The Fundraising Executive

MANAGING DEVELOPMENT: Getting the System Right

By Eddie Thompson | August 2, 2011 | Development Management Donor Communications

I started my career in non-profit development at the bottom, determined to do whatever it took to work my way up. The organization gracious enough to give me a shot located their development office in a large old house. And since I was the new guy, my workspace was in a third of what was once the dining room. A stack of donor files that no else wanted sat on an old green metal desk, which probably came from army surplus. I was awarded the responsibility for these donors with a half laugh,

“You’ll never get anything out of these people, but that’s your first job. Go get ‘em.”

My boss seemed to suggest that unburdening more experienced professionals of these old files was accomplishing a great feat.

I realized years later that most of these files represented strategic donors — people who ask a lot of questions, who place a high premium on trust and relationships, and who are as careful about their giving as they were their spending. In other words, these donors are suspicious at first, generous with established relationships, and faithful to the end with their friends. I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize the potential in that stack of file folders. More significantly, no one else in the development office recognized it either, and I was the last stop for these files on their way to the inactive or lapsed donor drawer.

One aspect of my doctoral dissertation was a review of the most successful fundraising practices at university development departments. Unlike those great institutions, I had no support staff, no momentum, and no relationships; just a list of names and a telephone. But I was too young to be cynical. Instead, I was determined to replicate the best practices of those successful institutions.

My first visit was to the H.G. Hill grocery store in Green Hills, a suburb of Nashville. I asked the grocer for a twelve-foot piece of butcher paper. On that scroll I planned out what I wanted to do with every donor in that stack and what I needed to do every month to accomplish those objectives. I tried to emulate the approach outlined in a Harvard Business Review article about building relationships by the CEO of Allied Van Lines.

“We’re not moving furniture,” he would say over and over. “We’re developing relationships. That’s what we do. Moving furniture is simply the result of establishing and maintaining those relationships.”

Not only did I secure the largest one-time cash gift of my career ($12.6 million) from one of those donors, but I was able to replicate on a small scale the systems that had caused a group of elite institutions to outpace everyone else with regard to long-term fund development.

One added benefit of my third of the dining room was that I also controlled the large china closet. There I posted my chart for the year. Each morning I would go into the closet, yank on the pull-chain light switch, and stare at the big chart. I did that every morning, meticulously following the plan for that day.

That stack of donor files on the way to the inactive drawer was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Not only did I secure the largest one-time cash gift of my career ($12.6 million) from one of those donors, but I was able to replicate on a small scale the systems that had caused a group of elite institutions to outpace everyone else with regard to long-term fund development.

And, by the way, I eventually worked my way out of the dining room into my own office next door to the president.

Today everything we do is computerized, which is a great help… sometimes. Development and contact manager software only help facilitate the values, principles, and objectives programmed into them. They help you organize work; they don’t insure that the work gets done. As the experts say,

“Nothing works; people do.”

That being said, these days we don’t pass out rolls of butcher paper to our clients. We took the principles and the process and turned them into Gift Clarity, a piece of software that efficiently replicates what I was doing each day in the china closet. Whether it’s on the wall in a closet or on your computer screen, diligently follow that same process and you will be successful as a development professional.

Below are three unchangeable principles that we use to formulate the software.

1. Know your donors. Every development executive knows that segmenting the organization’s donor list is a first step to getting things organized. The strategy, of course, is to spend a large portion of time on the best donors, a smaller portion on second tier donors, and so on. But what is a “best donor?”

Donor databases spit out reports on the largest donations, cumulative donations, frequency of gifts, average gifts, or all the above sorted by any time frame. All of this is to make donor identification simple and easy. However, accurately identifying best donors, potentially better donors, or top candidates for charitable estate planning gifts is not as easy as one might think.

It is human nature to look at job titles, cars, houses, and memberships as shortcuts to gauging giving capacity. Those are very often false indicators, and they say nothing about donor interest, charitable intent, or their true commitment to other organizations. Even current giving is not an exact indicator of a donor’s long-term interest or affinity to your organization.

With our clients, we evaluate every donor and potential donor on forty-two different parameters. In that process we have often discovered that the potentially greatest and most enduring donors to an organization are not who non-profit executives think they are. Case in point: the stack of file folders with which I began my career.

Segmenting the donor list, getting it right, and keeping it right is a first step to a successful development program.

Systems don’t make your approach transactional or relational. They just organize your intentions.

2. Commit to systems and accountability. This is really the fundamental issue at struggling development programs of every size. Many development staff and even senior leaders have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a highly structured system with timely and precise accountability.

Some resist because they feel systematized approaches turn donor relations into simply a transactional process, i.e. raising money, not building relationships. However, systems don’t make your approach transactional or relational. They just organize your intentions. Even when development staff are predisposed to focus on building relations, without a highly managed approach they tend to gravitate to donors they already know or with whom they enjoy spending time. Then with deadlines approaching, they call on others with no time for anything but the appeal. Consequently, the non-systematic approach becomes transactional regardless of the development executives’ original intent.

Consequently, the non-systematic approach becomes transactional regardless of the development executives’ original intent.

Some resist a systematized approach because they want to be free to roam — hanging out in key places, attending events, and managing relationships in the natural course of their day. They prefer to call on donors as they get the urge. They don’t want to contact a donor simply because their computer program tells them to do so that day. Rarely (and by that I mean very, very rarely) do these executives reach their career potential or the fund development potential of the organization. Some donor relationships are well maintained while many other relationships slip through the cracks. In some cases the donor-organization relationship is torpedoed because of the lack of follow up, missed appointments, or sporadic contact.

The third reason some development executives or staff resist a systematized approach with high accountability is that it exposes the details of their work habits. In the thirty years I have worked as a consultant, I have come to understand that while many executives leave for better opportunities, there are also many who leave because the results of their unfocused work habits are about to catch up with them.

My experience is that you can place an average fundraiser who wants to be successful in a highly systematic and accountable development program, and they will succeed. You can take really talented executives, put them into a situation without good systems or accountability, and there is a good chance that they will flounder.

3. Track key indicators. Putting your development department on the path to success requires identifying your key indicators. Just as it is with “best donors,” key indicators are often not what executives think they are. Many spend a lot of time focusing on the bottom line as a way of keeping their “finger on the pulse” of the organization’s fund development. However, current income is not the best performance indicator. It may signify that someone was doing something right last year, the year before, or ten years ago. However, it says little about the current week, month, or year. Tracking donor visits is a better but not a perfect indicator of future success. Simply holding staff accountable for the number of visits alone will definitely result in a lot of visits. However, they may not be coordinated or strategic visits — the ones that are harder to accomplish.

In replicating the big sheet of paper containing my yearly development plan, we finally arrived at a transferrable plan that included a highly sophisticated method of segmenting donors, as well as the coordination of key donor visits and events throughout the year.

It’s one thing to set goals for contacting and visiting donors and quite another for those visits actually to take place; still another thing for those visits to go so well that donors look forward to the next visit. We created a tracking system that monitors seven key subtasks related to scheduling and following up with those visits. We include meeting prep, reminders, inputting follow up notes, etc. The software that resulted, Gift Clarity, does automatically what I had to spend considerable time on each day — generating task lists based on the overall objective along with accountability reports for each of those subtasks.

As one executive put it, “What you measure and monitor improves.” I have found that when development professionals work this kind of plan, they will consistently meet their short-term objectives, and they will establish long-term successful careers as development professionals.

— Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.