The Fundraising Executive

CAREER STRUGGLES: Pursuing Success but Getting Lost in the Process

By Eddie Thompson | January 5, 2016 | Development Management Professional Development

stressed out girlI’ve had the privilege over the years of working with and for the finest group of professionals in any sector of the economy—the Thompson & Associates staff and representatives, our nonprofit clients, and the thousands of nonprofit professionals I’ve met in my constant travels. These are great people doing great work, and they’re making the world a much better place.

Great and noble as they are, I can’t help but notice that many are struggling. I’m particularly sympathetic to frustrations and discouragements I hear from young fundraisers working somewhere down on the organizational chart, trying to get established in their careers.

I was in that very same position many years ago. Though I had some great mentors who encouraged me along the way, that didn’t insulate me from frustration or discouragement. I quickly realized that I was way out of my depth, and as they say in nonprofit circles, “If someone has their head barely above water, throw ‘em another rock.” I finally had to draw a circle around myself and just focus on things that I could control within that circle. If you’re a struggling fundraiser (young or old), I hope my story helps.

Tyranny of the Urgent
The stories I hear often go something like this: Fundraisers are tasked with lots of responsibilities other than actual fundraising—organizing events, writing newsletters, stuffing envelopes, going to endless meetings, etc. Though most of those are URGENT tasks generally related to organizational communications, face-to-face conversations with donors are the truly IMPORTANT activities of fund development. Urgencies that demand immediate attention tend to overwhelm the truly important things that can easily be postponed—or even completely ignored.

A colleague of mine used to keep a sign on his desk:

“The present success and future growth of (the organization) depends on my ability to set aside time for truly important (not merely urgent) work.”

Paralyzed by Indecision
Working with a very long list of unprioritized things-to-do will energize some staff, who will often work themselves to exhaustion. Others are simply paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. They see the big picture but are lost in the process.

Though most of those are URGENT tasks generally related to organizational communications, face-to-face conversations with donors are the truly IMPORTANT activities of fund development.

A frustrated university president was in my office recently. He knew his development department was in trouble but didn’t know how to fix it. It’s a great institution, and they were raising a lot of money. However, the president had big dreams for the school that he knew would never become a reality at the rate they were raising money. He considered himself a great fundraiser, and he was indeed very good. However, the president had all the best donors, and it was difficult for him to understand why it was so challenging for others.

The immediate problem was that he was not a good manager of people and departments. Consequently, there was enormous untapped fund-development potential. Older fundraising staffers were either unclear about what they were supposed to be doing or unmotivated to do it. There was also very high turnover among frustrated young fundraisers.

Though they came up with a new fundraising plan every few years, nothing really changed. The bigger problem my friend was facing (and the frustration with which his staff was struggling) was due to the lack of three things:

1) a governing cultivation strategy [see INSTITUTIONAL SUSTAINABILITY]

2) the ability to reduce that strategy to a system of daily action items that were measurable (tactical plan)

3) an accountability system to measure those action items [see WHAT’S ON YOUR DASHBOARD]

Because those three elements were missing, fundraising staffers were unclear about URGENT vs IMPORTANT activities and what they needed to be doing on a particular day. That is often the chief reason behind fundraising staff being assigned so many responsibilities not related to the truly IMPORTANT tasks of fundraising.

I got my first fundraising job right out of grad school. My office was one-third of the dining room in a little house with barely enough space for the old metal desk that looked as if it came from Army Surplus.feature-image

I was so excited to get that job! On my first day I sat down and said to myself, “Wow! It just doesn’t get any better than this!”

About an hour later I began asking myself, “Wow, what do I do now?” I quickly got my answer when a big stack of file folders was unceremoniously dropped on my desk along with the comment, “These are our long-lapsed donors. Good luck.”

The president was a wonderful man and a great fundraiser, but I was way down on the organizational ladder. I’m sure he didn’t even know my name. My immediate boss was a good guy, but with no fundraising experience. Consequently, his approach to donor relations, fund development, and all other “things-communication” was direct mail and special events.

By the end of the first week, I was saying to myself, “Wow, I am really in trouble!”

I knew the characteristics of a great fundraising department; that had been the topic of my dissertation. But I had no idea how to convert that vision to a systematic action plan. I kept waiting for someone to walk in and tell me exactly what to do, but no one ever walked in.

My dad never had a fundraising job, but he was the greatest fundraiser I ever knew. He used to say, “There’s always room at the top for excellence.” Finally, out of desperation I said, “Maybe I can figure this out myself?” The next day I went down to the H.G. Hill Grocery and got a 12-foot piece of butcher paper on which I drew up my plan.

Following that plan landed the largest gift up to that time in the history of the institution, and it eventually landed me in an office next to that president. I used the same plan for my entire fundraising career. That roll of butcher paper is still in my office today.

1. Don’t Waste Your Time. Generally speaking, development professionals move around way too much, the average tenure being less than 18 months. For your sake and the sake of those the organization serves, my advice is usually to make it work where you are. But there are exceptions.

Lately there has been an ongoing conversation on sports-talk radio about quarterbacks drafted by NFL teams with all kinds of dysfunctional leadership issues. In the last seven years the Cleveland Browns have drafted three quarterbacks in the first round. None are currently starting for any NFL team. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, generally considered one of the best quarterbacks of all time, had been drafted by the Browns? My apologies and condolences to Browns fans, but playing for a perennial loser can easily destroy the confidence and careers of professional athletes.

If you can simply master the art of one-to-one donor relations, you’ll have a successful career and never be without a good job.

The same is true with idealistic young fundraisers. There are situations that are chronically chaotic and ineffective. And there are leaders that, for various reasons, will never change. For development professionals young and old, your talents, enthusiasm, and desire to serve are too valuable to waste. In these kinds of situations, often the best thing you can do is to graciously move on.

2. Take Advantage of Chaos. My career began in a development department that lacked a governing strategy, a daily action plan, and a system of process accountability. There were a lot of things that were easy to complain about. However, I needed to stop moaning about the way things were, draw a circle around myself, and get busy managing the things under my control.

3. Emulate the Successful. I knew from my dissertation research that one of the characteristics of the most successful development departments was that they spent time cultivating donor relationships through lots of meaningful conversations. So, that was my governing strategy.

Young fundraisers should keep this one thought in mind: If you can simply master the art of one-to-one donor relations, you’ll have a successful career and never be without a good job.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson