best articles I have seen this spring comes from the Harvard Business Review, entitled “It’s better to avoid a toxic employee than hire a superstar”. You can read it here.

Previously on this blog we’ve talked about toxic employees, the importance of engagement, and the value of high performers. It’s easy to get lost in each of these topics individually, but what HBR does well is capture the overlap of some of the factors involved.

Most notable from the article are:

  • The cost of a toxic employee on other staff exceeds the revenue brought in by a superstar.
  • Toxic employees tend to be productive and in many cases are high performers. They rarely fit the archetype we might have of a lazy underperformer being your biggest problem.
  • Toxic employees have staying power in many cases because of their performance and because they often also have the attractive characteristics of charisma, curiosity, and high self-esteem.

For me the most resounding quote I saw was:

“Overconfident, self-centered, productive, and rule-following employees were more likely to be toxic workers. One standard deviation in skills confidence meant an approximately 15% greater chance of being fired for toxic behavior, while employees who were found to be more self-regarding (and less concerned about others’ needs) had a 22% greater likelihood. For workers who said that rules must always be followed, there was a 25% greater chance he or she would be terminated for actually breaking the rules. They also found that people exposed to other toxic workers on their teams had a 46% increased likelihood of similarly being fired for misconduct.”

So what does this mean in the world of fundraising? For one thing it helps to explain why so many programs have difficulty or reluctance in dealing with toxic employees – they outperform their peers in a world where performance is everything. What happens when we reward that behavior, however, is the pattern of toxic behavior spreads to other team members, in many cases towards high performers who are otherwise good citizens of the organization.

Looking at this study it also occurs to me that we may inadvertently be selecting potentially toxic fundraisers during hiring. Our industry has been building a narrative of traits to look for in fundraisers that has high overlap with the qualities HBR has found are in abundance in toxic employees. In previous posts we have discussed what to look for in hiring, identifying potential, and evaluating fundraisers. While that advice still stands, it ignores one key component that we should look for in order to avoid hiring the confident, productive, yet toxic fundraiser: authenticity. Later this month I will spend some time elaborating on this key concept: how to look for authenticity, how to create an organization that fosters it, and how to leverage it for fundraising success.


A side note: Many of you may have noticed that the blog has been on hiatus for a few months. This was due to a career move of my own. I am now back up and running. Please continue to comment, send in topic requests, and participate in the discussion.

Three tips for leading better training sessions

A good chunk of my time is spent building and leading training sessions for a variety of development professionals – from support staff to fundraisers to faculty members to volunteers. Each workshop/seminar is different and two sessions that may be identical in content always end up with distinct experience. My favorite trainings have ended up being those where the line between instructor and learner are blurred. As a quick Friday post I want to share my top three tips for hosting or leading your own training sessions:

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Tip #1 – Find Variety in Media and Learning Format

The human attention span is getting shorter (falling from 12 seconds to 8 seconds – a goldfish’s attention span in 9 seconds). With the rise of technology we are conditioning ourselves to seek out new stimuli and split focus. For facilitators and trainers this means that we have to be diverse in the formats we use, especially for trainings that last longer than an hour. Finding the right best practice (or humorous worse practice) video, integrating both flip charts and table work, and proactively shifting the dynamics in the room (eg: moving from a powerpoint at the front to an anecdote delivered from the side) helps learners focus and targets the different styles and learning preferences across an audience.

Tip #2 – Lean In to Grey Areas in Your Subject Matter

Lectures on theoretical best practices grow dull quickly. Adult learners need to identify applicability for them to be engaged in training sessions. Instead of recapping trends or recommendations build your training around those areas within your subject that have no clear answer and instead rely on judgement calls, contextual strategy, and team dynamics. This will play into a more interactive session and trigger learning centers of the brain. Participant involvement in building conclusions makes them more likely to walk away with new ideas and motivation to implement new practices.

Tip #3 – Find Comfort in Flexibility

I’ve seen it happen a dozen times – a training session hits the beginning of a good discussion but there are 50 more slides to get to and the session is already 10 minutes behind schedule so we speed through the interactive sessions. Any training session involves a trade-off in content breadth versus depth; the more topics you want to cover the less participation and investigation your learners will be able to experience. We also never know when a secondary subject might spark a bigger conversation or be highly applicable to one audience in particular. The best trainers I have ever seen are able to adapt to the room, whether it’s inventing an exercise on the spot to help answer new questions or being willing to go out of order to fit the natural flow of the conversation. As for content areas you might not get to? Put them in a “parking lot” – if the discussions are engaging and well-received attendees will be receptive to follow-up sessions and outreach for what you didn’t get to. Remember-  after a training learners will rarely recall your slide count or whether you finished the full deck. They will, however, remember the discussions in which they participated and whether their concerns and curiosities were heard.

Learning from Amazon—How Development Programs Can Avoid Mismanaging Talent

Many of our clients have been talking about the New York Times’ recent article on the work environment at Amazon. Amazon prides itself on having a culture of relentless performance. In many ways it can be thought of as a case study for finding the balance between being high performing and becoming one’s own worst enemy in performance. As development shops continue to grow in size and sophistication, how we manage talent will be directly linked to our overall success. Below are a few principles that will impact the culture within your program.

Turnover and ROI must be examined together.
Amazon’s model is based on intense performance and commitment to the job. Employees work 80+ hours each week, and there is an annual cull of low performers from the company. Amazon is driven by short-term innovative projects that have immediate impact and measurability. However, in development we know that relational fundraising is a long-term process, and turnover is high. It takes time to build a portfolio, deepen relationships with donors, and position top prospects with exciting projects. Development officers sometimes do not reach their full potential until two to three years into the job; therefore, institutions can’t afford high turnover, especially that of rising or new talent.

Even so, some turnover is actually good and necessary for fundraising success. Turnover has to be divided into two categories: talent loss and talent opportunity. Times of talent loss (in which high ROI team members and rising stars are lost) will be far more damaging to fundraising outcomes than those of talent opportunity (in which those who leave create a vacancy for a higher performer to fill). This distinction will help institutions prioritize which staff members to retain and help assess their success in staff management.

Employer reputation is influenced by those who leave.
The NYT’s article is driven by input and narratives by former employees, even while providing the perspective of current insiders to balance it out. One former employee commented that “his enduring image was watching people weep in the office.” Development shops are wise to recognize the power of their former employees’ feedback on their experience at the organization. Non-profit fundraising is a relatively small industry, so news, controversies, and gossip travel fast.
While you cannot control an employee’s feedback, you can influence it for the better. Working hard to make an employee’s transition out of your office as positive as it can be can help diminish negative feedback. So, be sure to:

  • Recognize and thank departing employees
  • Enable knowledge transfer between departing employees and other team members, when appropriate.
  • Provide a venue, often the exit interview, that allows departing employees to comment on why they are leaving and provide feedback on their experience at the organization.
  • Treat departing employees fairly and with respect.

Development offices have to cope with the reality of losing talent. With our clients, we have seen that when individuals depart on good terms and become strong players elsewhere, they help build the reputation that their original employer valued and encouraged high performers and high standards. On the other side of this dynamic is how quickly a handful of poorly handled exits can create a perception of a toxic work environment and discourage new candidates from being interested in joining your team.

Competition can be healthy in the right environment.
As the NYT’s article reported, Amazon’s model of high conflict and high competition has resulted in a constant stream of big ideas and the refusal to accept obstacles to efficiency. It has also created a workplace where crying at one’s desk is the norm, colleagues actively seek to undermine each other, and only the most pugnacious team members prevail.

While this approach is driving bottom-line results for Amazon, many employees, especially those in the not-for-profit sector, will not tolerate such treatment for long. So, organizational leaders must be careful to cultivate a healthy environment wherein competition occurs in a context of respect. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  • Recruit employees whose competitive nature is complemented by a collaborative approach. Such team members are self-driven to achieve but do so in a way that complements their team – they seek to learn from other high performers and are available to help other colleagues who want to learn from them. In their ambition, they are not destructive.
  • Emphasize the success of the organization as well as the success of each individual staff member. Recognize your team members’ accomplishments, possibly through a leaderboard of fundraising results, or highlighting key achievements in your monthly staff meeting. High performers will want to be recognized, but will keep the success of the organization as a priority.
  • Model the behaviors you seek to cultivate in your team. When debating ideas, address your colleagues respectfully. When challenging others, do so professionally. Further, don’t tolerate destructive behaviors. Employees are watching management to see how they handle staff members who cheat, manipulate circumstances for their benefit, or denigrate team members. Your response to these behaviors sends a powerful message about what you value in your team members.

Copyright © 2015 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.

Five reasons why fundraisers leave – the challenge of keeping talent in a time of competition

We’ve seen and heard a lot about fundraiser turnover – that the average tenure is 2 years or less an an institution, that millennials don’t have staying power because they’re always looking for the next big thing, that non-profits can’t keep up with rising salaries and titles available in the big shops. But where does speculation end and truth begin?

First off – we are doing better in keeping employees engaged than we think. There is not a huge contingent of fundraisers constantly seeking new employment. In fact, as figures 1 below shows,  less than 5% of all fundraisers with less than 10 years of experience are actively seeking new employment.

figure 1

(source: 2014 Bentz Whaley Flessner survey data)

Whos looking for jobs


With the high demand for talent we have to assume that those who are actively seeking new employment will find it in the next few months. The  incredibly low ratio of open frontline positions to active candidates (based on careerbuilder data) makes that unavoidable. But what of the remaining 10-25% of candidates who are not actively searching but whom data shows are likely to leave? How do we better understand their motivations so we can minimize turnover and maximize our talent effectiveness? Below are five reasons why fundraisers leave:

Reason #1: Bad culture and/or management

Everyone wants to come to a workplace that they enjoy. Environment, colleagues, and expectations are key drivers of engagement of employees. A toxic culture will often push out your best talent, making competing offers look more appealing each day that they come into an office that is dominated by bad behavior, negative values, or favoritism.

Similarly team members may find themselves most frustrated by their managers. In many shops fundraisers are managed in one of three ways (a) they report to a senior leadership team member with too many responsibilities and direct reports to have time to work closely with the fundraiser, (b) they fall under a more senior fundraiser who is tackling both management responsibilities (with no training in management) as well as fundraising for a full portfolio, or (c) they have dual reporting lines with conflicting expectations and priorities  between central development and their unit/dean/division chair. In any of these scenarios the employee management of the fundraiser is easily pushed to a second tier priority. As a result fundraisers grow frustrated, feel neglected, and often find themselves butting up against reason # 2 which is….

Reason #2: Limited growth and learning opportunities in the first five years

There is a natural tension in development between creating growth opportunities and waiting for the ROI to be realized from new hire ramp up periods. New fundraisers usually do not produce sizable gift results until 3-4 years into their time at an institution (a time frame that extends or contracts based on the portfolio size and warmth that is inherited).  However, these team members will not wait 4 years to grow, be promoted or receive recognition. In fact after the first 18-24 months of an employee’s tenure they are considering a career move every six months. Nonprofit institutions who don’t match that frequency with touchpoints, new opportunities, or meaningful professional development can lose these fundraisers in their first few years, just when it’s most expensive to do so.


Why is five years the cutoff here? For one thing, we know that employees who reach the five year mark are more likely to stay at an organization for the long-term. We also have learned that after five years employees are generally looking less for frequent promotions or learning opportunities in favor of increased autonomy and focused professional development.

Reason #3: Leadership or institutional changes

Major change increases attrition risks across the board – having potential to spur talent loss from both frontline and operations teams. In an industry where there are high turnover rates at the top, from university presidents (average tenure 7 years), to non-profit CEOs (average tenure 3-5 years), to deans (average tenure 5.73 years) to chief development officers (50% leave within 2 years) attrition has a tendency to spread from the top down.  With the loss of a leader and addition of a newcomer in a senior position the entire team faces a shift in priorities, performance expectations, management style, and social power.

Other major changes to a development program can also lead to talent leaving you due to changing expectations, shifting culture, or a change of focus in priorities. In many cases the change itself distracts or prevents fundraisers from being able to focus on what they were hired to do – raise money. Key an eye on your top talent when any of the following other changes occur:

  • re-organization of programs (including creation or absorption of an institutionally related foundation)
  • major expansion or contraction of program size and headcount
  • systems conversions, centralization of major processes
  • political or social controversy
  • unionizing faculty or institutional staff

Reason #4: Campaign and career milestones

In this post we talked about major milestones in a career in development. There are certain key events that shape how people reflect on their careers in this industry. For fundraisers these often revolve around participating in or leading a successful, historic campaign, managing a team, and raising at least one seven figure gift (for those who are at smaller institutions the goal threshold for largest gift may be lower). In many cases a fundraiser will leave if (a) they feel that they are unable to reach or achieve these milestones or (b) they have surpassed such milestones (a successful campaign, a big gift, etc) and are looking for what’s next.

Reason #5: Lack of passion for the institution, connection to its impact

The best fundraisers are those who are more philanthropic and altruistic themselves; that passion allows them to connect with donors in a more authentic manner. Those top fundraisers who bring in $100m+ gifts remain at an institution for a long time, fostering a deep passion for the institution, and connecting and caring for its donors. In short, the best fundraisers are those who view themselves as part of the inspired donor community rather than a party to it. Fundraisers can leave an institution if they become disenchanted by the reality of the organization, they lack a connection to the impact of the organization, or their own philanthropic interests and passions lie elsewhere.


Principles of Training New Major Gift Officers – Part II

Last week we discussed two of the essential principles for training new major gift officers: understanding the donor perspective and clear definition of the donor cycle. This week we have three more. Beyond orienting fundraisers to the nature of major gift philanthropy, organizations must seek to broaden the aptitude of these professionals to work with their colleagues and adequately represent their institutions. Leadership can do this through offering:

A Deeper Understanding of the Functionality and Capacity of Central and Operations Teams

Hand in hand with providing fundraisers clearer expectations of what working with donors looks like, an organization must partner with these individuals to set expectations for working within a development team. New fundraisers must know, for example, when and what type of additional research will be most useful to them (early career development officers often will get caught in a desire to know everything possible about a prospect before meeting with them). The ability to partner with and utilize the skills of central development teams and operations professionals will give new fundraisers a leg up in their early years as well as lessen the burden of other team members in orienting these individuals to their own programs the hard way (when something goes wrong or a fire needs to be put out).

Opportunities to Practice New Skills and Observe and Learn from Senior Fundraisers

Learning means little without the ability for professionals to put what they have learned into practice. Any formal training session should, therefore, be paired with low-risk avenues for new major gift officers to gain experience in the realities of working with donors. Across the country there are now several institutions tackling this need in creative ways—whether it’s a virtual learning experience utilizing actors or avatars, structured “mock” meetings with close volunteer donors, or role playing in a workshop setting. This “practice space” gives new fundraisers two great things: the chance to get a feel for major giving conversations and valuable feedback from those working with them on what they did well and what could be improved.

Another great resource that many institutions already have lies within the existing senior fundraising team. Exposure to best practices by observing high performers in action can be a very meaningful point in developing new fundraising talent. This type of shadowing helps show novice development officers not only how to respond when a meeting diverts from the theoretical agenda, but also the depth and nature of relationships between an experienced fundraiser and high level donor.

Knowledge of Institutional Strengths, Histories, and Controversies

Your donors and constituents have typically been familiar with your institution longer and in more depth than your junior fundraisers. This gap has to be addressed directly. Donors and prospective donors will expect any development officer they meet with to not only know about their history as donors, but also have a decent grasp of the people, programs, and history of your organization. Whether this be previous controversies that the institution has survived or national championship teams and coaches, training a new frontline officer must include consistent and reinforced building of institutional knowledge.

We’ve seen data time and time again that says that newly hired fundraisers take 3.5–4 years to begin to produce real gift dollar results. For those who are new to the frontline, that ramp-up can take even longer. It’s in our best interest to accelerate this process with new major gift officers through strategic training and education, clear opportunities and exposure to donors and the team, and reinforcement and feedback.

BWF’s TalentED practice offers one-on-one coaching, intensive training workshops, and talent management counsel to help our clients recruit, retain, and grow a high performing fundraising team. For more information contact us at

Copyright © 2015 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.