I got to spend time in Omaha this week, one of America’s great philanthropic cities, and was happily reminded of the force for good that is a high functioning fundraising department. Show me a focused group of professionals devoted to donor relationships and revenue targets, and I can anticipate world-class results.
We have had a fond look at the bad habits of shabby fundraising shops, but what of the virtues that define successful programs? What makes for a good fundraising department? Is it plentiful staffing, and high salaries that leads to success? Often, alas, that matters little.
What, then, makes for a high achieving fundraising teams? Robust departments tend to:
- Have strong leadership. High functioning fundraising teams, like most work groups, tend not to be democratic, with everyone having an equal voice and decisions made by committee. Rather, they are generally led by benign dictators, who seek input and buy in where appropriate, but who make unequivocal and timely decisions, pushing everyone forward to a common vision and ambitious, achievable goals.
- Own the Data: If there is a single, consistent indicator of a strong fundraising team, it is in the Ownership of Data. Strong programs have database Power Users, the go to resource expert who is singularly focused on manipulating and reporting data. But more than that, there is a shared understanding that EVERYONE on the team is responsible for data: documenting activity, correcting mistakes, mastering basic functionality and understanding reporting. A fundraising program that accurately, and on a weekly basis, reports annual fund results year to date/against budget/compared to last year, is a program that gets things done.
- Face Outward: Bigger teams are so often burdened with layers of weekly meetings: event planning, Marketing Coordination, special projects, and so on. I have seen many teams who go weeks without talking to donors with all of this naval gazing. What does a strong program look like? Gift solicitors are out and about, meeting with donors. Support staff keep solicitors in motion by producing written proposals and useful donor research. Staff members do not eat lunch at the desk. Marketing is going to do what they want to do anyway, so why meet with them so often?
- Focus on Goals: What must be done must be measured, and good programs have high expectations of the activity of every team member, based on written plans and clear revenue targets. Weekly, monthly and annual goals for donor visits, proposals developed, board members engaged, and so on. How could it be otherwise?
- Maintain a Sense of Humor: Ours is a challenging business, and, if we are doing the job right, we hear “NO” as much as 2/3 of the time. So a sense of humor is terribly important, if we are to thrive. My first job, back when consultants had to fundraise first to learn the trade, was as Annual Fund manager in a large zoo fundraising office. We had big goals and lofty activity expectations. We also had a RED SWINGLINE STAPLER, a beauty, right out of Office Space, that everyone coveted. It was stolen by colleagues at every opportunity. Leave it out on your desk, and someone would carry it away, and you would have to steal it back.
- Stick Together: I left my last staff team five years ago, at a large performing arts center. My core team is still there, supporting one another, working to build a comprehensive fundraising program from the ground up, five years later. Can you imagine? That result is rare, but good teams build a strong institutional culture, and can replace colleagues who move on while maintaining donor relationships. This continuity is lacking in so many programs, and it is deeply hurting our profession.
- Love the Donors: Our best fundraising programs place donor relationships at the center of all efforts and activity. They personally solicit donors for meaningful annual gifts. They steward relentlessly, giving thanks every single day through phone calls and personal visits. Good fundraisers understand the donor is our work, not simply the cash we raise.
Cheers to the 4th Quarter. Go raise money!