Two Sides of the Same Coin – Fundraising Talent Management Challenges

This blog has covered both challenges in talent management of fundraisers and of development operations team members. These audiences, while distinct in their challenges, can be thought of as two sides of the same coin.

As our the non-profit fundraising sector has evolved so has our demand for talent. We now are highly in need of two things in short supply: highly sophisticated frontline officers who can deliver big gifts and high tenure operations team members who can think and partner strategically.

Below is a table overview of the two categories.

talent management nutshell

What do you think? Have you seen other trends in the talent management of fundraisers or operations teams?


Something Worth Reading: “Don’t Fear Fund Raising: Matching Donor Passion to Your Department’s Needs”

Fear 1Successful educational fundraisers know that faculty and academic leaders can be invaluable allies in building productive relationships with donors and securing funding for institutional priorities. Deans, department heads, professors and researchers possess a deep understanding of the programs they direct, as well as a credible and persuasive passion for those initiatives that few professional fundraisers can match.

Unfortunately these potential partners are often reluctant to engage in the cultivation and solicitation of prospective benefactors. Their hesitation can be rooted in a lack of understanding about how major gift fundraising is conducted, anxieties about asking for money, fear of rejection, or even concerns that a donor may attempt to exert control over their work. On the other hand, their perceived reluctance might also be a simple case of not being invited to participate.

In his recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Don’t Fear Fund Raising: Matching Donor Passion to Your Department’s Needs,” Texas Tech professor and dean David D. Perlmutter does an excellent job of demystifying the fundraising process for his fellow academicians. Perlmutter’s piece provides insights into the process of setting fundraising priorities, clarifying and articulating those needs, and underscoring the uncomfortable notion that what most excites faculty members may not be what resonates with donors.

Perlmutter’s most important lesson, however, is, that effective educational fundraising is usually an iterative process and that our greatest successes often follow the rejection of an initial approach. Accordingly, faculty and administrators must be prepared to listen actively, “be willing to shift gears,” seek to “recast and redirect” their appeal, and “leave the door open” for future discussions, even when the first appeal proves unsuccessful.

So if you are a department chair, director of a center, or dean of a college, what should you do if you find that what the donor wants is not what you need? …. Be willing to shift gears. Don’t be hypnotized by your agenda. Keeping your priority list handy does not mean you should ignore out-of-the-box opportunities.

Dean Perlmutter’s terrific insights, however, are not enough to prepare academic leaders for fundraising success. Institutions committed to actively and effectively engaging faculty and academic leaders in the fundraising process must also be committed to providing education and training for these key allies.

In addition to demystifying the fundraising process, a training program for faculty, department heads and deans will also supply them with the perspectives, tools and techniques they need to hone and articulate their priorities and to successfully engage and build relationships with donors. After helping lead workshops this summer for academic leaders at several TalentED clients, I found it  both remarkable and satisfying to observe the resulting relief, excitement and resolve among our participants once they were been equipped with the tools for success.

So make the most of this readily accessible talent pool at your institution by ensuring your faculty and academic leaders receive the perspective, preparation, encouragement and support they need to maximize their chances for fundraising triumphs. Don’t leave it to chance.

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.

The Fundraiser Talent Shortage – An Interview with Bruce Flessner


I recently had the opportunity to interview Bruce Flessner, principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner. Bruce has been a lead consultant and adviser to top nonprofit development shops for over 30 years.   I used my time with Bruce to focus on what his clients are saying about talent. The transcript of our conversation is below.

How often do your clients ask you about talent management?

Hourly. …

More seriously – it is something I get asked about every day. Not a day goes by that talent management doesn’t come up with my clients in one way or another.  I have regular conversations with leaders who don’t have enough people, or they have the wrong people, or their people are doing the wrong things.

Do you see this problem more in any specific sector of the nonprofit world?

No. It’s widespread across all non-profit sector.  From my experience it isn’t any better in any sector. Some areas might have stronger players as individuals because they are bigger; they’re raising more money and bringing in bigger gifts. But, what I have seen, is that even the largest shops have trouble with their talent, because those stronger players are more and more in demand.

What are some of the common challenges you see across the US in finding and keeping talent?

The first challenge I usually see is that there is more demand for new positions than there is supply of talent. We are constantly dealing with people expanding the size of their development programs and launching major campaigns and fundraising pushes. The number of non-profits is growing as is the size of development programs across the country. That growth has been hard to support with experienced fundraisers.

As a result I see the second trend of how hard it is for these shops to retain their stars because they’re in constant demand to staff and lead these campaigns and big initiatives anywhere. A good fundraiser is constantly going to be on the receiving end of recruitment and job offers, which makes retention very difficult.

The third challenge I see is that development programs, realizing they have to grow more talent to meet demand, face a conundrum. Leaders within a program are caught between needing to going out and do the fundraising work itself with donors and volunteers and committing time internally to train and develop new people. This tends to spread your best people thin.

What have you seen institutions do to successfully recruit and retain talent?

Some of the largest institutions have been able to develop in-house talent management offices and programs. I’ve seen that strategy succeed in improving recruiting efficiency and supporting training initiatives.  However, it hasn’t solved all problems as often talent management individuals might not be as well versed in development and can miss areas of professional development or opportunities to find new hires.

I’ve seen others reach out to third parties to find new training opportunities for young staff,  but the programs that are out there tend to be hit or miss. Often times you see a program try to host or send it’s fundraisers to a training, but it has no real outcome because the content and skills-work hasn’t been coordinated with the direction of the program or needs of the group.

What would you advise a non-profit looking towards a hiring push in fundraising or big growth in their development program?

  1. You need to be able to develop your own talent. You’re not going to be ina position where you can always go out and buy talent, even if you have the budget to do so. Competition is too stiff.
  2. Make talent management a serious part of how you evaluate and use senior leadership. Your leaders’ performance evaluations should touch on how commited and effective they are at developing junior people as well as growing the overally abilities and capacity of their teams.
  3. It is easy to spend a lot of your time on recruitment, but you probably should spend more time ensuring that you can keep your existing most accomplished individuals, because others are spending their time seeing if they can snatch your best performers. Without planning and programs for retention you can get in a cycle of losing your best people every few years. A lost experienced fundraiser becomes a lot more expensive than a new hire.

Let’s turn to the perspective of those who might be the candidates for these many open positions. What do you think those top performers are looking for in their current and potential positions?

I think that we sometimes believe that everybody has the same motivations because it’s easier, and they often do not. So first we need to understand what is motivating these individuals.

Some want to earn money – and compensation is an important part of talent management, but not the most important. Some might be escaping a bad boss. Others can be drawn to the prestige of the organization or its cause comes close to home. I also have seen many fundraisers become interested in a position because they like the particular geography or location of the institution and want to live west coast or in New York City or whatever.

So what might cause a top performer to consider leaving their organization for the competition?

It can be a few things. First I hear a lot along the lines of the grass always looks greener. It’s hard to know if that’s a good decision because, as I tell the individuals who bring this up, you don’t live on the other side of the fence. It’s easy to think you’ll be happier at some place that doesn’t have X or can offer you Y, without know what that actually means for the work environment. Sometimes fundraisers leave because of genuine dissatisfaction – they don’t get recognized for the value they bring, or they do not get along with supervisor, or they feel a lack of institutional commitment to development.

The best managers recognize that there’s a multitude of things that motivate people in the hiring  and retention process so that they can cater their approach to the wants and needs of the individual.

Have there been any trends in front line fundraiser hiring that you have noticed over the past five years?

I’ve seen compensation levels move up fairly rapidly, especially for those who can bring in seven figure gifts consistently.  In the short run this is good for the individuals benefiting from the higher salaries as well as in attracting new people to the industry. In the long run, however, I think that this puts pressure on the industry to deliver the results of this rising investment. In many places right now your average development officer makes more than star faculty members. In the long run this will produce more challenges and prompt larger conversation about value and institutional identity.

Looking to learn more? Try reading our other posts: Six Best Practices Top Development Shops Offer to Set Fundraisers Up for Success,  Four qualities of strong potential development officers, and Five behaviors of top fundraisers

Mr. Flessner is a recognized expert on new wealth philanthropy and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Star Tribune, Dallas Star, Detroit Free Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Chronicle of Higher Education and many other major newspapers. He has served on the board of directors of the Council on Foundation’s New Ventures in Philanthropy. He is a frequent speaker at CASE, AFP, AHP, and other professional association conferences. His clients have included Carleton College, Concordia College, DePauw University, Gustavus Adolphus, Macalester College, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Rollins College, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Saint Thomas , University of Sydney, Anne Arundel Medical Center, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Beth-Israel Medical Center, Brown University, Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Children’s Hospital Boston, Cleveland Clinic, Indiana University, Miami Children’s Hospital, Mississippi State University, Oklahoma State University, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Texas Tech University, University Hospitals, University of Illinois, University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of North Carolina System.