The nonprofit sector has always had its share of challenges. I’ve been involved with nonprofits for over 20 years, and I’ve lived through many of them.
But as pressure on nonprofits has increased in recent years, one of the symptoms of a greater problem in the sector has gotten much worse: turnover in development and fundraising staff. Fundraisers are fleeing their organizations and the sector in droves, or they’re turning to cushier jobs at large organizations that are already well-resourced.
It’s one of the most disruptive problems in our sector today, and it's the direct result of a disease that often sets experienced, knowledgeable fundraisers directly at odds with their nonprofit leaders and boards of directors. What is this disease? An unhealthy culture of philanthropy.
To be perfectly honest, too many nonprofit leaders view -- and treat -- fundraising as “less than” their program-focused work. Many talented fundraisers who have developed highly specific skillsets through years on the front lines of development are treated like the used car salespeople of the sector -- or even worse, like our chosen profession comes down to begging for handouts. Like we should carry out our work apologetically instead of with pride and satisfaction; and with as small a budget as possible instead of a reasonable investment in our people and systems.
This attitude is short-sighted and self-defeating, and it does a real disservice to both the nonprofit organization and the fundraising professional. When you consider the fact that achieving long-term financial stability remains the nonprofit sector’s greatest challenge, you quickly realize it’s an attitude that nonprofits can no longer afford to have.
Whether you’re a big-city hospital or a small-town arts center, you simply can’t survive -- much less thrive -- without the revenue fundraising provides. Yet, over and over, organizations assume this attitude that costs them dearly and makes their fundraisers flee – which leaves their donor relationships out in the cold.
Here are a few concrete examples.
When an organization budgets for philanthropic revenue without considering their fundraisers’ perspective on what the donor base and department workloads can bear, its leaders place a potentially unbearable weight on the shoulders of development.
When budget performance problems arise mid-year and leadership decides that they’ll just put on a “new” fundraising event to fill the gap - without thinking through the timing, the potential audience base, or tactical load the staff is already bearing - it’s like throwing an anchor to a fundraiser who actually needs a life preserver.
When an organization tries to save money by hiring younger, less experienced fundraising staff into leadership roles with high expectations and little support, it sets itself up for another costly hire within the next year and contributes to a trend that drives young talent out of our sector.
Sound familiar? It should. Many of us are familiar with the Haas Jr. Fund/CompassPoint report Underdeveloped, which offers some enlightening insights into the challenges faced by organizations and their fundraising staff (and should be required reading for all executive, development and finance directors). These include:
Too little investment in development capacity
Unrealistic plans for mission-area growth that lead to even more unrealistic budgets
A lack of understanding around the roles of the fundraiser, the board, the executive director and of every other member of a non-profit organization’s team in fundraising
Lack of training and a diverse pipeline of fundraising professionals
Successful fundraising requires partnership among all teams in an organization; in other words, it takes a true culture of philanthropy. Every single person, from the administrative assistant to the executive director, from the program staff to the board president, needs to understand and value what philanthropy can accomplish for the organization, and how vital it is to success. Even if a nonprofit does the best work on earth, over the long haul it simply won’t survive without a healthy culture of philanthropy.
At The Ostara Group, we offer our nonprofit clients the unvarnished truth. This means that if there’s a schism between the leadership and fundraisers, we don’t shrink from that reality -- we take it on and help build the necessary organizational bridges.
We’re continuing our truth-telling to nonprofit leaders through this blog. Our team at Ostara will draw from almost a combined century on the ground in nonprofits of all stripes to engage our nonprofit community and thoughtfully address these challenges on an ongoing basis. We’ll offer strategic thoughts and specific, practical tips on how every nonprofit can grow its revenue and build a sustainable culture of philanthropy from the ground up.
Creating and sustaining an effective culture of philanthropy is an absolute must for nonprofits today, and we need to create community and support around how to do it. There’s just too much work to do, and too many problems for our organizations to help society solve, to let misunderstandings about fundraising get in the way of the mission.