The Fundraising Executive

CAREER PROMOTIONS: Proving Your Worth to the Organization

By Eddie Thompson | July 19, 2023 | Development Management Professional Development
Focusing on person-to-person donor relations is essential for long-term, sustainable fund development. However, many nonprofits are understaffed or lack basic infrastructure upgrades. Consequently, experienced fundraising professionals are often tasked with a host of unrelated duties. We are all aware of this conundrum. Surveys among fundraisers consistently identify lack of focus on their primary performance metric as the number one source of frustration and dissatisfaction—to the extent that many have considered leaving the nonprofit development profession.

In start-ups or small organizations, wearing many hats is an unavoidable yet temporary necessity. Long-term success and sustainability can only be realized with leadership dedicated to becoming an organization where program directors, administrative staff, and fundraisers are empowered to do their thing with excellence.

From THE CASE FOR ACCOUNTABILITY: Why I Love It and Would Feel Lost Without It

In January 2015 we consulted with a nonprofit that had 626 donors contributing from $250 a year to $5,000 a year. However, none of those donors were in a gift officer’s portfolio, and no one had ever called on any of them. That one performance metric revealed several challenges for that organization:

a) They were doing fairly well as they were and didn’t feel a pressing need to cultivate those donors.

b) Existing staff were too involved with other responsibilities to follow up on even the major donors.

c) They had no staging plan or formula for bringing on additional development or support staff.

I see this happen frequently. The organizational leaders are not reaching their fund-development potential and are settling for less.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits have no plans to ever outgrow this stage. Expansion often takes priority over staffing and infrastructure. Consequently, the organization limps along, realizing only a fraction of its potential.


Early in my career, I had a conversation with my supervisor that changed the trajectory of my career as a fundraiser. Our conversation led up to my question, “What are you going to hold me accountable for?” As I had anticipated, he replied, “Well, it’s how much money you raise for the university.”

The follow-up I had rehearsed went something like this: “So, would you allow me to do only what leads to raising money and get me away from all the other distractions?” The “other distractions” were committee meetings. The institution I represented had a labyrinth of committees, even a committee on committees. The Vice President for Development, who was as new in his position as I was in mine, just liked having people in the office—his way of holding staff accountable.  So this meant I was attending countless committee meetings, which shortened my available time to meet with donors. I tactfully pointed out to the VP that successful fund-development professionals didn’t raise money in the office. They raised money by getting out and seeing donors (at least, that’s what I had read in Sy Seymour’s classic book, The Design for Fundraising).

MY PROPOSAL: “I’ll come in on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. The rest of the time I’ll be out meeting with lapsed and occasional donors, raising money for the university. Let me do this for six months and see how it works.” And so, with my supervisor’s approval, I formulated my plan. Actually, it wasn’t my idea but a simple application of principles from Sy Seymour’s classic, The Design for Fundraising. Over the years, I’ve all but memorized that book, having reread it many times.

I began scheduling personal meetings with those in the lapsed donor files—the contacts generally considered not worth a follow-up. My purpose was simply to thank them for the difference they had made at the university, pointing out some of the highlights of what we had accomplished together. Sometimes there was an appeal for them to get back into the habit of giving but not always and only if the timing was right. My priority was to express the university’s appreciation.

I’m sure the Vice-President often wondered what I was doing when I left the office on Monday around noon and didn’t show up again until Friday. But my full-time focus on current and lapsed donors began paying off for the university and for my career. Some of those donor visits produced very significant results for the university, including one extraordinarily generous donation that changed the institution. That six-month trial was extended to a year, after which I was permanently excused from committee meetings, office administration, and anything unrelated to fundraising or personal donor relations.


There are a lot of things that fall far short of perfect leadership, the perfect system, or perfect support. If I had given in to the temptation of simply becoming a complainer rather than someone willing to take a risk and step out of my comfort zone to prove my worth to the university, I might have spent my entire career in one committee meeting after another. There’s always something to complain about in nonprofit work—too much of this, too little of that, not enough support, not enough salary.

MY ADVICE: Be very careful about starting down that road! Replace thoughts of complaint with innovation for change.

If you are unsure about how your supervisor will respond to a proposal like the one I suggested (i.e. being excused from activities unrelated to fundraising), it’s probably premature to ask. When you press supervisors for an honest and straightforward evaluation of your performance, the results may not be as you had expected. You may discover that you are not as essential in your boss’s mind as you are in your own. My suggestions are to be a team player, develop successful habits, and seek non-partisan advice; then at the right time, make your case for a more concentrated focus on fund development.

Replace thoughts of complaint with innovation for change.


In competitive fundraising environments, you’ll eventually realize that you’re either on your way up, on your way out, or on your way to the sidelines.  Not everyone is gifted as a frontline fundraising professional. Some play their parts most effectively in administrative, program, or supporting roles. So, the objective is to find your place in the organization and focus on being the best you can be in that role.

Eddie Thompson, Ed. D., FCEP
Founder and CEO
Thompson & Associates

“If we merely aim for the industry standard, then our goal is mediocrity. Emulating the average nonprofit, we are destined to live with all the problems the average nonprofit faces. So, we suggest you aim to be exceptional in your approach to fund development.”

—Eddie Thompson

copyright 2023, R. Edward Thompson