I grew up naively believing that the only people who ever got fired were people who deserved to be fired. In my mind, that meant people who didn’t care about their jobs, weren’t trying, came to work intoxicated or violated some important rule, law or ethical principle. At professional gatherings of development professionals such as Association of Fundraising Professionals network events, I’ve met tons of people who were fired. Some of them have MBA’s or are CFRE’s or ACFREs. Some of them are people that I know are ethical. I know they care about their jobs. I know they work hard. But they’ve been fired anyway. At least three times now, I’ve taken a job that has meant following a person who was fired.

The fact that I bump into these people is not surprising since Underdeveloped reported that 25% of nonprofit CEOs in their study shared that their prior Director of Development was let go. Nonprofit employers often treat their development people like they are expendable.

I’ve already mentioned in my blog that at one of the last organizations I worked for, the estimated average tenure of the last several chief development officers was about six months. All too often, when fundraising results aren’t what was hoped for, executive directors simply point at the development office as the source of the problem. Of course, in their defense, they don’t think they’re scapegoating. Far too many think that fundraising results of an organization depend on the person who sits in the development director seat.

Don’t get me wrong. That person matters. But that person steers and manages a process that is a response to many things about the organization. Fundraising isn’t all about asking (or “selling”) and whether or not your fundraising professional does that well (although doing it well or doing it poorly can result in more or less). Fundraising is also about many things that a fundraising professional doesn’t control and might not even influence.  These things include:

  1. The credibility of the organization. This includes an organization’s history of keeping (or not keeping) promises in the community. Is the organization really doing what it says it is doing?
  2. The organization’s capacity to deliver meaningful programs. Is the organization adequately staffed? Does the organization have the resources it needs to deliver its programs?
  3. The quality of an organization’s programs—is there clear evidence of impact? This is more than numbers. It isn’t about a headcount. It’s about whether or not people know the organization is changing lives (or cleaning up the environment or improving the school system–whatever the mission or goal is). Most people assume that if an organization is really helping people, they will know it because they will see it in their community, they will know someone who was helped or they’ll know someone who knows someone who was helped. In fact, if the organization is really effective, some of its most vocal champions will often be former clients.
  4. Direct observation.  When someone walks into your programs, what do they see? Do they see well supervised, happy children learning? Do they see chaos? Large grant funders will never invest large dollars without a site visit.  Volunteers, many of whom have the capacity to donate or have friends who can, tell people what they see. You can’t just tell, you have to show. You have to live it!
  5. Regular, effective communications – the organization needs to tell its story well and often and not simply communicate when the organization needs to raise money. This doesn’t have to be anything slick, expensive or fancy. It doesn’t have to be a formal newsletter or brochure, but there should be a regular cadence of information and not all in the “broadcast” spirit, either. Social media is great, but communicate with people through other avenues and, as often as possible, make it personal.
  6. The strength, capability, credibility and authenticity of the organization’s leadership. Have an incompetent leader, a leader who makes a poor impression in public, the organization will struggle.
  7. A clear and compelling mission tied to a legitimate community need. I used to think this point was self-evident. Then I worked for an organization that many of us felt had “no there, there.” If your organization says it is doing something important, but really it’s not, donors will see through it.
  8. Stewardship – clear, transparent evidence of what an organization is doing with money, how it spends it, that it spends it the way it should be spending it (and the way it promised to spend it).
  9. People care about people and give to people. People care about how the people in their community are treated. This means people care about how your clients are treated, but they also care about how your staff (including your development director) are treated.

When fundraising isn’t good, it is never [or almost never] simply the result of having an ineffective development professional.  When fundraising isn’t strong, it’s because one or more of the things in the above list is broken, damaged, or failing. This isn’t to say that a good or bad fundraiser doesn’t matter; it’s simply that that isn’t the whole story (often it’s not even the biggest part of the story). The bad news here, also, is that a great fundraiser can’t fix fundraising when other fundamental organizational things are broken.

Tempting as it is to think you can increase the fundraising by playing musical chairs, you probably can’t. It takes a very long time for a newly hired development professional (even an experienced one) to get up to speed. Think twice about letting your current director of development go. Before reaching for that pink slip, take a look in the mirror and assess. Only after you are completely satisfied with what you see there should you begin to look around. When you do, make sure your gaze is broad. Take the whole organization in. The “easiest” answer might not be the right one.

Image source: Bigstock.com/totmac – Used with permission.

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