The Fundraiser Mystery Unraveled

We hired a Director of Development for the first time, at a high salary, with high hopes for her success; yet after a year’s work, I have no idea what she has done, and I see almost no significant increase in donations to our organization. I am seriously considering letting her go; but I don’t know how to avoid making the same mistake next time.

When a nonprofit CEO needs to make a new senior hire, he or she generally know what to look for, and how to tell if the candidates are good professionals in their fields. In fields such as management, finance, content and marketing, the CEO is generally familiar with the tasks the new hire would need to perform, knows how to tell if they have the experience and the skills to do it well, and is competent to evaluate their success over time; the one common exception to this rule is the senior fundraiser, or Director of Development.

Of course, there are NGO directors who understand the art of fundraising themselves, and can therefore both distinguish the true professional from the sham, and accurately assess the work of their new fundraiser. Unfortunately, these are the minority, especially among small to mid-size NGO directors.

For this reason, to many CEOs the strategic plans of their Director of Development remain a mystery. Sometimes this is a conscious choice: the CEO would like to place full responsibility on the fundraiser to do the fundraising, so that she can get on with more pressing management tasks.

However if a CEO makes this choice, she is setting herself up for ongoing concern and fear that the salary they are paying their development director is being wasted, and may end up choosing to let go of an excellent professional, simply because she does not understand what that professional is doing.

The myth of commission based fundraising

Some CEOs choose to solve the problem of paying a high salary to their fundraiser before seeing results by choosing a fundraising on commission model.  Simply put, the fundraiser is expected to raise his or her own salary. This can seem like an attractive and elegant solution; however beneath the surface it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fundraising process, both in terms of the fundraising professional and of the donors themselves.

A fundraiser generally needs a year just to set the right processes in motion, activate dormant relationships, and begin to develop new ones.  In this case, the fundraiser is expected to work for a year with little or no compensation, which is a sure recipe for tension, dissatisfaction, and mistakes made under financial pressure. Moreover, if the fundraiser is under constant pressure to bring in funds fast in order to support his/her own family, donor relationships are going to suffer; in a long term view, this is not good business for the nonprofit employer.

From the donor’s perspective, this approach can be very problematic as well. Donors want to know where their money is going; foundations and individual donors request detailed budgets that make the intended use of their support crystal clear. Most donors will not accept a budget that shows a significant percentage of their support going to pay the fundraisers’ salary; while if this agreement with the fundraiser is not shared with the donor, a major breakdown of trust may ensue if they eventually find out about it.

Finally, professionals expect to be compensated for their work.  A good fundraiser will do his or her work faithfully and professionally, and will expect market standard compensation for it. Trying to avoid paying a professional what they deserve is not good business sense, in any field.

So what does a fundraiser actually do?

As in all senior positions, the professional involved is first of all responsible for the creation of a comprehensive strategy to achieve the short term, midway and long term goals of their role.

While the overarching goal of fundraising is of course to maintain and increase both supporters and giving levels, this process breaks down into sub goals and strategies.

These can include donor stewardship and cultivation; research of potential new support sources, whether individual, communal, organizational or governmental; formation of tailored strategies for the approach of new donors; creation of events, both small and large, that will either directly bring in funds or create buzz to increase the organization’s donor reach.

A good Director of Development will also make it part of her plan to utilize the CEO and board members towards the above mentioned goals; and where relevant, their strategy will include interface with and management of grant and report writers, PR, marketing, and social media staff to cultivate a positive public image and keep donors satisfied.

Accountable Fundraising

To know if your fundraiser is doing a good job is not easy, but it can be done. It just requires clear expectations and the investment of time and attention.

Ask your fundraiser for a written strategy and plan of action. The plan should include short and long term goals, measureable objectives for each goal, and action items to accomplish each objective. Each goal should have a time frame. The new Director of Development may need some acclimation time before preparing and presenting their strategic plan, but after a month or two of learning the organization, they should be able to deliver.

Though it may be tempting, don’t stop there! Review the plan and then sit with your fundraiser to make sure you understand the goals and the time frame. If you don’t understand the purpose of parts of the plan, or why some of the goals will take a long time to reach, don’t be embarrassed to ask; your fundraiser should be able to help you grasp their strategy.

Remember that your fundraiser is a senior professional who does not need, and will not appreciate micromanagement, especially from someone who knows less about fundraising than she does. What she will appreciate is a committed, supportive partner who both wants to understand her plan and is committed to her success.

Don’t stop here, either! Set up regular meetings to hear reports on fundraising progress and to offer your assistance along the way.

A culture of mutual respect and regular reporting will go a long way towards allaying your fears and concerns. A good development professional will welcome a partnership of this type with the CEO, who in any case is an essential ally in fundraising.

With agreed upon fundraising goals according to an established time line, both CEO and Development Director should be in a position to assess fundraising success professionally together, in an atmosphere of trust and partnership.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.