Fundraisers as Change Leaders: Preparing the Next Generation of Fundraisers

For the last several years, we’ve been talking about a culture of philanthropy and the importance of an organization having a culture of philanthropy for a development director to thrive and for a development program to take root and grow. I believe the concept of a culture of philanthropy or the lack of one is a useful idea for understanding whether or not an organization is ready to begin and sustain a development program.

However, I also believe that part of how receptive an organization is to a development program has little to do with how it feels about fundraising and more to do with how it feels about change.

You cannot do the exact same thing, the exact same way, year after year, and get different fundraising results. If you want to grow your fundraising results, if you’re serious about fundraising, you’ve got to be willing to change.

Fundraisers—at least good ones—are initiators of change.

Part of what a good development professional does when s/he comes to a new position is analyze what has gone well in the past and what the missed opportunities have been. Then, the development professional begins to strengthen what works and fix or replace what doesn’t. All of that—both the tweaking of what works and the strengthening or replacing of what doesn’t—represents change.

The problem for most organizations and for most people (board members and staff members) is that they don’t really want change. They think they do. They think they want growth, but when the rubber hits the road and they realize that in order to have growth they’ve got to also have change, they say “no thank you,” sometimes in ways that are rude, mean, or unkind to their fundraising staff (shooting the messenger).

There is a lot of change resistance that gets expressed toward development staff and the ideas that they bring to the table. The development professional’s focus on what the organization can do differently to make the organization grow can be in stark contrast to other members of the organization’s team. For example, a very successful program director might be protective about the organization, might not want to change a thing out of fear that changes could mean that the organization is less client-focused, potentially creating tension between a program director and a development director, even though the two both want what is best for the organization and both care deeply about the mission.

Our professional preparation for fundraising professionals is largely externally focused—identifying and researching prospects, cultivating prospects, securing gifts, giving vehicles, managing volunteers, creating a case for support.

The AFP Fundamentals of Fundraising Course does have a great internally-focused management module focused on things like budgeting, accounting, and ensuring that fundraising has a voice in strategic planning. In order to pass the CFRE, mastery of a broader set of management skills is recognized as important to the fundraising profession. The CFRE’s list includes leadership and management that advances fundraising practice, advocating for and supporting a culture of philanthropy, and interpersonal communication (trust building, team building).

These are all great things in the curriculum and I’d love to see us augment them, to even better prepare our next generation of fundraisers, by teaching them skills in change leadership and recognizing change leadership as one of the critical skills to be mastered to be successful in fundraising.

We need to be prepared and our future development professionals need to be prepared so that when we understand the dynamics of change, we’re prepared for change resistance, and we’re equipped to deal with change resistance as it surfaces. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to assist organizations in moving through it to embrace the changes they need to make to achieve break-through fundraising results.