Beyond Fundraising: Technician or Leader
Do You Have the Right Stuff? Do You Even Want the Right Stuff?
T’was a great direct mail letter.
So said the donor-centered comms experts worldwide. The experts who talk and write about readability and neuroscience and philanthropic psychology and all that stuff.
But the CEO didn’t like it. “That’s just not my voice!”
Another story: I was brought in to talk about fundraising and governance expertise. But over and over, senior staff and board members just mostly said, “No. We don’t do that. Not our style. We don’t think it’s right for us.”
Then a white older gentleman reached over, patted me on the arm and said, “Well, Missy, I’ve served on more boards than you are old.” And I responded—very professionally—“But, I’m right and you’re wrong. And here’s the regulation from the U.S. government.”
Sound familiar? Every fundraiser I know has experienced this opinion-versus-expertise situation.1 In my more than 30 years of consulting, people outside the fundraising profession challenge the body of knowledge and the research results.
But they know their place, too. In the nonprofit world, amateurs feel entitled and empowered. They don’t feel compelled to learn. They feel compelled to opine. Those same people don’t challenge the lawyer, brain surgeon, the accountant and others.
I have so many ideas why this behavior happens. Things like: General disrespect for the nonprofit sector. “I serve on your board so I must be smarter than staff. I’m the CEO of that really big for-profit company so I undoubtedly know more than you.” And on and on.
But let me just quote Jim Collins.2 “We must reject the idea—and well intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to be ‘more like a business.’”
So here’s the thing …
Fund development is, first, organizational development. I’ve been saying that and writing about that and presenting from that perspective since the mid-1980s. Yet I don’t see sufficient change. One voice can only do so much. And I’m getting old. Now it’s your turn, people!
I became executive director of a small arts organization in the late 1970s. I was not prepared. Immediately I had to learn management, finances, fundraising, planning, and …
After a fairly typical board meeting, I returned to my office. Crouched down into the corner behind my desk—sobbing and dry retching.
What’s worse is that my two staff colleagues followed me into the office—and waited quietly until I calmed down. They weren’t surprised. This was just another typical board meeting.
So I was kinda ready when I became a chief development officer. I knew I had to learn a lot more about fundraising. I also knew I had to learn a lot more about management and governance and human dynamics and developing organizations and …
The thing is … everything is about people and organizational development and …
It’s a big job, serving as a development officer. Bigger than far too many development officers (or their bosses and boards) think.
You choose. You can be a grantwriter or direct mail specialist or fundraising events specialist. All marvelous and very critical technician specialists.
Or you can be a generalist, responsible for everything. If that’s your current or desired position, then you have to know enough about everything to act better and best.
Welcome to the real world of “more than a great fundraising technician”—and that holds true for pretty much any senior-level position, e.g., program director, finance officer, and of course the ED/CEO.
I’ll say it again: Successful fund development depends on good organizational development, at least if you want to keep your staff. “The challenge then is not only to learn what you need to know but also to unlearn what you no longer need. That means eliminating the habits, practices, and assumptions that once worked—even those that may have accounted for past successes—to make room for new methods that better fit your new circumstances.”3
Remember, you can make a good living as a great fundraising technician. It’s often more fun and lots easier to focus only on one thing. Just listen to a back and forth between me and my fabulously great life partner donor communications expert. He mostly runs away from me and “all that other stuff.”
But do keep in mind: Your organization won’t survive and thrive with only great fundraising technicians. You do need the organizational-development-grounded fundraiser I’m talking about here. These organizational-minded leaders probe deeply into areas that ordinary fundraising technicians would consider out of bounds.
What I’ve learned and keep learning
Organizations are complex systems that interact constantly and significantly with a host of other equally complex systems. The most important property of these systems is that they cannot be broken down into parts that have separate lives of their own. Thus, in an organization, no basic functions, departments, or objectives exist independently of one another.1
I’m sharing some of the readings and learnings that have meant the most to me over the years … the things that have produced the most important moments in my own professional development, my own personal growth, my love for philanthropy, and my commitment to make change.
- Start with Peter Senge’s work on systems thinking and learning organization business theories. This is probably THE life change for my work.
First, systems thinking is the cornerstone of any business. But sadly, too many businesses operate in silos. The favorite (often despised) silo in nonprofits seems to be fund development.
Then there’s learning organization business theory: Involving all stakeholders. Clearly articulated and enforced values, mission, vision. We need real leadership that understands the importance of applying conversation as a core business practice.
Conversation is one of my favorites. Why? Because conversation produces community—and a sense of community generates commitment. Back in 1994, systems thinker Alan Webber4 said that the most important work in the economy is creating conversations. And systems thinking theory says that conversation5 is the chief management tool that makes learning happen.
- Become familiar with Peter Drucker’s concept: Culture eats strategy for breakfast (and lunch and dinner are often added). Culture matters. How do you expect to operate without a good culture? How can you even talk about a culture of philanthropy without talking about organizational culture first?6
- I’m stunned at the poor understanding about governance. This is CEO work—and also development officer work. Things like: Distinction between the collective (board) and individual board members. Balance and back and forth between governance and management. And so much more.
- The best fundraisers—the greatest employees—are lifelong learners. No matter their position in the organization, these individuals seek learning, expect to engage and change.
This is one of my favorite life quotes: “The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.”7
And a quote to match this is: “Data itself is nothing unless one uses it as a resource from which to draw conclusions.”8 Beware of jumping to conclusions. Evaluate and interpret data through diverse lens and multiple areas of expertise.
Strengthen the Professional Fundraiser
That phrase above is the start of Chapter 4 in the 3rd edition of my book Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, published in 2011. The first edition was published in 1997.
I was expressing concern about the work of the professional fundraiser and a fundraising technician.
Today is 2020, and my complaint still holds true.
Yes, we need great fundraising technicians and we desperately always need those.
But we also still need the higher level of professional fundraisers. That includes executive competencies like: Commitment to results. Business savvy. Leading change. Motivating. All described in Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition. See my proposed Necessary Knowledge Areas, Necessary Skills of Organizational Development Specialists, and Attitude and Behavior of Organizational Development Specialists.
And please please please, learn outside the nonprofit sector and the fund development fields.
Read all about leadership. And remember that leaders are made, not born. True leaders are lifelong learners—forever—not just once. Always remember this: “Understand the importance of nonconformity. Leadership is about change, hope, and the future. Leaders have to venture into uncharted territory, so they must be able to handle intellectual solitude and ambiguity.”9 See more in Chapter 5 of Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition.
And finally, I believe that leaders have a special obligation: Acknowledging privilege and its politics. Recognizing unearned privilege. Honoring diversity and seeking inclusion in order to create equity.
The best fundraisers know all this stuff and keep learning about the next stuff. And apply all this and facilitate this for others.
I can imagine you screaming that by now. And I certainly understand. I’m just so full of hope and frustration and joy and anger and …
My mini life change list … In alpha order.
- Ariely, Dan: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves
- Cialdini, Robert and his work
- Collins, Jim: Good to Great and the monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sector
- Edwards, Michael: Small Change: Why Business Won’t Change the World. Also his book Civil Society.
- Gladwell, Malcolm: Outliers, The Tipping Point, David and Goliath…And more!
- Godin, Seth: Permission Marketing, The Icarus Deception, Tribes…And more!
- Heath, Chip and Dan: Made to Stick, Switch…And check out their other books, too.
- Jackson, Maggie: Distracted—The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
- Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking Fast and Slow
- Kegan, Robert and Lisa Lahey: An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
- Lanier, Jaron: You Are Not a Gadget—A Manifesto
- Senge, Peter: The Fifth Discipline: The Arts & Practice of the Learning Organization
- Turkle, Sherry: Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
- Vedantam, Shankar: The Hidden Brain—How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives
- Zeldin, Theodore: Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives
- Regular publications: Stanford Social Innovation Review. Harvard Business Review. Nonprofit Quarterly
Here’s a book that should probably be required of anyone working in any part of fundraising: Fundraising Principles and Practice, 2nd edition by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang.
P.S. If I ran the world, I would require that everyone read Sherry Turkle and Shankar Vedantam’s books, No. 13 and No. 14.
Okey dokey. Goodbye. Simone
1 See “Opinion versus Expertise,” posted on my website. Useful to share with all staff and board members. Yes, part of serving on board or staff includes learning! And then talking about applications and implications for your organization.
2 From Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, (New York: HarperCollins, 2005). In my fantasy world—which is very robust!—this monograph should be mandatory reading for all board members and all staff.
Oh, and another mandatory read—certainly for all nonprofit staff—Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World, Michael Edwards. If you’re ambitious, read Mike’s civil society books, too.
3 “The Art of Smart,” Anna Muoio, Fast Company, July–August 1999.
4 Alan M. Webber, “Surviving in the New Economy,” Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1994.
5 Learn more about conversation by reading Arie de Geus’s 1994 article in “The Living Company, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1997.
6 See sections in Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition. Check out Laurence Pagnoni’s new fundraising book, Fundraising 401: Masterclasses in Nonprofit Fundraising That Would Make Peter Drucker Proud.
7 Dune: House Harkonnen, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. (I’m a huge fan of science fiction fantasy!)
8 Dune: The Machine Crusade, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.
9 C.K. Prahalad, Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. From “The Responsible Manager,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2010.
Simone Joyaux, ACFRE, Adv Dip, FAFP, Joyaux Associates, is a consultant in fundraising, governance, management, and strategic planning. Former executive director and chief development officer, she’s the author of three books and contributor to multiple others. She presents worldwide, serves as a university professor, and is described by others as: thoughtful, inspirational, provocative, and a social equity evangelist.