The Fundraising Executive

LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE: Senior Development Executive’s Role in Evaluating Donor Visits

By Eddie Thompson | February 20, 2018 | Donor Communications
As I’ve said before, what you measure and monitor tends to improve. The inverse is equally true; what you ignore or neglect tends to deteriorate. Nonprofit leaders are very good at tracking past performance—each donor’s giving history and each fundraiser’s contribution to the budget. We can Powerpoint our past-performance numbers in dozens of ways. Computerized analytics are, indeed, very valuable tools for any kind of donor- or customer-base. However, nonprofit leaders tend to be far less committed to consistently and carefully evaluating our ongoing donor visits. In other words, our evaluations are so focused on past performance that we’re usually not as good at identifying future giving signals in our ongoing conversations with individual donors.

Our evaluations are so focused on past performance that we’re usually not as good at identifying future giving signals in our ongoing conversations with individual donors.

There are a lot of sales and marketing techniques that don’t necessarily translate to the nonprofit world. However, there are some skill-sets nonprofit leaders would do well to learn from sales managers:

1) the commitment to consistently evaluate sales calls,

2) ability to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful presentations, and

3) the experience to pick up on OR notice “buying” signals.

Senior Development Executive’s Responsibility
One of the primary responsibilities of the senior development executive is to evaluate donor conversations and determine if they were successful or unsuccessful. Leaving it to the fundraisers to evaluate their own donor visits is notoriously imprecise. With human nature in full play, organizational reps tend to define success in terms of the particular visit under consideration. It’s not uncommon to hear glowing reports and high expectations from solicitation visits in which the fundraiser and donor “really hit it off.” Or it was reported that the donor was very interested and excited about what the organization was doing. However, a close evaluation of the conversation reveals that there were no actual giving signals from the donor. Similarly, in other conversations there were no giving signals because the conversation did not lead to any.

I’ve had two long conversations recently with old friends who are both senior-most development executives at their respective organizations. One took my advice and is seeing some solid results. The other felt compelled to go in a different direction. Unfortunately, that development department is now in the middle of a significant crisis.

It’s not that my advice was so brilliant or profound. Actually, the suggestions to them both were quite simple. Sometimes it’s just easier for someone with a fresh set of eyes to notice the little crack on the wall than it is for the one responsible for fixing it along with a hundred other things on the list. Both conversations were related to the same issue—the commitment of chief development executives to actively and consistently observing and evaluating the efforts of those under their supervision.

The first series of conversations began several years ago. It was like many conversations I have with CEOs about finding the right person to lead their development departments. Since it’s an ongoing situation, I’ll just make a few general comments.

I advised against the proposed hire because it seemed to be a perfect example of the “Peter Principle,” a management theory named for the originator, Dr. Laurence J. Peter. The theory states that “the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and ‘managers rise to the level of their incompetence.’”

In this particular situation, the nonprofit hired a development professional with an extraordinary record as a fundraiser but with no experience at managing people. Experience has to come from somewhere, but stepping into staff management requires a significant adjustment. In my opinion, I wasn’t confident that the candidate could make the transition from fundraiser to supervisor. However, the chance to hire a fundraiser with such a stellar track record seemed too good for them to pass on. Over time, accountability became a dominating issue—both being held accountable and holding others accountable. The candidate was a great fundraiser but a less than effective leader. Steve Murrell, President of Every Nation Ministries, is brilliant leader of a fast-growing international nonprofit. He said to a group of his regional leaders, the most dedicated, passionate, and hard-working people you’ll ever meet, “The reason some of you are not more successful is because you’re working too hard.” In context, what he meant was that they were doing too much themselves rather than leveraging their impact by empowering others to perform at the highest levels.

The conversation was with a vice-president of advancement who had a large team of fundraisers. As we talked through some of the problems he was trying to solve, I finally asked him, “How much time do you spend each week evaluating your staff and their donor conversations?”

His answer: “Well, we have seasoned fundraisers on our staff.”

My reply: “What difference does that make? You’re the leader, and it’s your job to evaluate their performances.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “We do performance reviews every year.”

As the conversation continued, it became clear that annual performance reviews was not what I had in mind.

“Are you debriefing fundraisers on joint visits?” I continued; “evaluating donor conversations based on a preset definition of a successful visit; identifying giving signals, setting priorities for future time allocations?”

My recommendation was that as the senior development executive, he needed to be spending about 20% of his time leading, training, and evaluating his staff of “seasoned fundraisers” rather than leaving them to lead and evaluate themselves.

The more successful the staff member, the more they want to be held accountable. And why wouldn’t they? They love talking about their successes, analyzing their unsuccessful visits, and brainstorming about how they could improve. In fact, the best fundraisers are more likely to be disappointed with the lack of accountability from their supervisors; some will even come to resent it. (See: THE CASE FOR ACCOUNTABILITY: Why I Love It and Would Feel Lost Without It).

As the senior development executive, he needed to be spending about 20% of his time leading, training, and evaluating his staff of “seasoned fundraisers” rather than leaving them to lead themselves.

My friend listened attentively, but he seemed more than a little reluctant. Devoting 20% of his time would mean losing almost an entire day per week. Thinking that my advice had fallen on deaf ears, I was surprised to receive his email message several weeks later. “You’re right,” He wrote. “I’m going to take fewer donors, and I’m going to devote 20% of my time to working with my staff individually and as a group.” He went on to say, “Our team has become even closer as we spend more time together.”

I’ve followed his progress. By investing that time into his staff, he’s leveraging his impact on the entire fund development process. It seems to have made a real difference in his staff morale, and it seems like they all getting on the same page of the playbook. A lot of the problems we discussed are beginning to work themselves out, and they’re raising more money as well.

There are several kinds of donor visits—introductory visits (information gathering), stewardship visits (reporting what donor gifts have accomplished), solicitation visits (giving proposals), etc. Without clearly defined criteria of what constitutes success in each type of visit, how will you ever know if you’re making progress or just wasting time? Consequently, defining a standard for successful and unsuccessful conversations is the first step in empowering senior leadership to meaningfully evaluate donor visits and conversations.

That will be the topic of next month’s blog.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D., FCEP
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2017, R. Edward Thompson