Maximizing the Return on Your Investment in Staff Development


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.

Branson Quote

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.

Five Reasons why you should invest in strong development operations talent

clock wheels

We’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about frontline fundraisers (what makes some stronger, how to recruit them, how to support them, and how to think about their time), and it’s easy to forget about those who make the wheels turn in a development office: the operation/advancement team.

You can have a stellar fundraising front line, but without equally strong back up and structure your results can fall flat. Here are five reasons why development operations deserve more applause and attention.

(1) A well-managed database keeps donors happy

Database accuracy is a constant challenge for development shops. Those that struggle with maintaining strong records and contact information are more inclined to make mistakes. Sometimes these errors can be as basic as sending direct marketing solicitations to someone who has requested no contact. Other times a weak database tracking can result in fundraisers dueling and competing for the same prospects. The most damaging effects of a weak database can be in the area of donor stewardship and relationships. I’ve seen an organization invite donors to a recognition event only to have nearly half of the donors at incorrect or out of date recognition levels, and I’ve worked with another institution that sent a solicitation addressed to a married couple of longtime major  donors when the recipient was recently widowed. Data errors like this happen, but a strong database management team can prevent a majority of them and put safeguards in place to catch and respond to those errors that do make it through.

(2) Well-crafted reporting, research, analytics, and prospect management can elevate fundraising results

You can have your fundraisers make 100 calls a month, but if they are not meeting with the right people their results are likely to remain lackluster. Development operations/advancement services is not an area that merely tracks and records fundraising activity; it directs and facilitates a more strategic and success-oriented fundraising team.  Investing in talent in development operations means that your office is more likely to have a team capable of identifying, targeting, and understanding your institution’s strongest prospects and leveraging your organization’s most compelling elements. This results in better protected and targeted frontline fundraising, leading to better results and long-term sustainability.

(3) Strong leadership in development operations balances out the overall office’s perspective and management

We’ve talked about the difficulty of finding one individual with the ability and inclination to manage an entire development office. There’s a certain degree of politics to be played with leadership, fundraisers, and donors alike. On the other hand you need a strong data-driven and analytical mind in leadership to direct the  technical aspects of your development shop as well as apply their understanding of operations to overall mission and goal setting. If all staffing in development operations/advancement services is at the junior level you lose this valuable perspective. You also communicate to your infrastructure team that their role is less visible and valuable within the office because they do not have an ally at the leadership level.

(4) Turnover in development operations staffing can be incredibly disruptive

Most people who have worked in the fundraising field for more than 5 years have lived through (survived?) a database or system conversion. They’re messy, and things get lost, and sometimes you feel like the supposed new efficiency isn’t worth the frustration. A turnover in staff can have a less public but similar disruptive effect. If an office doesn’t seek to retain and reward talent in operations then it will quickly lose to competition those individuals who not only have great technical skills but have an understanding of your organization, donor base, and processes that cannot be easily picked up by a new hire.

(5) Development operations/Advancement Services is a great place to build home-grown talent in all areas

Development operations teams tend have younger, more technologically savvy, and early career professionals.  It is a great recruiting ground then for both operations leadership and fundraising talent alike. Fundraising programs that do not pay attention to this great resource therefore miss the great opportunity and potential organizational sustainability to build their own talent pools, having to rely more on the difficult world of poaching and recruiting talent to fill staffing and fundraising openings. Those who translate broader staff retention and talent management strategies to their operations team have a greater chance to keep and capitalize on their younger, high potential staff members.