The Manager Gap – Why Fundraising Managers Are Important and Five Factors of Ineffective Frontline Leadership

When you dive into the topic of talent management in fundraising and development one key topic arises again and again: the challenge and shortage of effective management, especially of frontline fundraisers. This is an issue that has rebounding implications, as ineffective (or nonexistent) management can cripple an entire program. Prioritizing management of fundraisers is thus important because:

  • Management and leadership drive fundraiser engagement and have a strong determining role in overall retention. Most surveyed frontline fundraisers who reported low satisfaction attributed it to leadership or management elements not compensation, cause, or geographic location.
  • Managing and building strategy for the frontline impacts performance dramatically,both in short and long term. Managers have the ability to not only inspire collaboration and strategic thinking, but they are the key players in meaningful goal setting and professional growth for the fundraising team, but factors largely influence fundraising performance.
  • Managers serve as a critical leadership linkage between institutional initiatives and human capital. Fundraisers focus on donors, rightfully so. Institutions focus on vision and programs. Those who manage fundraisers fill the gap between those two activities, building outcomes from institutional direction and providing focus in individual agendas.

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Managers in development are thus hugely important to building momentum, providing staffing stability, and driving performance. Why does fundraising management fall short so frequently then?

Any combination of the following five factors are typically at play when management of fundraisers is ineffective:

  • (1) Leadership buy into the misconception that, as seasoned professionals, fundraisers require minimal management. Yes, we’ve talked about how high performing fundraisers need to have independence, but the opposite of micro-management is not absence of leadership. Frontline fundraisers frequently report frustrations with their lack of access to and direction from their managers and team leaders. Moreover, donor relations and gift outcomes are optimize by multiple points of contact and clear strategy. Managers who are disengaged from their team negate that opportunity.
  • (2) There is a small talent pool of frontline fundraisers with meaningful management experience. Development and major gift officers are looking to be managed by “one of their own”, meaning that they trust and respond more readily to individuals who themselves have experience as a fundraiser. We’ve talked about the general shortage of frontline fundraising talent across the country, and the shortage is even more pronounced when searching for individuals who both know major gift relationship-building strategy and are comfortable building a budget and negotiating office politics. This leads us to…
  • (3) Fundraising shops are growing rapidly and promoting individuals without professional skill investment.  More and more unit-based and separate fundraising programs require larger teams. As these teams grow the most senior fundraiser is often promoted and management responsibilities are subsequently treated as a “add-on” to existing fundraising responsibilities without meaningful training. Of surveyed fundraisers with 10+ years of experience the most frequently requested training and professional development topic area was in leadership and managing a team. We have a full class of individuals with great fundraising skills and new management expectations, but little support in building their capacity to meet those new expectations.
  • (4) There are rising demands and responsibilities for existing leadership. Plainly, many managers and leaders in development don’t have the time (or don’t believe they have the time) to spend building and engaging their team members. There are too many fires to put out, too many volunteers to respond to, and too many items on the event calendar to plan for, not to mention that these leaders often have high-level portfolios of their own. Non-profit development leaders are often overworked and talent management falls to the bottom of the totem pole too frequently. This can often be a symptom of a larger problem, which is that…
  • (5) The development office and team members aren’t fully valued at an institution. Some organizations operate with the assumption that fundraising exists outside of institutional programming and general engagement. Fundraisers are expected to “do their thing” and bring in money, separate from institutional staff (whether they be program managers, faculty, physicians, or CEOs/Presidents). What this dynamic effectively communicates across an organization is that, not only is development somehow less related to the institutional mission and impact, but also that the happiness and engagement of those who do development work is a lower priority.

Four qualities of strong potential development officers

In a previous post we discussed how frequently fundraisers do not fall into an even bell curve. It’s very difficult to find and keep those frontline fundraisers who excel and consistently bring in big gifts. A good first step in the process is thinking critically about how to identify a potential star fundraiser in the first place.

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There are four consistent, personality-based attributes that make individuals more successful fundraisers:

  • Strong communication skills: from picking up the phone to in person calls to drafting acknowledgement letters to preparing leadership for prospect meetings a fundraiser needs to excel at communication. Think about the sort of person who can talk about almost any topic – the individual who always finds something interesting to say. While communication skills can be taught and improved to a certain extent, those who have a natural inclination will always be a step ahead. Do not underestimate writing skills in this area as well. Written outreach and engagement with prospects will be included in almost any cultivation strategy and a poorly written or impersonal message can do more damage to a relationship and be harder to redress than a stutter in person.
  • Independence: We like to talk about fundraising teams a lot. And, while development operations/advancement service, support staff, and management do provide huge contributions to the fundraising process, much of frontline fundraising is one-on-one. A development officer is frequently the only person in the room with a prospect. Moreover, no matter how many KPIs (key performance indicators) or metrics that a manager might set ultimately it is the DO that controls the management of her fundraising portfolio as well as scheduling and outreach to prospects. Effective fundraisers thus tend to be fairly independent and self-motivated. They should be comfortable with and capable of making strategic decisions while working with prospects without second guessing themselves or choosing inaction. (We can talk later about the fine line between finding independent workers and having to deal with fundraisers who take it too far and “go rogue”).
  • Perceptiveness: The ability to read people and situations can never be underestimated. The entire discovery process is devoted to discovering information about/inclination of a prospect, and fundraisers can expect at least half of those details to come from non-verbal cues (indicators of wealth and interests from home/office decor, comfortable body language, excitement and allusions to interesting projects, etc.). Fundraisers then must be both strong talkers as well as engaged listeners and observers. They should be able to come out of a meeting able to not only recap the conversation that transpired but also estimate the prospect’s reactions to the meeting and have a sense of what would be the most effective next step.
  • Versatility: Meetings with prospects can happen anywhere; the ideal setting is one where the prospect is at ease. Fundraisers must therefore be able to blend in at everything from sports events to hunting lodges to black tie events. This does not just apply to wardrobe. An fundraiser’s ability to adapt to the conversation topics and situations at hand help to create a bond with a prospect as well as demonstrate the value that your organization places on donors’ time and interests. While some content can be taught (understanding high level finance for example is usually vital for principal donors) the best fundraisers are those that can translate such knowledge readily towards enriching interesting conversations and scenarios.

The truth of the matter, however, is that innate ability and personality only gets fundraisers so far. The attributes above must be matched with a certain set of behaviors and management structures in order to create a top performer.  There are many people with all four attributes who never progress beyond being mediocre development officers. In the next posts we will talk about the behavior that sets the best fundraisers apart as well as the structures that encourage accomplishment.

 

 

Want to learn more? Part II (Five behaviors of top fundraisers) and Part III(Six best practices top development shops offer to set fundraisers up for success)  are now up!