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Leadership Matters

July 14, 2014

Fundraising Fables You Shouldn’t Believe

One of the reasons we continue to see so much turn-over in fundraising staff is the pervasive misunderstanding of how fundraising works. Here are some of the most common misconceptions we see in our work filling development leadership roles. The persistent belief that hiring the right development director is the cure for fundraising woes is by far the most damaging of these seven fables.

By Leyna Bernstein

Fable 1: We hire a development director to do our fundraising for us.

Fact: Success in fundraising comes from building a shared responsibility for cultivating and stewarding donors throughout the organization. The board and the executive director share accountability with the chief development officer. The job of your development director is to create the organization’s fundraising plan and oversee its implementation, not to make all of your asks. For this role, planning, coaching, managing and mentoring are more important tasks than solicitation.

Fable 2: Our fundraising priority should be growing our donor base.

Fact: Keeping and upgrading an existing donor is easier than acquiring a new one. Donors who give to you year after year can also be friend raisers and ambassadors for your organization. Most organizations with a reasonable number of donors neglect to invest enough time and resources in donor stewardship.

Fable 3: We will hire a fundraiser who will bring his donor rolodex with him.

Fact: Really? Do you give your money to the fundraiser, or to the cause? Ethical fundraisers are not going to “bring their donors with them”. While fundraisers may have existing relationships that can open some doors, and while having a fundraiser with exceptional relational skills is
critical, it is your cause and impact that will attract investment.

Fable 4: A track-record of big asks is an indicator of ability to be a development director.

Fact: Executive Directors and board members get in trouble when they hire major gifts officers and expect them to manage a department and build infrastructure. Many accomplished major gifts fundraisers are specialists and outstanding individual contributors. They are not necessarily suited to running a department and managing systems.

Fable 5: We need to be on Facebook and Twitter

Fact: Your fundraising tactics need to match your donors and constituents. Yes, you should be thinking about attracting next generation donors, but not at the expense of your current base. Nonprofits with limited fundraising budgets should focus efforts where they will have the most results. Often, fundraisers are spread too thin to be highly effective. A 3-person team trying to do annual fund, events, major gifts, planned giving, institutional giving, and online giving plus social media is likely to do a mediocre job with many of these programs.

Fable 6: The best fundraisers are high energy, charismatic cheerleaders.

Fact: Great fundraisers come in all types of packages. If I had one wish from the fairy godmother of recruiters, it would be to remove the equation of “charisma” with effectiveness in fundraising. Some of the most successful and effective fundraisers are quiet, thoughtful listeners who probably stage managed the high school play as opposed to playing the leading role.

Fable 7: We can’t fundraise because we don’t know any rich people.

Fact: You can raise a lot of money for your cause without hanging out with tech titans and blue bloods. Raising six and seven figure gifts from individuals is one fundraising tactic among many. Countless organizations fund their great work through the ongoing support of many donors of modest means.

Comments Comments

11 reader comments on Fundraising Fables You Shouldn’t Believe.

Leyna…thanks for this excellent, and timely, article with information that is critically important for EDs and Board Members to have as well as other program staff members. So many people in the non-profit world, whatever their role, share misconceptions about the entire process of fundraising. wise comments…

This is a perfect list.  I rarely post on the Chron of Philanthropy’s LinkedIn Group, but I posted this - and in a few days I have 23 ‘likes’ and a soaring number of people have viewed my profile - not sure how I actually feel about that, but ... interesting and a bit amusing.

Perfectly stated!  Thank you for such keen insight (and honesty).

Excellent information.  Fable 1,2 & 3 nailed it!  I read on because the first 3 were so “spot” on. Nice job.

Great article-I loved it!

Thank you to my respected colleagues for this great feedback!

Very well put. Fable 4 and Fable 1 are very expensive fables to believe. They cost organizations a lot of time and money!!!

Excellent post, Leyna! You have a gift for debunking common but pervasive misconceptions about fundraising with candid and straight-forward advice. By taking the advice you lay out here in “the facts” nonprofit leaders can move beyond the misunderstandings that lead to burnout for development directors and other development staff. The cure for fundraising woes will come from re-channeling those energies into a cooperative, productive and realistic environment. I will be sure to share this with more colleagues. Thank you.

Thanks for your thoughtful insight, as always Leyna. What a great, alternative metaphor for a development director:

“Some of the most successful and effective fundraisers are quiet, thoughtful listeners who probably stage managed the high school play as opposed to playing the leading role.”

Facilitating the right environment in which to give (along with true impact and clear and compelling messages, of course!) can be the mark of a great DD.

Another wonderful blog by Leyna and the Leadership Search Partners - very illuminating. You makes some great points about how important it is to know both the culture of your organization, and the culture of its donors; stewardship is integral.  Thank you.

Leyna, thanks so much for this article. It should be in every development professional’s tool kit for helping E.D.‘s and boards to understand their fundraising expectations. Fable #4 is critical in building long-term development success. The big ask is most often successful because of the organizational preparation. And, often does not happen at all without it. Thanks again.

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