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

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

  • “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.


3 ways to tell if you work in a nonprofit twilight zone

I love watching Twilight Zone reruns!

I remember scheduling my activities during its periodic cable TV marathons back in the 80’s so I could catch at least a solid 6 hours of it. I really don’t know what captivates me so about the series even to this day –maybe it’s because it dealt entirely with human psychology and I was once a student (briefly).

Thing was, the characters would know the situations were out of this world (literally and figuratively) but would still try to adapt common reasoning as they would to normal situations. One thing you could always count on was the reality check soon to come because nothing in the Twilight Zone, though apparently normal, is ever as it seems.

And as I soon learned, neither was life at a nonprofit.

Like many of you, my foray into nonprofit fundraising was by happenstance. I’d started out as an applicant for an administrative position and by the time I got to the interview was being considered for development coordinator. Though I wasn’t clear about what development was, I was relieved to have been considered qualified to do it. I wanted a career, not a job, and I felt like I’d finally found my purpose.

Well as time passed, my skills and training got me positions with more responsibility. These organizations seemed to be sound, and as they’d been around for several years I assumed their leaders knew something about development.

I soon got my reality check on that because through the years I’d slipped in and out of The Twilight Zone on several occasions. What you are about to read are true accounts of a few of my experiences. If they sound familiar, maybe you too have and one time or another entered the nonprofit Twilight Zone.

Submitted for your approval . . .

1: Your job description states that you are to be a “self starter, take initiative and work with little supervision” yet you’re regularly quizzed, sometimes harshly, about decisions you’ve made.

My training and professional development endeavors taught me best practices that I was eager to apply to my job tasks. One thing that kept me motivated to continue doing nonprofit work was the entrepreneurial freedom I had to, in essence, “make my own job”. As a development director/manager/specialist, etc. there is the expectation that you know what to do and if you don’t you’re gonna ask somebody.

But mentors were VERY hard to find in the grassroots/small nonprofits I worked for so I’d relied on my training and common sense, which on one job almost got me fired because I’d decided to address donors as “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Smith” in solicitation letters and not as “Dear Friend” as had been customary.

2. Gaining access to program information/data that everyone knows you need is tedious and cumbersome.

New to the organization, there were regularly scheduled grant proposal and periodic reports that the ED knew needed to be completed with program information that I’d assumed would be at the ready.

Instead I was told I needed to talk to three different staffers to get the information; one had the info in a format she could easily email to me and I could cut and paste, one had nothing documented and would have to “wing it” and the other, seemed reticent and even borderline defensive saying he’ll have to think about how to give the information to me because he doesn’t want to give away any “trade secrets”.

3. You’re told you’ll need to make up a budget shortfall/campaign goal increase without being included in the budgeting conversations.

Three months before the end of the fiscal year my ED informs me that the development committee increased the annual campaign goal by $70,000 in response to a budget shortfall and that I need to figure out how to get us in the black. She apologized for the last minuteness of the announcement—she was always so pleasant, and genuinely so—but made it very clear how urgent it all was.

I had a fleeting moment of panic followed by considerable moments of resentment at being put in this predicament and while in the midst of trying to figure out which donors I could tap yet again, a champion on the board came through with contributions from colleagues and friends. Crisis averted—one that for some reason she thought should land solely on my shoulders.

Now, I know I’m not alone here, as Earl Holliman wondered in the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is everybody?”

Can YOU relate?