Rick Sillett shares some of the fundraising leadership truths he has discovered through nearly 30 years of working in the sector.
Fundraising is all about making a difference in the world and one of the keys to doing so is in the fundraising leadership we provide. Why? Because it helps everything work together seamlessly. Here are nine lessons I’ve learned during my time in fundraising leadership working across a wide range of charities.
1 Passion drives results
Working in the not-for-profit sector, people don’t become rich. The nature of the sector and its budget constraints simply don’t give rise to large profits or high wages. It is driven by a passion that I see often here at Communication Direct. Staff feel excitement and pride when a program or raffle is successful, knowing they have contributed to support the work of charities.
Tip Inspire your staff and build their passion by exposing them to the outcomes made possible through their work.
2 Loyalty is underrated
Loyalty is one of the greatest attributes of individuals and companies, along with consistency. When a supplier delivers what they say they will, when they say they will, I’ll be loyal to them.
More importantly, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is your one life. At the end of my career, I want to be able to look back at the friends I’ve made along the way. I want people involved with our business to become our friends.
It’s easy to be seduced by lower prices from alternate suppliers, especially in the face of budget pressures. However, my experience – sometimes hard learned – is that when the whips are cracking, when you really need them to deliver, you’ll be glad of your loyalty to your suppliers and the relationships you have developed.
Tip Reward loyalty with loyalty.
3 Never stop learning
There are times when it will be hard to fit in attending seminars and reading journals. But there’s always more to learn. And if you ignore it, you can’t hold yourself out to be a professional in your industry. Reflect on the fundraising managers busily keeping their ear to the ground when the idea of regular giving came from the UK around 2000. Those ‘early acceptors’ stole the march on the people who were cocooned in their offices and who are now desperately trying to catch up with the current very low conversion rates.
Tip Keep up with changes in the industry and fundraising environment.
4 Sharing will benefit everyone
The openness of fundraising practitioners is legendary. They share ideas, results and methodologies. I will never forget attending a Fundraising Institute Australia (FIA) lunch many years ago and watching a presentation from a senior staff member of The Lost Dogs’ Home. As I recall, an appeal had failed to meet KPIs and budget expectations. I remember being amazed to see all the costs, response rates and unmet targets presented in a slide show. Here was a fundraiser baring his soul, discussing the learnings of the failed campaign – all for his colleagues’ benefit. This is one of the things that make this industry great.
Tip Don’t fear sharing your experiences with others.
5 Fundraising needs fundraisers
One of the greatest disappointments in my time in fundraising has been seeing people recruited from advertising and communications backgrounds into senior fundraising positions.
Here’s the issue: while charitable organisations need fundraising and communications, too many don’t understand the difference between these disciplines. They think the skill sets are so similar that they are interchangeable and one person can head up both streams.
Applicants with a communications background are usually accomplished presenters and may have contacts in the corporate or media world to which boards and executive management are drawn to. Unfortunately, the communications person knows nothing about the art of fundraising and this fact seems to be overlooked by the interview panel.
If successful communications applicants integrate with their fundraising teams, add value and come up to speed with the usual fundraising methodologies, they can be a great asset. If they grease the wheels of the fundraising machine by increasing awareness and empathy for the charity’s mission, everyone’s a winner.
But if they think traditional fundraising methods are old hat and they can simply tap corporate leaders on the shoulder and the money will flow, they are imposters who will typically last 18 months – and often just long enough to jump before they are pushed, because they haven’t raised near the funds they thought they could. Even more regrettable can be the damage they have done to the staff and culture of the fundraising team by the time they leave.
More often than not, the organisation would be far better hiring an accomplished fundraiser to also look after communications, than the other way around. Annual reports, newsletters and even media releases can easily be outsourced. Fundraising requires much closer attention.
Tip When recruiting for a job that requires fundraising, prioritise fundraising skills ahead of communications skills.
6 It’s a small world
After 20 years in the industry, it’s fair to say that when I go to an industry event, I know quite a lot of people or they know me. When you think that Australia-wide there are only 1,600 or so individual members of the FIA, you realise it is a fairly small pond we all swim in. This underlines the importance of networking. Networks are valuable because they help you to enjoy your career and:
• feel connected to your industry
• move around and seek advancement opportunities within the sector
• keep abreast of changes occurring within the industry
• get through tough times when support from management is lacking
• bounce around ideas and canvass feedback on issues
My career and fundraising leadership has benefitted greatly by embracing and supporting the peak body and building relationships with other practitioners. Friendships, support and the road to a fulfilling career are there if you get involved.
Tip Take every opportunity to build and enhance your network. Join the FIA.
7 Diversity inspires
It is important to remind ourselves of the contribution people of different age groups and backgrounds can bring to a company
or charity. Personally, I love the reliability, life experience and uncomplicated effort of mature-aged staff. I’m also interested in the diversity of skills, thought processes, approaches to work and conversations that people from varying ethnic backgrounds
bring to our business.
Lastly, I enjoy the enthusiasm of younger people. Their positive outlook and occasional cockiness, admittedly sometimes not totally justified, provides a ray of sunshine and gives staff around them a boost.
Tip Embrace diversity in the workplace – you can only gain from it.
8 Reputation is everything
The fact is that everyone makes mistakes, even if they have the best intentions. There is nothing like that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realise it. As an employee you look somewhat incompetent, but hopefully you have done other things that show the mistake is a rarity. The conversation afterwards can be around, “How do we prevent that from happening again?”
There’s usually not that much largesse shown to a supplier. As a supplier, your reputation is damaged and the conversation is typically more around ‘making good’, which potentially involves taking a financial hit and possibly losing a client.
Whatever your situation, at times like this all you have to help cushion the fall is your reputation. Protect it at all costs. Otherwise you’re in for some rough landings.
Tip Beware of shortcuts and temptations that can diminish your greatest asset – your reputation.
9 Know your worth
Fundraising is a rewarding, satisfying and enjoyable career. This is a people-focussed business that can open doors for you all over the world. And, dollar by dollar, you’re helping to make the world a better place by curing diseases, saving the environment, protecting the vulnerable and supporting people who have disabilities.
Tip If you work for a charity you admire and feel is making a difference, you will be motivated in a way that is possible in no other profession.
This fundraising leadership article has been sponsored by not-for-profit performance improvement specialists, Advanced Solutions International (ASI).
Rick is CEO at Communication Direct, a call centre serving the nonprofit industry. He has worked for some major charities, including as Fundraising Manager at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (now Vision Australia) and the Spastic Society (now Scope Victoria).