My reflections on the top 3 findings of the national study, UnderDeveloped

Originally published April 15, 2013

I was in the throes of a very intense few weeks with the executive director of an organization I was development director of when the report “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” was released.

Long story short, projects weren’t going to her satisfaction and she immediately saw it as a performance issue as opposed to a resource, communication and systems issue, as I’d pointed out to her on previous occasions. Despite it all, I tried to do what I could to salvage what,
I wasn’t at all sure. After all, I’ve always been a conscientious worker, and I thrive in an environment that respects and supports my work and my point of view. That wasn’t happening here.

Unfortunately, a familiar pattern was emerging; a dysfunction I knew would leave me frustrated and disappointed. I told her about the report and how I felt it spoke to a lot of what we both were experiencing. I parted ways with that organization soon after our discussion but not before passing along to her the report’s weblink as promised. I hope for the sake of the organization and herself, she reads it.

When I saw the report, I was elated and relieved. Finally, the challenges I’d been facing since I entered this field more than 15 years ago were being addressed. I discovered I’m not alone and my experiences are now validated by scientific data. But while there is comfort in numbers, it made me concerned at the same time.

You see, I know the potential strength of effective fundraising when sound organizational development, buoyed in a “culture of philanthropy” is lead by an optimally-functioning three legged stool: executive director, development director and board. This report essentially speaks to the vicious cycle of the self sabotage organizations exhibit by their inability or refusal to recognize this and adapt a philosophy that supports it, as the following findings
identify:

  • “Revolving Door—Organizations are struggling with high turnover and long vacancies in the development director position.

The report states that 50% of development directors surveyed anticipate leaving their positions within two years or less, with a slightly higher rate among organizations with budgets less than $1 million. Only a bit more than one third of the ED’s surveyed anticipated leaving their posts in the same time period, indicating that these same ED’s will continue to see instability in their development programs.

For the exception of my first development position, I’d stepped into vacancies that had been open anywhere from six months to two years. I was never able to ascertain exactly why my predecessor left or why there was seemingly no urgency in filling such a pivotal position.

Invariably, with no point of reference, I had to start building a development program from
scratch, as there were no current files to refer to, systems to implement or relational donor histories to trace and rekindle. And without fail, there was a culture of crisis fundraising, which resulted in my being in a perpetual state of playing “catch-up”.

  • “Help Wanted –Organizations aren’t finding enough qualified candidates for development director jobs. Executives also report performance problems and a lack of basic fundraising skills among key development staff."

With the proliferation of nonprofit management undergraduate and graduate programs over the last ten years or so, this one is a head scratcher—to a degree.

Is it a matter of poor educational programming, unrealistic ED/board expectations, or ill-prepared organizations? Even more curious to me was that the report cited that while between 30%-50% of ED’s made this claim about their DD’s, 25% of them admitted to lacking skills and knowledge to secure gifts themselves and 20% don’t even like doing it!

As truly the chief fundraising staffer of the organization, how then can they fairly and effectively judge performance with attitudes like these?

I recently attended the second in the webinar series UnderDeveloped: What Now? presented by the sponsors of the above-referenced report, which culled feedback from nonprofit fundraising consultants.

One of the panelists was of the opinion that graduate-level nonprofit management programs, while critical to the future preparation of leaders, were woefully lacking, particularly in the area of resource development and fundraising. And in terms of certification-type qualifiers, another panelist felt that the CFRE serves as more of a baseline indicator of a development professional’s expertise and not necessarily an indicator of a top performer. Which leads to:

  • “It’s about more than one person--Beyond creating a development director position and hiring someone who is qualified for the job, organizations and their leaders need to build the capacity, the systems, and the culture to support fundraising success. The findings indicate that many nonprofits aren’t doing this."

So is it a “what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” scenario? Do organizations need a qualified DD in order to institute a culture of philanthropy? Or does the organization leadership need to cultivate and embody a culture of philanthropy in order to attract the best and brightest DD’s?

I’d say either way it starts with the acceptance by organizations that the status quo is not only ineffective but represents a dereliction of the fiduciary responsibility boards are held to by all shareholders.

And as the ED serves as the face of that responsibility daily, I can’t see how any organizational change in philanthropic philosophy can be sustained without there first being a commitment by that ED to shepherd the process with the board (in absence of a DD) or with the DD where one exists.

I’ll have more on this report in future posts, including the recommendations made by its sponsors. In the meantime, take a look at the report yourself and let me know what you think.