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How Can Interim Staff Help Build Your Fundraising Ship?

I spent a lot of time last year taking the ferry boat back and forth to my engagement as interim development director at Bloedel Reserve, a 150-acre forest garden on Bainbridge Island. In addition to dining on ferry food and watching seagulls fly by, I thought about boats and how they relate to fundraising. Trust me, there’s a connection.

In the shipyards of the Northwest, hundreds of boats are being constructed right now. Skilled builders are creating something new that wasn’t there before. They are welding and riveting steel to form the body of a ship and laying wires and pipes to support the internal systems that operate the boat.

On its maiden voyage, the boat floats and the systems work together to propel the vessel forward. The boat is now under the command of a captain. While this captain doesn’t know how to build the boat, they are skilled at navigating to the right destination.

In an ideal world, this is how fundraising would emerge and grow within an organization. Someone who specializes in building fundraising systems and infrastructure would come first and create what doesn’t exist.

They are the Builders.

After the builders create strong systems, structures, and fundraising culture, they pass the reins to different specialists. These people take the humming fundraising program and accelerate to the bigger goal: building relationships and connecting people with opportunities to invest in the mission.

They are the Navigators.

My 31 years in the nonprofit field have taught me that this ideal scenario is the exception, not the rule. Instead, many organizations either build their fundraising systems and culture on the fly or wing fundraising with very little structure. Often, this means Navigator fundraisers are building the structure for fundraising, when their real gifts are building relationships. This mismatch in skillsets leads to burnout and turnover. This is akin to asking boat captains to build their own boats.

We need both Builder and Navigator Fundraisers at different points in an organization’s journey. Even if your fundraising program has been around awhile, there may be periods of growth (or stagnation) where a Builder fundraiser is necessary.

Builder fundraisers are the unicorns of the fundraising world. They are hard to locate and identify in a hiring pool. A simpler solution is often hiring interim development staff who are specialists in Builder fundraiser skillsets.

So, what special roles can Builder fundraisers or interim development staff play in your organization?

Mentor: They fundraise through others by teaching fundraising skills and drawing out others’ strengths to create and expand a culture of philanthropy. They know you cannot fundraise alone.

Analyst: They listen for and examine any underlying chronic disfunction like turnover or lack of board engagement.

Leader: Once they isolate the causes of disfunction or inefficiency, they build support across the organization for lasting change.

Designer: They get into the mundane—yet critical—details of fundraising structure. They create any systems, policies, procedures, or plans that are not in place to support fundraising like a database, recognition, annual fundraising plans, gift acceptance policies, etc.

Visionary: In partnership with Board and staff leaders, they define opportunities for donors to invest in the mission. They help everyone articulate the tangible difference philanthropy makes for the community.

Back to the ferry boat I mentioned in the beginning. My many trips across Puget Sound for the interim development director role at Bloedel Reserve added up to a fundraising boat that is now sailing full speed ahead. Here’s what the Board Chair shared at the end of our time together:  

“You helped us shape the development director’s role within Bloedel and then fulfilled it in such a way as to get the board and the rest of the staff to understand and accept it…Thanks so much for being a catalyst for change.”

Like Bloedel, is it time for your organization to invest in building your fundraising ship so you can efficiently and effectively accelerate to your final destination, your organizational vision?

Let’s keep this conversation going. We want to hear your questions and ideas about interim development staff. We’re here to connect.


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