Fundraiser Procrastination: Name It. Know It. Deal With It.

Procrastination 9

Being an occasional procrastinator, I found myself drawn to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post titled “Procrastination, Our Old Frenemy.” The item, by Jason B. Jones of Connecticut’s Trinity College, is thought-provoking and challenges those of us who tend to dawdle and delay (as most of us do from time to time) to consider the damage such dilatory behavior can cause.

The Prevalence of Fundraiser Procrastination

During my fundraising days I most often procrastinated when I had to reach out to new prospects or challenging donors. While I’m not proud of that, I do take some solace in knowing that numerous colleagues also engage in similar hesitation and delay. Indeed, when I confessed my fundraising procrastination during a recent TalentED workshop, every head in the room nodded in agreement.IMG_3248

Jones’s article conveniently served as a bibliography of other Chronicle articles on the topic. (I’ve provided links to several of those entries at the end of my post.) The article I found to be most relevant is the aptly titled “Procrastination” from the blog of Shawn Blanc. Blanc explores the causes of general procrastination, which include: lack of motivation, fear, other things we’d rather be doing, the ease with which we’re distracted, feelings of being overwhelmed, stubbornness, and our own pre-existing habits.

Reasons for Fundraiser Procrastination

Blanc’s list is a useful starting point for thinking about the causes of fundraiser procrastination, which I decided include the following:

  • Anxiety and insecurity: Being stressed about talking with strangers, unsure about how they will react, or feeling unworthy of their time and attention.
  •  Fear of rejection: Worrying about be turned down for an appointment or a gift—or about not being welcomed.
  • Absence of confidence: Uncertain about one’s own skills or abilities, lacking in training, or being unsure about the purpose or point of the expected donor contact.
  • Procrastination 10Distractions and lack of focus: Not prioritizing one’s responsibility for building relationships and driving donors toward significant gift commitments, as well as getting derailed by other demands, activities or dramas.
  • Inadequate incentives or accountability: It doesn’t matter greatly to others whether or not donor contacts are completed within a particular timeframe, and the absence of serious consequences doesn’t impart much motivation.
  • Lack of discipline: The fundraiser has never developed the appropriate habits and practices of effective gift officers.

The first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging that we have one. I encourage my fellow fundraisers to pause and consider how often, either overtly or subconsciously, they evade their responsibilities for making  timely contact with their assigned donors and prospects—particularly those individuals who are challenging, difficult, unpleasant or simply unknown.

Leadership Strategies for Minimizing Procrastination

It would be ideal if individuals would acknowledge their procrastination tendencies and take their own steps to overcome this impediment. But knowing that “contact postponement” is widespread among gift officers at all levels of experience, I urge managers to proactively help gift officers confront and address this impediment. Drawing upon my own experience, as well as insights from the various Chronicle articles, I recommend that fundraising leaders employ the following strategies to minimize fundraiser procrastination:

  • Heal Thyself: Lead by Example. If you expect those you lead to not procrastinate, then don’t’ engage in those bad habits yourself.
  • Deadlines and Targets. Set times by which critical fundraising calls must be finished, along with weekly goals for completed contacts—including calls to secure meetings, advance relationships, and thank donors for gifts.
  • Procrastination 7Make Appointments. Set aside time each day and/or week during which your fundraisers are expected drop everything else to be in their workspaces making calls. If an extenuating circumstance arises, the missed calling time must be made up immediately.
  • The Buddy System. Encourage fundraisers to have one or more colleagues to whom they are accountable for making their expected contacts. Support staff who work with gift officers can fill this role, as well as help ensure the set-aside time are protected from other intrusions.
  • Self-Rewards. As an incentive, ask fundraisers to schedule their most enjoyable, stress-free tasks for immediately after the expected donor contacts are to be completed.
  • No “Padding” of Portfolios. Every fundraiser develops relationships with certain donors and prospects who they look forward to meeting. Make sure that gift officers don’t fill their time having multiple visits with these low-risk, low anxiety calls.
  • Training and Practice. The most effective antidote to fundraiser procrastination is providing staff with solid training and lots of practice with the activities that often prompt procrastination: getting appointments, cold calls, overcoming objections, and dealing with difficult people.
  • Remember that Fundraising is Fun. Once they get rolling, most fundraisers discover their pre-contact anxieties dissipate. But staff can’t achieve this epiphany until they get out and “just do it.”

Procrastination 1The Blanc article also explores the possibility that “unchecked procrastination bleeds over” into other facets of our work and personal endeavors. Blanc suggests that “having structure and focus in one aspect of our life gives us clarity and momentum that brings structure to the other areas.” His theory is both plausible and encouraging, and it’s one I’m planning to further explore myself.

Do you agree that procrastination is a significant concern among fundraisers and directly impedes our progress? Have I named the correct reasons for it? Have you found other strategies for dealing with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

In the meantime, let’s all commit to helping our staff and ourselves follow through on making the calls, building the relationships, and soliciting the contributions that are central to the success of our fundraising programs and the institutions we represent.

Perhaps you can begin by forwarding this post to another procrastinator. And then log off and start making some calls!

Additional articles and posts about procrastination:
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Practice and Repetition Are Not Enough: Why Training and Coaching Are Essential Elements for Developing Effective Fundraisers

Shooting Free Throws (Narrow)In previous posts our TalentED team has emphasized the importance of practice and repetition in ensuring that fundraisers develop the skills and professional judgment necessary to achieve success as a major gift officer. I’m confident it’s now accepted wisdom that repetitive simulations and actual hands-on, in-the-moment interactions with donors are essential experiences in helping new gift officers master the art of fundraising—a process that includes discovery, cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and stewardship.

As vitally important to performance as regular practice is, a recent article from Inc. Magazine reminded me that repetition alone cannot guarantee long-term fundraising success.

In “4 Short Lessons on How to Learn a New Skill,” author Sims Wythe posits that individuals who pursue mastery of a skill must also possess or receive four other factors if their repetition to yield meaningful improvement: (1) motivation, (2) knowledge, (3) application of knowledge, and (4) unequivocal feedback:

  1. Motivation

To get better at a skill, we must first want to improve. As Wythe states, “the first thing you have to do is simply begin…. And now that you know you want to begin, you have to be willing to fail, to be frustrated, to be bored, and to be angry that what looks so easy for some is so hard for you.” Without these internal or external incentives for improvement, we are unlikely to apply the necessary discipline, exert enough effort, or tolerate the impediments.

What motivates fundraisers to improve? At the very least, our supervisors expect and require us to become more polished and increasingly productive. Hopefully, we also bring to the task our own personal pride and desire for success.  Nonetheless, even the very best fundraisers encounter obstacles, including objections and rejection by donors. It’s not an easy job—and these challenges certainly contribute to the rapid turnover among first-time major gift officers.

  1. Knowledge??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

For practice and repetition to make a difference, you have to be practicing the right things. As Wythe observes, if you practice your golf swing at the driving range every day of the summer but you have a lousy swing, it’s unlikely your swing will be any better on Labor Day. Wythe thus cites Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who advises that “…acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.”

What does that mean for major gift officers? Your own ability to enhance your performance is limited. To get better, you need to observe effective fundraising in action, have access to resources that will inform you, and obtain feedback from other, more experienced fundraisers.

  1. Application of Knowledge

Practicing alone has limited value. You must also practice in front of others and in situations similar to those in which your actual performance will occur. For example, Wythe cites the process of becoming Practicing Piano 3a better public speaker: “the only proven way to become a better speaker is to rehearse under performance-like pressure…. It is hard to replicate real-life circumstances, but practicing your speech aloud to people who are familiar with your topic is—again—the only scientifically proven way of improving your speaking skills.”

For fundraisers, that means practicing the types of conversations that you must have with donors: getting the appointment, eliciting information, exploring interests, soliciting gifts, overcoming objections and making the close. As uncomfortable as it may be, live practice—and yes, even role playing—of donor conversations in front of other, more seasoned gift officers is critical to recognizing opportunities for improvement and identifying areas for further practice.

  1. Unequivocal Feedback

Once you begin performing the skills you’ve been developing and policing, it’s vital to evaluate your performance and to identify areas that require further practice and improvement.  Indeed, Wythe suggests that we all need a coach; however we cannot be our own coaches: “You can read all the how-to books you want, but then you have to implement those suggestions—which takes a huge amount of discipline that most of us don’tPracticing Violin 1 have—and then you have to be able to see around your own blind spots which, believe me, will take a lifetime.”

Of course, few fundraisers have the resources to engage a personal coach. Instead, that role should be filled by your supervisor and your peers, and ideally, your organization will offer on-site training programs or opportunities to attend off-site workshops.  But if your supervisor and peers don’t see themselves as coaches, or if you don’t have access to training programs, it is up to you to proactively seek out feedback and coaching: Ask your colleagues to provide the ‘rapid and unequivocal feedback’ Wythe says you need, or seek others to help fill that role. Just be sure that you enlist knowledgeable people who you trust to critique you without holding back.

It should thus be good news for both new and seasoned fundraisers that the imperative for pursuing a comprehensive approach to building advancement teams is beginning to be acknowledged and to be addressed. By applying tenets of “strategic talent management” to the advancement profession, fundraising organizations are increasingly looking holistically at the entire process of finding, training, developing, rewarding and keeping the best possible gift officers. And training, coaching and mentoring are core elements of this fresh, holistic approach to growing talent. In addition, consulting and support organizations (such as Bentz Whaley Flessner and TalentED) are also ramping up their offerings to help clients develop talent management strategies, provide training and coaching, and better understand the dynamics of creating and maintaining effective fundraising teams.

It’s good news, for sure. But don’t stop practicing!

MGOs: Why a New Job Should NOT Be on Your 2015 To-Do List

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The rate of turnover among fundraisers remains high, and among no cohort of advancement professionals is this movement more pronounced than major gift officers (MGOs). Recent studies and surveys by CASE, AFP and others suggest the average tenure of a frontline fundraiser is now somewhere in the range of 2.4 to 3.5 years.

Whatever the actual tenure numbers may be, it’s obvious that a lot of major gift officers are on the move. And if you’re not already among them, it’s highly likely there will be attempts to convince you that you should be: A 2014 survey by our firm, Bentz Whaley Flessner (BWF), found that two-thirds of all frontline fundraisers with at least two years of major gift experience had received at least three recruiting contacts during the prior year, with a significant subset of that cohort receiving even more (see adjacent chart).

In other words, if you’re a major gift officer with even a smidgen of experience someone will try enticing you to move in 2015. My advice: Don’t do it.

Bar Chart 001My rationale for dissuading you from changing jobs boils down to the proverb, “good things come to those who wait.” Frontline fundraisers who truly want to achieve success and produce transformational outcomes must be prepared to make an up-front investment of time—in their institutions, in their donors, and in themselves. Frequent moves do not serve you well, for several reasons:

  • Practice, Practice, Practice. The skills for effective cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and closing are only acquired through practice. Major gift fundraising is an art, and to become good at it requires training, repetition and lots of hands-on experience. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that proficiency in any complex task is only achieved after 10,000 hours of practice. If we accept Gladwell’s rule and apply it to fundraising, we can project that a first-time gift officer will require almost five years to become effective at their work: 10,000 hours ÷ (40 hours x 52 weeks) = 4.8 years.
  • Gladwell is Right. Additional research conducted by BWF on behalf of our clients confirms the validity of Gladwell’s proposition:  When measuring the year-to-year progression of major gift officers’ productivity, it MGO Productivity 001isn’t until their fourth year that fundraisers begin to generate significant output from their prospect portfolios. (See adjacent graph.) Once a gift officer turns that corner, their output continues to grow at substantial rates.
  • Relationship-Building Requires… Relationships. BWF’s finding that gift officers require ramp-up time before generating significant returns from their portfolio should not be surprising. Major gift fundraising is a relationship-based endeavor, and relationships cannot be built overnight. While the most important relationships are always between the donor and the organization, the connection between a donor and a fundraiser is crucial. Only through a series of conversations and contacts can a gift officer come to understand a donor’s interests, capacity, motivations and readiness. And moving through that process requires the donor to have a substantial level of comfort with and trust in the fundraiser who is their principal contact. Frequent changes in fundraisers interrupts and delays the process—or even terminate it if a new gift officer doesn’t quickly pick up the ball again.
  • Longevity Yields a Better Portfolio. Another reason it takes a few years for gift officers to begin tapping the capacity of their assigned prospects is that new fundraisers usually receive a “discovery” portfolio that will initially require numerous qualifying calls, many of which will result in prospects being dropped from consideration. Those dropped prospects will be replaced by others before this iterative process eventuallyBalancing Time And Dollar develops for each fundraiser a solid collection of genuine major gift donors. Our firm’s experience is that it takes gift officers 2-4 years to transition a discovery-oriented portfolio into one that is weighted toward bona fide donor prospects and will begin to produce significantly greater gift income. Those who leave a position prematurely don’t get to harvest the fruits of their labors.
  • Fundraisers are Measured by Funds Raised. Because the demand for good fundraisers outstrips the available supply, it is possible to move from job to job over a short period of time. It’s also possible for a newbie to get lucky with one or two big gifts early in their tenure, and parlay that into another job. But in the final analysis, effective fundraising is all about building relationships and closing big gifts. If you cannot one day point to a single multi-year tenure during which you showed progressive growth and demonstrated your ability to close multiple large gifts, you will have fallen short of your full potential:  You will have limited the philanthropic capacity of both the organizations you served and their donors, as well short-changed your own prospects for professional advancement and personal satisfaction.
  • Results Get Rewarded. We all want to be rewarded for our work, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that by leaving our current employer we’ll find better rewards elsewhere. Nonetheless, even in our present day culture of immediate gratification, rewards still have to be earned, and the process of earning them takes time. As I suggested earlier, unless gift officers allow themselves adequate time to fully explore their portfolios, develop relationships and produce results, those earned rewards won’t be forthcoming. Our firm’s experience is that truly productive fundraisers are highly prized, and institutions will act within reason to retain them. But a gift officer can’t expect such VIP treatment unless they’ve earned it, and they definitely cannot earn it during a short tenure.
  • Define Your Rewards and Go After Them. What are the rewards major gift officers want? Compensation, of course. But BWF’s 2014 survey of frontline fundraisers revealed that gift officers’ most desired rewards are actually not dollars but other less tangible items: A better prospect portfolio, professional development opportunities, information from and access to leadership, new challenges, and recognition. And you do have some control over these perquisites: Make a case to attend a workshop to Medalsdevelop a relevant new skill set. Suggest that you be involved in preparing a major solicitation. Ask to take on a new responsibility (that won’t interfere with your other duties).  And above all else, challenge yourself to become more strategic and engaged with your own best prospects–and thus produce more gift dollars.
  • Everyone Loves a Winner. If you allow yourself to learn, develop and grow as a major gift officer, then positive results should follow. It’s at that point–where you can show that you are knowledgeable and skilled; that you have developed a productive prospect portfolio; and that you have also demonstrated staying power at one or more organizations–that you can write your own ticket. Fundraisers with such a record are truly in short supply, and if you can show that you’re one of them, both your current and other organizations will covet your services.

It’s true that your success is not entirely your own responsibility nor completely under your control, so I also offer two caveats to my admonition to stay put:

  1. Your organization and supervisor also have obligations to position you to achieve and sustain success as a fundraiser: you need training, coaching, resources, support and opportunity. And not every organization is as supportive as it should be. But rather than fret about what’s missing, take charge of your own progress as much as you possibly can–which may include finding coaches and mentors outside your current organization.
  2. There are sometimes reasons to leave an organization before you are able to establish the long-term track record I have suggested, such as a truly unreasonable supervisor, a toxic work environment, lack of professional development or growth opportunities, or an otherwise an unstable organization. But take to heart the familiar maxim, “the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t.”

2015 dIf you are a major gift officer considering a job change in 2015, be sure that you first conduct an honest self-assessment of whether you have done all that you can to become the seasoned, knowledgeable, productive and stable fundraiser that will be prized by your current and/or prospective organizations. And if you choose to leap, be sure you’re not doing it impulsively and that you have full knowledge of where you’ll be landing.

Otherwise, stay put. Instead, challenge yourself this year: make the most of your prospect portfolio, enhance critical skills, and take other actions that will increase your value. Make 2015 a year in which you, your organization and your future career prospects will become better, stronger, more productive, and well positioned for future success.

And continue following our blog, too: In subsequent posts we’ll be sharing additional insights into specific things you can do this year to enhance your performance, work more effectively with colleagues and supervisors, and position yourself for long-term success.

A New Year’s Resolution List for Leaders to Consider Right Now

Something Worth Reading: Those We Lead Tend to Live Up (or Down) to Our Expectations

MFL1Although Steve Browne’s recent blog post for TheHiringSite, How We See Others: The Role of the Talent Advisor, is directed at human resources professionals, I suggest that his provocative observations and recommendations have equal relevance for those of us in the advancement field who have responsibility for the success of fundraisers and other professionals.

Browne’s post is concise and simple, but its take-away is powerful: Stop focusing on why your employees and teams might be problematic and instead focus on their strengths and possibilities:

You need to understand the Pygmalion Effect*… [It] states that people will behave how you see them. If you think someone is a problem, they will be one. If you think they are talented, they will perform.

Perhaps Browne’s post resonates with me because during my career I have both delivered and received messages that conveyed low expectations or a lack of confidence. And I know from those personal experiences that when a supervisor encourages an individual, they frequently go on to overachieve; however, when an employee receives more criticism than praise or otherwise senses a lack of support from their supervisor, they will not be motivated to expend additional effort to excel–and indeed often respond in quite the opposite manner.

MFL2I suggest that all of us who supervise fundraisers and other advancement professionals follow Browne’s advice and start thinking of those we lead not as staff or FTEs but as “talent” with untapped potential; likewise, we should also begin to view ourselves not as managers but as “talent advisors”–coaches and mentors whose objective is to empower our own team members to grow, stretch and make the most of their abilities.

And if we do that, then perhaps–just as Professor Henry Higgins’ attitude changed toward Eliza Doolittle–we will soon “become accustomed to” the unique attributes and contributions of our own employees and thus find ourselves equally downcast about the possibility of losing these valuable partners.


 * For those unfamiliar with Pygmalion, it is the 1912 George Bernard Shaw play upon which My Fair Lady–both the 1956 Broadway play and 1964 movie (source of the scene with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn posted above)–are based. Shaw, in turn, took his play’s name from a character in Greek mythology.

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.

Something Worth Reading: Deloitte University Press Global Human Capital Trends 2014

deloitte report coverDeloitte has released a new and very interesting report, Global Human Capital Trends. This report, which looks at trends across the for-profit and non-profit sector has some great data on the challenges faced by industries reliant on skilled, high-level human capital. In particular the report draws attention to the following:

This year’s 12 critical human capital trends are organized into three broad areas:

  • Lead and develop: The need to broaden, deepen, and accelerate leadership development at all levels; build global workforce capabilities; re-energize corporate learning by putting employees in charge; and fix performance management
  • Attract and engage: The need to develop innovative ways to attract, source, recruit, and access talent; drive passion and engagement in the workforce; use diversity and inclusion as a business strategy; and find ways to help the overwhelmed employee deal with the flood of information and distractions in the workplace
  • Transform and reinvent: The need to create a global HR platform that is robust and flexible enough to adapt to local needs; reskill HR teams; take advantage of cloud-based HR technology; and implement HR data analytics to achieve business goals

These three themes are especially applicable to strategic talent management in fundraising. We’ve discussed the importance and difficulty of leadership in development as well as the role of engagement in retention.  The third element in the quote above reflects a rising consciousness in the development field. How we think about human resources globally needs to shift towards better strategy and comprehensive approaches.

Many development shops have only recently invested in owning their own team for hiring, overseeing, and training staff. Those that have succeeded have seen better results not only in the quality of their new hires, but in overall retention, engagement and satisfaction. Talent management needs to be more than conference attendance and a one-day orientation of new hires; it needs to be constantly adapting, assessing, and utilizing the engagement and skills of the team members of an organization. In fundraising we have many tools (metrics, analytics, professional seminars and conferences, database and portfolio management, etc). As development managers it is our responsibility to weild these tools meaningfully, while we apply some of the key traditional HR concepts described in this report.