Create a Superstar Fundraiser in 2015

Originally published December 10, 2014

If there’s one theme to emerge from the conferences, research topics, and discussions of 2014 across the world of development it’s this: it’s very hard to find and keep talent. Demand exceeds supply, and competition for a shallow talent pool is only going to increase if trends continue. Development programs must start to look inward to create and build their own talent pipeline.

This process should involve looking at your staff, enhancing culture, growing team strengths, and setting priorities.

Ultimately, however, outcomes along the front line will be made by a handful of exceptional fundraisers. Elevating even one more individual to that tier of performance can dramatically impact your overall results.

Below is a brief overview of a process that development leaders can follow over the next 12 months to transform a high-potential individual into a high-performing fundraising star.

Find the Right Footing and Foundation
There is a core set of knowledge and expertise fundraisers must have to be successful. Make sure your team members have a firm foundation in the science and art of fundraising. Evaluate and create a plan to deepen their knowledge and grasp of critical areas, including:

  • Major donor types and motivations.
  • Giving vehicles and types of giving.
  • Institutional culture and priorities.
  • Portfolio management and optimization.
  • Strategic solicitation, and matching big ideas with high-capacity prospects.
  • Trends and new tools in development.

Get Moving
Part of what sets star fundraisers apart from their peers is the ability to manage time effectively and maximize their time out of the office meeting with donors and prospects. Focusing on growing an individual’s performance should include immediate, intermediary, and long-term action items. That way he or she can have clear avenues to put theory into practice in all steps of the process. Integrating all learning, mentorship, and self-development into existing responsibilities and activities will solidify knowledge and deepen understanding more readily.

Look for the Heart of a Star
When talking about growing your own superstars, focus on finding individuals who have the right qualities and potential to become your future highest performers. Look for individuals who:

  • Seek out challenges and new opportunities beyond assigned top prospects and goals.
  • Can speak and connect with people of all backgrounds and personality types.
  • Are inspired by your organization but have room for growth.

Perfect Technique and Strengthen the Right Muscles
The best athletes, musicians, physicians, and executives all have one thing in common: they practice a lot. More often than not that practice includes focused coaching and mentorship. Fundraisers, likewise, become more effective the more targeted practice they are able to have. Build a performance plan that not only increases classroom learning and expectations but allows for practice, shadowing, mentorship, and coaching by existing stars on your team and experts in the field so that your professionals can try new techniques and receive guidance on how to refine and hone their own personal approach with donors.

Guaranteeing a feedback loop during this process requires that managers and directors must be actively engaged and protective of time for the skill and strategy growth of the individual.

Foster Leadership and Collaboration
The biggest gifts require collaboration and multiple contact points, and often our top performers are expected to be team leaders as well. However, content areas for skill building often leave out collaborative strategies and good leadership and management. Similarly, we often wait too long to give individuals leadership opportunities. Leadership should be developed well before a promotion.

Part of what makes a fundraising star is his or her ability to lead internally as well as produce externally. In order to transform individuals you must make sure that they are given opportunities and tools for leadership. Find or let your team members identify new projects or initiatives in need of an owner. Include leadership skills and management in your expectations and performance evaluations of your team. For individuals to become leaders, they must understand their own management style and approach with peers, direct reports, and contacts across an institution and be able to translate that into success in actual programs and projects.

Focus on the Future
Developing the skills and improving the outcomes of performers is only as effective as your ability to retain them. Any program, formal or informal, that you develop must account for and incorporate the personal and professional goals of the team members involved. A curriculum for 2015 should, therefore, be focused on improving and multiplying fundraising results for the next 12–24 months AND act as a stepping stone for your fundraisers’ own ambitions for the next 5–10 years. Taking the steps described above helps communicate to your performers that you value them and their growth. Don’t shortchange your results by neglecting to communicate that you have a plan and place for them as they grow.

There will be valuable members of your team who may not be ready for the next step. That’s okay. As you work to grow your fundraising stars, keep these folks in mind—team building and performance across the bell curve should be a parallel priority for talent development this year.

It’s not an easy task, but, as the saying goes, something worthwhile is rarely easy.

BWF’s TalentED practice partners with non-profit clients to create superstars through competency-based, one-on-one coaching by seasoned experts. Contact us at to learn more about coaching, workshops, or our talent management services.

Copyright © 2014 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.


Having a Hard Time Finding Fundraising Talent? – It’s a global thing.

Over in the states we can get wrapped up in the idea that development trends are specific to the US. But the struggle to find and retain frontline talent transcends national borders.  As this article from The Guardian (UK) describes our friends on the other side of the pond see the same struggles that we do. Charitable organizations are struggling to fill open positions for major gift programs and retain the talent they have.  They set out looking for talent, but often can’t even find a reasonable number of viable candidates to choose from.



The pool of options in a MGO search – a few disinterested parties and some pigeons.


Part of the struggle lies with compensation; the strongest fundraisers are well aware of their endangered species designation and know that they can find salaries at a highly competitive level.  Another component, especially in the modern workplace, are the intangibles and flexibility of the workplace that drive job satisfaction.

However, even institutions with an ideal workplace and attractive compensation package in the UK are struggling because (and we know this well enough here in the US as well) there simply is not enough skilled, experienced talent to fill the many open positions in the development field. The numbers are simply not there. Nonprofit organizations are effectively trading open positions as DOs and MGOs shuffle between institutions.

So what are we to do? How do we work to fill this need with such a limited resource? The British Red Cross’s answer: Build your own team from scratch and abandon recruitment altogether.

“Astarita said the British Red Cross had a lot of success in recruiting new fundraisers though the use of unpaid interns. ‘We haven’t recruited a trust fundraiser for ages,’ he said. ‘They all come through trainee level. So we’re having to make our own fundraisers at the lower level and I think that’s increasingly going to feed through into mid ranks.'”

Of course building your own team has its own drawbacks. You run the risk of making a huge investment in human capital only to see those individuals move on a few years down the road to better paychecks, leaving you with yet another green group to train. Also, your fundraising culture might become isolated and miss out on best practices and connections that seasoned individuals from other institutions would bring. It’s a calculated risk that an organization as big as the British Red Cross can afford to make.


What do you think? Are non-profits in all countries facing the same situation? Where can we find these rare effective fundraisers?