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!


Engaging Volunteer Fundraisers: Focus First on Internal Training



A senior development officer recently shared with me her acute frustration with her organization’s fundraising volunteers. She explained that her team had supplied the volunteers with an array of new information, materials and training exercises, yet the volunteers did not seem to absorb the content nor follow the guidance; worse, they continued to fall back into the same bad habits my friend’s team was trying to modify. My colleague was on the verge of acquiescing or even closing down the program.

As advancement professionals, we know there are correct ways to do things and incorrect ways to do them.  And if we want our volunteers to follow those best practices, be effective, and achieve our objectives, then we need to start by providing leadership in both word and deed.

Unfortunately, we don’t always adhere to our own prescribed processes, but instead give in, make exceptions, or act in ways that contradict our own advice. When we do that, we also give our volunteers an excuse or even encouragement to diverge from the desired practices.

There are several other errors that our trainers and staff liaisons tend to make when working with fundraising volunteers:

  • We don’t stand firm: We often let volunteers persuade us to cut short certain elements of our training program. (Almost no one wants to participate in role-playing exercises, right?) As a result, important information is not conveyed and critical skills are not developed, leaving volunteers inadequately prepared to fulfill their roles.
  • We’re inconsistent: We may say one thing in a training setting, but then act contrary to it in practice, causing confusion among those trained and prompting them to follow their own instincts instead of best practices.
  • We don’t understand our volunteers: We don’t listen to our volunteers and thus discover their needs, questions and anxieties—nor do we acknowledge that volunteers may harbor hesitations and questions that they are reluctant to vocalize in a training session with others.
  • We don’t follow through on promises: We don’t provide the support, answers, timely responses and other things we committed to during the training session.
  • We conduct “one and done” training: Single-session training can be helpful, but to truly modify behaviors, improve performance, and generate desired outcomes, a series of in-person and/or online follow-up sessions is highly recommended. Good training involves repetition, learning by doing, and reviewing the outcomes of actual performance.
  • We don’t provide timely rewards and feedback:  When working with volunteers, if you don’t provide timely feedback on their work, these unpaid supporters may feel unappreciated, as well as be uncertain whether or not they were effective. And if they were not effective, or were engaged in unproductive or inappropriate behaviors, you also must be prepared to gently direct their efforts into other endeavors.

Wondering why I chose a puppy photo to accompany this post? It struck me over the holidays that the training of fundraising volunteers shares several similarities with canine obedience schools—a conclusion I reached while visiting with my twin eight-year-old nieces and their new dog, Teddy (pictured above). And the most important lesson to be drawn from that comparison is that training success is determined more by the quality and effectiveness of the trainer than by actions of the training subject. Trainers who send mixed messages to their trainees can unintentionally encourage, reward and reinforce behaviors that are opposite the ones desired.

Accordingly, a decision to initiate or expand a volunteer-driven fundraising program in hopes of advancing a campaign or other major gift initiative is not one to be made lightly. Success requires an ongoing investment in training, communication and volunteer support. It also requires clearly defined, mutual expectations. And perhaps above all else, it demands knowledgeable, persistent trainers.

In short, before enlisting others to join our fundraising efforts, we must first be sure that we understand our own roles, know best practices, and be able and willing to follow through on all that we promise to our volunteer partners. And a critical first step is to be sure your trainers are well prepared and effective.

Do you agree that the efforts of fundraisers directly affect the performance and effectiveness of our volunteer fundraisers? Do you have success stories to share or suggestions for more effectively engaging and deploying volunteers to assist in securing major gifts?

My TalentED colleagues and I would also be happy to share examples of how we have helped organizations with their volunteer efforts. Just call!

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

Maximizing the Return on Your Investment in Staff Development

Jumping the Career Track: How traditional staffing structures damage fundraiser retention

We’ve touched on how important rewarding and recognizing performance is to the staff satisfaction and performance of your fundraising team. But immediate recognition and reward is a strategy for building confidence in the short term. But what are some long-term strategies that will keep fundraisers, especially top performers, engaged and invested in your organization?

Turnover is a constant concern for nearly every non-profit fundraising program. In many cases office culture, structures, and leadership impact overall staff and talent retention rates. But for top performers, who may be invested in the cause and office, the reasons for leaving become more nuanced and related to their own desire to grow professionally and be recognized for that growth. Take the chart below of a “typical” (and simplified) career path into major gifts:

Career pathways

There are a few problems with the ladder above.

  • First, there are a limited amount of opportunities for promotion once the gift officer level has been reached. This is the level, usually, where a team member is most desirable for retention – the organization has invested in their growth and development level and their contribution to the institution is poised to greatly increase. For smaller organizations this is an especially detrimental structure because they end up having talented frontline fundraisers that they want to keep, but have no open leadership positions to offer for promotion. What happens most frequently in this scenario is that a fundraiser who wishes to see more career growth is forced to consider external organizations to get to that next step.


  • Secondly, once someone gets very successful at donor relations and fundraising, the only options for growth are to take on managerial responsibilities. Effectively we are rewarding those people who do something very well with a job that leaves them less time for the area in which they excel. For the field of fundraising this effectively means that we are diverting human capital from raising gifts.  Most non-profit organizations have a higher need and larger shortage for gift income than they do for management.  Strong management is important in any organization, but, as we’ve touched on before, what makes a strong fundraiser doesn’t necessarily make a strong manager. Furthermore, if an individual has the potential to continue to grow as a fundraiser and bring new and larger gifts to the institution then the priority of managers should be to facilitate that growth, not force a management career path simply because it’s the only one available.


  • Thirdly, the path above limits top positions in a development office to major gift professionals, limiting the desirability of development operations positions (who can only rise so far in a traditional organization) and increasing the potential for development leadership teams to lack both strategic management soft skills and fundraising business technical fluency.


5 Resolutions for Better Development Talent in the New Year

1.       Spend more time building a strong team in house.

It’s easy to reward and pay attention to the senior team members and high performers in a development shop. This year we should focus on building a team ready to lead your organization’s fundraising for the next 3-5 years and beyond. Identify 3-4 fundraisers or development operations team members who have high unrealized potential, and then devise a program for professional development and/or mentorship for each. These efforts will not only see a large boost in effectiveness and skill sets, but it will also engage and build confidence amongst a core group that your organization wants to retain.

2.       “Lose weight” across the office

One thing I have learned in working with many development offices and fundraising shops is that team members are often brimming with ideas for office improvements and new projects, but rarely get a chance to present or implement those ideas. Try having 2014 be the year that you let teams own 2-3 projects aimed at streamlining a process, improving communication across development, or protecting time towards direct fundraising activities.

3.       Set aside time for the team and office culture

Time and time again we encounter great talent and team members who leave an institution not because of title or pay but because of a toxic or unsupportive work environment. Be better in 2014 about building a strong office culture that makes fundraisers, support staff, and development operations team members want to come in and contribute their time for your organization. Sometimes the most difficult part of this process comes with identifying what the actual issues facing your office are. Ask you team to contribute to this discussion and listen to what they have to say. Then do your best to address those concerns and create a more positive, supportive space in your development shop.

4.       Be a proactive “recruiter”

Chances are if your organization has more than 6 frontline fundraisers you will either be looking for a new hire or replacing someone in the next 12-18 months. This year try proactively networking and building relationships with local and regional development leaders. Try to identify who the star and rising talent is in your area and professional network and brainstorm about which candidates you might like to add to your team and what your organization would need to do to theoretically recruit them. When the time comes to post a job you will be better organized, prepared, and have a strong idea of where to look and will shorten the hiring process.

5.       Learn a new trick/skill

For that matter – set the goal to see if everyone on your team can learn at least one new skill in the next 12 months. Low discovery results? Set up a training or a workshop for fundraisers to practice and build cold call skills. Database difficulties? Use the new year as an opportunity to teach new shortcuts or reporting to users. Learning is one of the most powerful sources of employee and team engagement and greatly contributes to job satisfaction and fights boredom.

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.