Perhaps you’ve heard of the Peter principle: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
You probably know people who are in this situation, or more commonly, report to someone who has been put in a role for which they are not competent.
The fundraising community in Philadelphia is a small, tight-knit community. We all know, or know of, many of our fellow fundraisers. We need fewer than seven degrees of separation to get to each other.
And I have watched friends and colleagues struggle with this principle time and time again. I think for our profession in particular it’s extremely common.
Fundraising is not just one area of expertise, and each area requires a particular set of skills. Major gifts requires strong verbal communication and excellence in relationship building; grant writing requires extreme attention to detail and excellent written communication; special events require someone who is incredibly organized with strong project management skills.
The odds that someone has all of the skills needed to be successful in all of the areas of fundraising aren’t very high, yet that’s essentially what’s needed for many one-person fundraising shops.
In the bigger shops, where there are several members of the team all focusing on one specific area of fundraising, having a specific and strong set of skills is a good thing — until it’s not. At some point, a fundraiser who is an excellent major gift officer will get a promotion, and they will suddenly be responsible for several areas of fundraising rather than just one. While it’s not necessary for that person to be an expert in every area because they have a team supporting them, it becomes a problem because the promoted MGO usually doesn’t have strong managerial skills.
I’ve seen this play out more times than I can count. I’m tired of my fellow fundraisers having to put up with these stressful reporting structures and situations where it’s physically impossible to do everything on their plate well. It leads to burnout. We become jaded. We decide that there’s no way to change the culture from within, so we move to another organization* where our work is valued and our voice is heard. There will be a song and dance about how different that organization will be when you’re going through the hiring process, but more often than not that cycle will start again no matter where you land.
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Once someone’s really, truly had enough, they get out of the rat race all together. There’s a plethora of fundraising consultants in our area — do you ever wonder why? They have more control over their workload, they are respected for their opinions and they are not micromanaged. Best of all, they can simply break ties with a client if those preconditions aren’t met.
You can’t simply break ties with your boss if they aren’t treating you well.
Managerial training is not really a thing in fundraising. It’s not provided internally, there aren’t a ton of options for receiving this training externally, and more often than not an organization would rather pay for you to go to a training that will help you with something that is directly tied to raising more money.
So, when an organization has an opening for a top fundraising position, the most logical choices are the most successful fundraisers. These candidates have impressive statistics and they shine during the interview. There’s excitement at welcoming someone who’s so successful to the team. What isn’t always apparent is that these candidates are also competitive, unaccustomed to working collaboratively, and have little or no managerial experience.
This is a recipe for disaster. While there are many ways this can play out, the most common things I’ve seen time and time again are that:
- They end up micromanaging their staff because they’re not used to delegating.
- They feel threatened by their team members who are successful in their respective roles, and therefore put those team members down rather than build them up.
- They completely ignore their team members and then let their team take the fall when goals aren’t met.
Somehow (and I truly don’t understand how this happens over and over again without anyone noticing or caring), these folks continue to get promoted to higher and higher level roles despite the fact that their teams despise working for them.
Why are we letting this happen? Seriously, why? While I have no concrete examples to offer as solutions, I do have some suggestions:
1. Look at the whole picture.
If you are hiring a high-level fundraising position, don’t only focus on their fundraising success during the hiring process. Inquire about their managerial skills and their relationships with their team members. Ask questions regarding their management style, what they look for in team members, how they have adjusted their style for those who report to them.
When you’re checking references (please, please do this), ask about how they were perceived by their team. If at all possible, talk to someone who works or use to work under them. You’ll get a much more well-rounded picture of what that candidate brings to the table.
2. Provide training for folks who struggle.
And build this into your budget. I attended a training for newer supervisors and managers at La Salle University’s Nonprofit Center when I was preparing to hire my first-ever direct report, and it was so, so helpful. I did, however, have to track down this training on my own and then request that it be paid for by my organization. Shouldn’t this be required for all new managers?
Put some policies in place so that your staff who are managing for the first time, or struggling with managing, have trainings they are required to attend and resources available to help with tough situations.
3. Support your managers.
Recognize when they’re struggling. Provide resources. Connect them with a mentor. Check in with teams to make sure they’re feeling supported by their supervisors. So, so much of this could be avoided if those at the top would just pay attention and take action. Don’t indulge your head fundraiser because they’re achieving results while simultaneously driving their team to insanity.
I so often see organizations catering to one top fundraiser and, in doing so, drive many more out of the org or out of fundraising all together. Is that one person so important that you’ll let ten more go out into the world sharing their bad experience with your organization?
4. Take a chance on an unknown kid.
(Points to everyone who got that Clueless reference.) Seriously though, don’t just hire someone who has the right title. Take some time to get to know candidates and their skill sets, and think outside the box about what you actually need in order to get the job done.
There are so many good fundraisers out there that deserve to be promoted and have the determination to do the job well, but they won’t get chosen because they don’t have a multi-million dollar track record. If no one will give them a chance, if they are always a one person shop with limited resources, they’ll never have an opportunity to prove that they would be total rock stars if they had an entire team working with them.
5. Finally, stop hiring the bad ones.
While CEOs and EDs don’t always get the gossip from the fundraising circles, it’s there if you want to find it. Ask around about your next hire and get a real sense of their reputation before making an offer. Chances are, if they’re known to be difficult to work with, you’ll find someone willing to talk. Or, at the very least, the absence of talking will be your clue that something is amiss, because no one will gush about a supervisor they intensely disliked.
There are so many good, thoughtful fundraisers out there who truly care about the professional development of their teams and the overall success of their organization’s mission (not their personal goals). Let’s raise these folks up and stop hiring fundraisers who look good on paper but in reality make work life hellish for their teams.
*I have to note, my current position with Pathways to Housing PA is not one of the aforementioned countless examples. I actually feel bad when a fellow fundraiser asks how my new role is working out, because inevitably it feels like I am bragging.-30-
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