(Photo by Flickr user Howard Lake used via a Creative Commons license; image has been edited)
“Oh, you are actually passionate about this!”
A potential donor spoke those words to me at an event and they shook me a little bit. I had just described my role as a development director for a local nonprofit summer camp for children, and how they benefitted from the program. Clearly, this individual had previously interacted with fundraisers that came off as inauthentic.
I started dwelling on that interaction. Does the world of fundraising have an authenticity problem? Are we pitching causes in a way that makes donors think we’re more focused on the bottom line then the programs? If so, how do we fix that?
Here’s what I think contributes to this perceived authenticity issue: The world of development has a well-documented reputation for high turnover.
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy pins the average tenure at 16 months.
- On the higher end, the Association of Fundraising Professionals found in a member survey that the average years per employer was 3.9.
- Anecdotally, I’ve heard it takes one year for a fundraiser to experience an organization’s funding cycle.
- When that’s factored in, development professionals are really only spending four months to 2.9 years actually doing the job after learning the ins and outs of that organization. That does not leave a new fundraiser a lot of time to fuel growth or bring stability to an organization’s finances.
If a fundraising professional changes jobs on an annual or biannual basis, the odds of them working for a cause they are passionate about decreases. I think it is possible to care about homelessness one year and leukemia research the next, but frequent transitions bring a fundraiser’s authenticity into question. For a nonprofit, high turnover means that donors are constantly working with a new fundraiser and likely questioning how long this one will last.
Do I think nonprofits should actually stop hiring fundraisers to fundraise? No. However, I do think we should look outside the usual development skill set when hiring a fundraising professional. In that light, here are four things to consider before hiring for a development position and during the hiring process:
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1. Include program staff in fundraising.
The easiest way to avoid a donor thinking a development professional is inauthentic is to let someone close to the cause do the talking.
Two years ago, I underutilized the program staff at summer camp. They helped write thank you notes to donors and talked to donors visiting our program but I was the one leading donors around. This year, I took a step back and provided the opportunity for more face time between donors and staff. As a result, the program directors asked campers to lead the tours. Those campers turned tour guides convinced a handful of donors to join them in singing a camp song on one tour. I stepped back and our supporters had a more memorable experience.
Try to include program staff in donor meetings to emphasize the impact a gift will have on the program.
Leading tours isn’t the only way to increase face time with donors. When possible, I try to include program staff in donor meetings to emphasize the impact a gift will have on the program. But be sure to discuss in advance what the approach will be and why the meeting is happening. Debrief the next steps after the meeting. By including program staff, you can see who takes a natural interest in fundraising and make a potential jump from program to development less daunting.
This idea should extend beyond donor visits. My friend and development mentor, Cristin O’Leary Jones of Camp Kesem, had this to say about staff engagement: “Everyone in your organization doesn’t need to know how to fundraise but they should know how to steward so they can make an introduction or invite someone to an event.” Asking for money can be intimidating. Inviting someone to an event or thanking them for a recent gift should not be nearly as intimidating.
2. Know the program.
As any nonprofit employee can tell you, time is often not a luxury. Program staffers may not always be available to help steward a donor.
As a development professional, “I have a connection but it’s abstract,” O’Leary Jones said. “Program staff have the exact experience to relay to the donors. [Fundraisers] should know the program side inside and out, as it can give authenticity to what you’re talking about.”
Accordingly, I now tag along to operations meetings, even if the meeting subject feels like it might be outside my role. As a result, I know more about the work volunteers and staff are doing to make our clinic even safer for children with medical needs than I would otherwise. I can relay that information to donors who may have questions or concerns about safety at camp. When program staff aren’t available to convey those intimate details, a fundraiser providing those details can not only help address a donor’s concerns but also demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of the organization.
3. Expand your definition of development.
O’Leary Jones shared a change Camp Kesem made to the development coordinator’s role at the chapter level: Instead of having development coordinators focus purely on fundraising, the role now includes knowing what’s going on with the whole operation and making sure that all important constituents are effectively stewarded. Camp Kesem relies heavily on volunteer medical professionals, so expanding stewardship beyond donors and including volunteers and other supporters is invaluable.
Development staff should help program staff coordinate stewardship for their important constituents. There are two clear benefits:
- More major contributors to your nonprofit get the recognition they deserve.
- Program staff gain an understanding of stewardship that could help them pivot to a fundraising role.
4. Evaluate passion and authenticity when hiring.
I believe we should constantly challenge what we look for in the development role, as we should any role at a nonprofit. Questioning the status quo can help any organization avoid falling into unhealthy traditions. If there isn’t a clear path for a program staff member to join your development team or if that program staff member’s preference is to remain on the operations side of your organization, I think it’s worth evaluating passion and authenticity as hiring criteria for the next development position your organization needs to fill.
When a candidate talks about what drew them to your organization, ask yourself what a donor would think about their response.
But “passion” is a broad thing to evaluate. When a candidate talks about what drew them to your organization, ask yourself what a donor would think about their response. Can you detect a lack of passion? Or are they honestly curious in learning more about the cause?
Given the high turnover rate as a nature of contemporary development culture, I don’t think frequent job changes should be a deterrent to hiring a development officer.
Instead, I’d look to see if the organizations listed have similar missions or if everything is unrelated. Personally, I’m more likely to trust a candidate for a job at a education policy nonprofit if they have previously worked for literacy initiatives, after-school programs and early childhood education versus environmental causes, access to water and animal shelters. I also suggest checking their volunteer experience to see if it aligns with the nonprofit they hope to join.
When possible, a nonprofit’s program staff should have a taste of fundraising — appetizers and hors d’oeuvres at first, then work toward a steady diet. In the event this isn’t possible, substitute their experience with a fundraiser’s knowledge of the program to relay an authentic message to your donors. Finally, make sure that your organization does more than hire someone for their fundraising skills: Be sure to value passion for the mission in that process as best you can.
Hopefully, the high turnover rate for fundraisers will change. In the meantime, I hope these strategies will help create a culture of authenticity in your development department.-30-
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