Savvy change agents seen as key to ‘great’ fundraising

Outstanding fundraising is driven by exceptional leaders committed to transforming the way their organizations do business, a new report says.

Indispensable to successful fundraising are passion for the work and belief in what it can achieve, says Great Fundraising, a British-based report commissioned by Clayton Burnett and Associates.

Keys to building great fundraising organizations, the report says, include creation of an inspired and supported team; development of an organizational structure rooted in functionality; a focus on donors; a culture of learning; and leaders who think holistically and work for change.

What elevates “good fundraising to outstanding fundraising” is “the quality of thinking each leader was able to generate,” says the report, which was written by Adrian Sargeant, a fundraising consultant who is on leave as professor of fundraising at Indiana University, and Jen Shang, an assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana Univeristy.

“The real difference” those leaders are able to make, the report says, is a “consequence of the way in which they understood and coped with the complexities of everyday decision making.”

Transformational growth

The report examines five organizations identified by 20 leading directors of fundraising and senior fundraising consultants. Those groups include Cancer Research UK, British Red Cross, NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), Save The Children, and Royal British Legion.

“Outstanding fundraising enables an organization’s fundraising income to double, triple or even quadruple,” the report says.

Yet growth at the charities studied “was not a goal in and of itself,” it says. “A passion for the work and daring to believe in what might be achieved was considered paramount.”

Equally critical, in creating a “compelling ongoing case for support,” is the need to work closely with the program team “to ensure that any new objectives were meaningful for donors,” the report says.

“Fundraising greatness thus delivers the kind of growth that is transformational for the organization and its programs either in scale or in content so that the organization can multiply its societal impact,” it says.

Exceptional fundraising leaders “manage their teams and achieve desired change through a combination of will and personality,” it says.

And they “devote considerable attention to what they regard as the critical building blocks of success,” it says, “namely, building an exceptional team, structure(s) and culture.”

Team building

Appointing the “right” fundraising team is critical, the report says.

While some leaders hired new team members as soon as they arrived at the organization, others waited until after they had “strengthened the existing team, working on the collective ‘belief’ that it was possible to succeed, by helping them create early successes,” it says.

The resulting “improvement in confidence and morale became self-sustaining as individuals began to recognize their own potential to succeed,” it says. “Technical expertise on the part of team members was important, but so too was conscientiousness, a willingness to support others, and a propensity to engage in appropriate levels of risk-taking.”

Once the “right” team had been built, none of the organizations examined suffered from the high turnover rates “that otherwise pervade our sector,” the report says. “Being a part of a successful team appears to engender high levels of loyalty,” both on the part of the teams and their leaders.

In setting goals, outstanding leaders also “aligned their organizational metrics with the longer term drivers of donor value,” the report says.

Rather than couching them in the “short-term minutiae that typically pervade our sector,” it says, objectives were framed “in the standards and behaviors they identified would add value for supporters and thus pay-back in the longer term.”

Appraisal and reward systems, it says, “were similarly aligned, to focus team member ambitions on the things that mattered most to longer term growth.”

Organizational structure

Organizations that were great at fundraising adopted a structure based on “function,” such as fundraising, finance, marketing, public relations, campaigning and program management, the report says.

“The advantage of such a structure,” it says, “is that it pools specialists together to create economies of scale, minimizes the duplication of personnel/equipment, and employees can speak ‘the same language as their peers.'”

But the disadvantage of that structure is that “functional departments can become competitors who engage in a power struggle for organizational power and resources.”

It was a focus on building “team efficacy,” or developing the “supporting system” that “consistently produced great fundraising,” the report says.

“Since talent can be created through training and development,” it says, “it is more important to have a system in place to grow it than constantly trying to source the right talent externally.”

Culture of learning

Great fundraising organizations “need to instill an organizational learning culture,” the report says, or one that “acknowledges both internal and external environments and develops sensitivity around what might be learned from both.”

Those kinds of organizations are “flexible enough to respond and adapt quickly to factors arising in either environment.”

Instilling an organizational learning culture requires individuals who can “think quickly (and well)” and who know the “limits of their knowledge,” ask for help when they need it, and are “tenacious about guiding and helping colleagues,” the report says.

That last characteristic is “particularly important for the success of an organization’s fundraising practice since it helps inculcate a supportive culture that encourages individual team members to learn form each other and to be genuinely open to challenges derived from the perspectives of others,” it says.

Directors at such organizations encourage “a greater degree of flexibility and risk-taking on the part of their teams, providing the prevailing culture with more of a development focus,” the report says. “Failure was redefined as the failure to learn from experience if something did not work out as anticipated, rather than the failure of a particular strategy or individual.”

High quality thinking

The real difference made by leaders of great fundraising organizations “occurred as a consequence of the way in which they understood and coped with the complexities of everyday decision making,” the report says. “It is the quality of thought that underlies action that gives rise to greatness, not the actions themselves.”

What was distinctive about the leaders interviewed for the report  was “their ability to discern complex systems at play within their organizations and consciously manage those systems to achieve the outstanding fundraising they sought to create,” it says.

And what was unique to those leaders, it says, “was an ability to think and think clearly about themselves, what they could offer the organization and how organizational systems could be managed to create the environment for fundraising to flourish.”

Doing that required those leaders not only to “embed their fundraising in their chosen organization, but rather to embed themselves as a ‘whole’ individual,” the report says.

So they “first needed to understand the benefits that their intellectual, emotional and social system of activity could deliver for their organization,” the report says. “In essence they needed to design the interface between their individual system and the system of their organization, looking for the optimal mix of contributions that could be made to further the purpose of the charity.”

The leaders then needed “to develop a similar approach to the management of their fundraising team, again understanding and designing the interface their team would have with other organizational systems,” such as service provision, marketing and finance, the report says.

“They needed to understand them in a such a way that each of these systems could be perceived as a whole in its own right, but also simultaneously as part of a greater organizational whole,” it says.

Initiating change

The leaders then were able to ask how all those existing systems might be “transformed systematically such that great fundraising may be created,” the report says.

“What makes a fundraising leader truly great,” it says, “is how they think about answering that question.”

That kind of thinking “is at the core of an organization’s purpose,” the report says.

The leaders interviewed for the report “all became change initiators and leaders at an organizational level,” it says. “None of them, in creating great fundraising, felt that they could create it within the current organizational system. Rather, all of them believed they must transform the organization in order to create their outstanding fundraising success.”

Todd Cohen

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