Silent Service: Breaking the Bubble of Silence in Nonprofit Fundraising
"Our profession for good reason is under powered and silent in helping change nonprofits for the better"
One of the biggest problems in improving nonprofit fundraising is the difficult position of those who often know the most about what needs to change inside a nonprofit: Development Officers. We aren’t talking about one organization, we are talking about a culture of silence, timidity even. Across the profession, over the years. Our profession for good reason is under powered and silent in helping change nonprofits for the better.
If you’re a former Navy veteran the Silent Service is the Submarine service. We in Development are also silent but in a very different way.
I have written recent articles on ways to improve nonprofits fundraising, on the short tenures of development officers and ways to educate your Board’s. Many have offline told me how refreshing it is to see their experience and observations in writing, in public. Many have echoed my observations emphatically and have seen the exact same destructive trends in nonprofit fundraising for decades. Many message me privately agreeing but don't want to be on the record. Again and again people have told me they seldom see such frank talk about the “unspoken” internal issues of nonprofits. Why?
Development Officers are in difficult positions because their livelihood and careers depend often on the people who need to hear criticism and sometimes negative information. Being the bearer of bad news is impossible when it could get you fired, or paint you in a bad light. As Development Officers are positions are already so misunderstood, ignorance….that’s the word of what we do for a living is commonplace. Jumping up and down on an already fragile floor seems dangerous.
Yes, I have spoken with many Board Members, Executive Directors and University Presidents who have asked for my advice. People who are leaders who can look at their current practice and see a better way, even if that calls their past decisions into question. Even if it doesn’t make them look good. They put their institutions/organizations first and make changes.
I advised a CEO of a medium sized national nonprofit on Board giving and fundraising training. For years, his Board had avoided the subject at all costs. The Board was more than happy to criticize their fundraising staff however and blame them for financial issues. Few on the board if anyone knew a thing about fundraising. They didn’t even know the names of the Development staff! Now, their major foundation sponsor was going to pull out and they were looking at huge financial crisis in 2 years unless they developed a real fundraising system. They needed an active fundraising Board. So, this CEO had the guts to stand up and say, “You all need to be trained, educated on what real fundraising looks like, you all need to support our staff directly”. He started with setting a minimum Board gift with them and hired a consultant to do an innovative training. Some Board members left in disgust but the one’s that stayed dug in and listened, learned and changed that organization
fundamentally. That was 6 years ago. Now they have a budget almost double their previous size. They have more development staff, they are better paid, they have more resources. Board Members open doors, feed Development staff information, host events, a few go on donor visits. But the Board knows from direct experience of being active in it, they know the work of Development. Plus, there is a trusting relationship there between staff and Board. The Board is in a solid position to judge their development staff’s work. They are highly more effective as well in their program because of their new funding levels.
Sadly, this example is not the norm. A Development Officer who sends one of my articles to their Board Members, hopefully with permission of their boss, can be seen as a whiner or complainer. Let’s be honest, we all know too many Board’s hate fundraising. I have done on site Board training's where Board Members start off the training by saying to me “let’s be clear, WE hate fundraising”. How is that for a warm welcome? They always have some convoluted and mistaken version of fundraising. Usually one that involves putting thumb screws to your best friends and loved ones.
Another classic situation is the Development Officer with 3 jobs. I call this the “Myth of the One-Person Development Shop” ( a whole separate article of mine). Can that Development Officer go to his/her boss or Board and say, “yeah this is impossible, I can’t be raising Major Gifts, Annual Fund, Planned Giving and doing Online Fundraising in 40 hours a week”. Many times, they will be seen as a malcontent. A Board Member will pull out an example of a single Development Officer at another nonprofit they knew who did just fine. How that person knows that other Development Officer did “just fine” is the question. There are a few institutions that might need one general Development Officer, OK. But in general, if you want to grow fundraising you’re going to need at least a small team. Have you ever noticed how these one-person development shops commonly have bad turnover? How the Board never hears the input that this is NOT a one-person job. That’s because the Development Officer cannot say that while he/she draws a paycheck there, can they? Afterward also they don’t want to burn bridges. So that error goes on and on, not to be spoken of…. crippling that institution for years.
There are development consultants of course to help here. In my 32 years, I have seen consultants with backs of steel who have stood up to Boards of powerful, outspoken, and wealthy people and told them they are being ineffective as Board Members. Wow! Sometimes they even get let go. But I have also seen consultants that don’t say what needs to be said. I don’t want to generalize about the ratio’s here because I have only my anecdotal examples. But can you totally blame the second group of consultants? They have rent to pay, kids to put through private school and Christmas presents to buy. I am sure there is a middle ground here too but can they afford to upset a client too much?
Another challenge is professional development for fundraisers. I am doing a live Seminar in New Orleans in a couple of weeks. Training people to do Major Gifts prospecting. I get a call from a young woman who works as a new Development Officer. She is obviously outside, I can hear cars and someone yelling in the distance. We talk about the training and she embarrassingly admits that she doesn’t want to be overheard in her office. That “there isn’t a lot of support for professional development”. She is going to take a sick day and come to my training! I pictured her showing up in dark glasses and a trench coat! There are many institutions that encourage their staff to get Professional Development. Overwhelmingly those institutions are ones with big development teams, like Universities and Hospitals. They know the value of PD and conferences.
The small and medium nonprofit is a different story.
It might be a little snide to say that a leader without a fundraising background often thinks all Development Officers show up fully trained and have with 30 years of experience in everything. Look at the attendance lists to fundraising conferences. They don’t represent the nonprofit landscape, they represent the institutions that invest in their development officers. The others roll their eyes when asked for money for PD. Often the program side of a nonprofit are allowed to attend their own conferences while the Development Officers are denied? Board members frequently question that line item on the budget. And yes, like the guys in red shirts in the original Star Trek, it’s always the first to die in the Development budget if there are budget cuts.
This trend in professional development perpetuates the two worlds of nonprofits. The Haves and Have nots if you will. The first and third worlds. 90% of nonprofits have budgets under $10 million. I want to bet that gross underinvestment in fundraising, including supporting PD is a big factor in that data point.
Now that I have thoroughly depressed you. Don’t reach for your anti-depressant of choice. Let’s talk about things that can be done.
Changing the Game
So, we have a well-meaning group of people, the Board of Directors, living in an information bubble. Sometimes its self-imposed, sometimes it’s not. A common complaint I have heard of all kinds of Board members say is “I am not sure my role here” and “do I know what I need to know?”. Let’s not forget in the nonprofit world our Board’s rule and navigate the ship. Too often they are navigating without a compass in the heavy fog and they don’t even know it. They overwhelmingly want their organizations to succeed and thrive. This bubble of silence makes that very hard.
So why can’t we conduct basic training's as a norm for all Board Members? Make attendance mandatory. Give them 3 months warning. When you say, “Development Training” suddenly certain Board Members have sick aunts and business trips to Nepal. Every town in the US has top notch consultants who can educate Board Members on the insides of the black box of fundraising. Start with these key questions they need answered:
I have also heard of some talk to create “Board Certification”. Which means that your Board be required to complete some basic trainings in development, governance, and finance. And they would be “Certified” which would help with fundraising. Those without it, well would be at a disadvantage. Local community foundations can take the lead here. One of the best examples I have seen is the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s stellar work in Organizational Effectiveness. Every nonprofit council, community foundation should be conducting this type of training. Here is their link: https://www.gnof.org/work/oe/learn/ I have seen so many Board training's that avoid fundraising. They talk about budgeting, governance and other things. But why avoid fundraising? GNOF’s training actually includes “Individual Fundraising”. Awesome! ( I am from California, I can use that word)
Some consultants use anonymous staff survey’s. Some VP’s or ED’s try to create a climate where staff feel safe to speak up. Both can work given the right circumstances, which is another article. I am not an organizational expert, so I will leave that article for someone else to write.
What I ask of Board Members everywhere is honor our profession. It’s a profession. If you’re a great Real Estate Attorney I don’t go to your office and call into question your decisions. I don’t know the first thing about your job, the field, your challenges. Because I bought a house doesn’t make me an expert in Real Estate Law. I had better learn about them before I open my mouth to even ask a question. Know what you don’t know. Because you asked parents for money at your daughter’s private school doesn’t mean you know as much as someone who has done it for a living for 20 years.
Development Officers overwhelmingly are people who want to do good in the world and are called to this work. Yet we receive so little respect and a great deal of misunderstanding. Learn about our powerful work. Honor it. Don’t tolerate fundraising, embrace it!
A Board Member who truly understands, in depth the challenges, needs of fundraising is invaluable and powerful. A few people like that can transform an institution and just possibly do a lot of good.
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