Five Fundraising “Ah-Ha” Moments

May 17, 2016

By Jason Lewis
Executive Consultant

Few things are more frustrating than to make a major investment that doesn’t pay off. In the case of hiring professional fundraisers, not only is it upsetting, but strategic initiatives and growth suffer.  In today’s high-pressure philanthropic environment, getting the right fundraiser on your team and supporting his or her success is more crucial than ever before.

Working with heads of school in their searches for a highly productive fundraising professional, I can predict a pattern of “ah-ha moments” that they will encounter along the way. As their leadership matures, so does their understanding of how to consistently achieve their schools’ fundraising objectives. While the destination for increased giving is relatively easy to see (it’s a number!), the journey of how to get there can be unclear.

As a young head of school with significant previous fundraising experience, I stumbled my way through several fundraising hires. Along the way, though, I discovered how important my role as the supervisor was to those on whom I was relying as my front-line fundraisers. It was exciting to see the team begin to flourish with consistent coaching, measurable expectations, and big goals. Those lessons led me to develop the fundraising model that we are now implementing in schools across the country.

Like me, many school heads can share a disappointing experience of hiring someone in hopes that his or her passion for the cause would compel them towards meeting performance expectations. The first ah-ha for many heads is that it is easier to develop a passion for an unfamiliar cause than it is to achieve fundraising objectives. The moment pays off when they resolve to hire an advancement officer for whom performance expectations are the first priority.

The second ah-ha is when leaders begin to acknowledge that reliance on “arms-length fundraising” is a barrier to achieving goals. Before we engage with them, most of our client schools underestimate how much fear of money and rejection undermines their fundraising efforts. This truth is most evident when we consider the personal distance we maintain from donors by facilitating fundraising through events, grants, mail, and technology. As innovative as they might seem, most annual funds, and even the bulk of capital campaigns, are unconsciously designed to maintain a shallow, distant relationship with donors.

The “Eds and Meds” (universities and hospitals) in most communities have far more resources with which to attract and retain high-performing fundraising professionals (between them, UCLA and USC, for example, employ 750–7-5-0!–staff in their advancement offices). Private schools face this frustrating market reality:  After having done their best to be competitive with salary and benefits at the outset, before the new employee’s second year anniversary, the fundraising professional raises the bar with the expectation of professional development opportunities, flexible schedules, and performance incentives or bonuses. The next ah-ha moment occurs when a head of school embraces the fact that fundraising favors the bigger shops and that being competitive on salary and resources is a losing battle.

Which leads to number four. I am especially excited when a school realizes that instead of competing for established talent their school can be a place to develop new talent. This moment often occurs when the head of school discovers that the pool of fundraising talent in their community is so shallow that even the big shops have a hard time finding a winner. These are the same school leaders who begin to quickly recognize the resumes of mediocre fundraisers who bounce from one organization to the next every couple of years. Instead of fishing in the shallows, these leaders learn that homegrown talent can be an effective and efficient strategy for their school.

Once they have hired, or even promoted, a rising star and begun to invest in their professional development, the last ah-ha is what I discovered in my own experience:Providing oversight to a fundraising professional is different than other school employees usually need. Oversight begins with creating a productive environment that recognizes the tasks and patterns unique to fundraising. Rather than waiting for an annual review, productive fundraising professionals understand that they are operating in a highly-measurable, easily quantifiable role and that their performance can and should be evaluated in real-time. If they are high-achievers and goal-oriented, they crave constructive feedback.

For most school heads, this is a process of moving from stage to stage, option to option, until things start to come together.  Their schools are better resourced, and their fundraisers are doing what they really want to do–raise money!