Fear and Fundraising

imagesFear and fundraising:  two words that, unfortunately, often go hand-in-hand.  Our volunteers and board members are afraid of approaching their friends and colleagues.  Our executive directors are afraid of their boards.  We are all afraid of not hitting our goals and causing program cuts, layoffs, etc.  But there is one fear that seems to bring down more fundraising programs and otherwise good gift officers more than any other.  And that is the fear that chief development officers have of their executive directors and their boards.

I recently had a chief development officer come to me and tell me that they were really worried the fundraising event the organization was planning would be a complete flop, take up incredible amounts of staff time and resources, and lead to very little money raised.

I asked my client, “Have you told your executive director and board this?  Have you forcefully stated that you think this fundraising event will be a disaster?”

“Well, I’ve metnioned my concerns”, my client said, “but the board really wants this event.”

When the event fails to meet expectations, fails to raise money, and other fundraising is negatively affected, is the board going to remember that the event was their idea?  Will they remember the chief development officer’s feeble protests?  Or will they take a hard look at the person responsible for fundraising: the chief development officer?

I think we all know the answer to this question and many of this have been in this position.  The business of fundraising is a highly quantifiable one.  You’re good if you raise money, you’re not if you don’t.  Period.  Yes, unfortunately it is just this simple.  Your board isn’t a good fundraising board?  Welcome to not-for-profits.  Your executive director came from the mission side and doesn’t really understand fundraising?  So what else is new?  Your department is under-resourced?  Show me one that isn’t.  As fundraisers its our job to succeed despite these challenges.

How?  We are the experts and we need to act like the experts.  If you think that the event the board wants to do so badly will be a disaster, you need to forcefully say so, and back it with metrics and historical data, until they tell you to be quiet.  If you need more fundraisers on your board, then you need to push steadily for a board overhaul.  Are you worried you’ll get fired or in trouble for being to pushy?  What do you think will happen if you don’t hit goal?

Fundraising is a business of uncertainty and it’s a business of persuasion.  We can’t always get our way but we can always try and push for what is best for the organization.  Pushing doesn’t mean being obnoxious.  It means being persuasive, providing best practices and data, and it means being respectful.  But it also means not being afraid of exercising your expertise.  After all, that is why they hired you.

Often its a good idea to set expectations upfront.  In the last job I was at before I did full time consulting I sat down with the executive director and the board chair before I started the job and I said. “I’m aggressive.  I’m going to really push for an increase in board giving and some term limits.  I want to completely overhaul how we handle our communications.  Is that OK with you and do I have your support?  If not, you shouldn’t hire me.”

They told me that was exactly what they wanted and they were true to their word.  That doesn’t mean that we didn’t have conflict at times or rough patches.  But we raised a lot of money and generally got on very well because of that fact.

So, don’t be afraid to be the expert and don’t be afraid of your boss or your board.  In the end, pushing for what is needed in spite of having some uncomfortable moments is the only way to success.

Check out our podcast with Beth Herman for more coaching tips

2 thoughts on “Fear and Fundraising

  1. Bob, this post is a gift to gentle people who dislike bearing bad news and disappointing their leaders. It may help all of us undergird our courage to remember that the mission is the point, and that wise use of budget and human capital is in everyone’s best interest, egos aside. That knowledge has kept my spine straight and my words true many times. So even if you’re a little afraid to tell the truth..do it politely, do it gently, but speak up. Your entire organization will thank you.

    • Thank you, Beth. Well said. The good we do hopefully makes it a little easier to be forceful about the best interests of the organization.

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