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Can Great Fundraisers Become Great Managers?

Can Great Fundraisers Become Great Managers?

Chapter Leadership Brief 3.22.24

By Robin Merle, CFRE
President, Robin Merle Associates, LLC

Retaining and motivating staff is a BIG topic in our profession.   The churn of fundraising staff in and out of organizations continues.  Staff who have exited their organizations talk of toxic cultures, unrealistic expectations, limited resources, and bad managers who still operate like gift officers rather than leaders.  “I wasn’t even able to speak to a donor.  I wrote briefings,” goes a typical complaint.

If you’ve risen up the ranks from asker to tasker, you can improve your chances of retaining team members by leaning into your role as a relationship-builder.

The Secret to Success
Great fundraisers can be excellent managers if they possess an essential quality for success: intellectual curiosity about people.

Marcus Buckingham wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Great managers are fascinated with individuality for its own sake.  Figuring out what makes people tick is simply in their nature.”

Doesn’t this sound like the same approach we use to raise major and principal gifts from individuals?  We conduct research and do our homework to figure out what makes a prospective donor tick.  We ask questions to determine their passions and understand the choices they’ve made.  But how many of us take the time to ask those same questions about our staff? More importantly, how many of us act on this knowledge to bring added value to our fundraising? 

Encouraging Creativity and Open Communication
I’ve always believed that good ideas can come from anywhere, at any time.  People’s talents do not stop at the perimeters of their job descriptions.  Here are some examples of what actually happened when staff were encouraged by their managers to think creatively beyond their functions and felt safe enough to speak up:

  • A database operator, who majored in botany, noticed patterns in the data he was inputting and suggested a new market segment for the organization’s next direct mail appeal. It worked.
  • A development assistant, who used to work at a media company, was taking minutes at her nonprofit’s gala meeting.  She heard about their need for an auctioneer and volunteered to reach out to her former company for talent.  Instead of relegating the assistant’s idea to the side, her executive director told her to go for it.  They got an auctioneer.
  • A major gifts officer, who had once been an intern with Pencil, knew her organization’s back-office capacity for gift acknowledgment was failing.  She volunteered to reach out to Pencil to recruit and mentor interns for her organization.   One of the interns was hired.

Creating an inclusive environment that encourages staff to share their ideas without judgment or censure is critical.  The rewards are immediate because staff feel seen.  They’ve been able to make a difference, which is one of the driving motivations of mission-driven humans.

How Not to Manage
Consider the alternatives, gleaned from the streets of New York: 

  • A development associate who helps trustees host events in their homes is told by a new manager that he is no longer allowed to speak to the trustees, despite long-standing relationships that have yielded close organizational ties. Trustees will now be handled by the new manager.
  • An annual gift officer cultivates a donor to make a major gift.  The donor is moved to the portfolio of a major gift officer she may or may not know.  The annual gift officer is no longer a point of contact, ending the organic arc of the relationship.
  • A prospect research director is asked to provide a list of the 15 wealthiest individuals who graduated from the University, without comment or insight, despite her many years of institutional knowledge that could unlock the key to their passions and new gifts.
  • A campaign manager, who is building a prospect pipeline, is told there is no need for him to attend the meetings about annual giving, despite data showing that all principal gift donors began by making a modest first gift.  His portfolio of leads dwindles to the usual suspects.

How much knowledge, opportunity, and money is left on the table when a rigid management style dictates how relationships should be cultivated? 

For those of us who just can’t help getting to know our staff and what drives them, managing to their unique talents and lived experiences is as natural as getting to know a prospective donor and asking for her support.  The bonus of this approach:  turnover is much less. 

This isn’t about “wearing many hats,” nor is it about instilling kumbaya in your team.  It’s about establishing an open, creative environment that is inclusive and values individuality.  It’s about allowing individuals to contribute in ways that make them feel successful, appreciated, and responsible.  Staff are not told to be accountable.  They choose to be this way.   When staff stretch their talents beyond the fences of their roles, it’s time to celebrate them not rein them in. 

Easy Ways to Get Started

  • Invite staff who may not normally attend a meeting to sit in, particularly if you know they have institutional knowledge or just joined your organization and have no preconceptions.|
  • Listen to staff without interruption or answering emails.   Ask a follow-up question (or two) before passing judgment. 
  • Begin a sentence by asking “What do you think?”  You’d be amazed at how often this is not asked at meetings where managers are trying to solve problems.
  • Re-read the resumes of your staff that are filed away.  Take special note of the bottom section which usually contains interests, education, travel.  Ask them if their outside interests are helping them in their roles.

A version of this article was originally published in “Move Forward,” the blog for www.theprofessional

Reference:  Buckingham, M. (2005, March).  What Great Managers Do.  HBR’s 10 Must-Reads on Managing People.

Robin Merle, CFRE serves on the Board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals-New York City.  She is Co-Chair of the Chapter’s Mentorship Committee and a member of the Education Advisory Committee of AFP-Global. 

Robin has more than 35 years’ experience as a senior executive for nonprofits.  Previously, she served as the Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer for Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). With her team, she planned and led three consecutive campaigns, raising more than $500 million and attracting more than 145 volunteers.

More recently, she served as the Vice President of Institutional Advancement for John Jay College of the City University of New York and Executive Director of the John Jay College Foundation.  She subsequently founded and became the President of Robin Merle Associates, LLC, which offers high-level consulting to nonprofits and their boards.

Robin is a three-time former Vice Chair of National Philanthropy Day-New York. She also served on the board of the New York Women’s Agenda and Women in Development, New York (WID) and is a member of the Planning Committee for the Johns Hopkins University Women’s Leadership Conference.

As the author of the award-winning book, Involuntary Exit, she is a frequent webinar host and guest on radio and podcasts, as well as an active blogger and contributor to LinkedIn. Connect with Robin on LinkedIn and subscribe to her blog on her site.



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