In assessing the state of nonprofit leadership, self-professed change agent Kitty Hilton says embracing fundraising and fundraisers – and disruption – must be at the core of all management strategy.


leadership kitty hiltonMany not-for-profits bring me into their organisations to audit their fundraising, to manage a capital campaign or to look at increasing their high level donors.

This often leads me into working with governance and senior management – because, to be successful, fundraising needs to be integrated into every aspect of an organisation, from the top down.

Sometimes I think I’m a change agent. I’m always asking, “Why?”! I want to make the sector more strategic and effective, and work with organisations to articulate their powerful purpose. I encourage them to look differently at how they generate the income and support they need to be sustainable, because when they get that right, they flourish.

Often that involves a culture change that incorporates the whole organisation from the Board down understanding and believing in fundraising and being keen to help.

Strategy must incorporate fundraising

Our sector is built on passion. But the very passion that drives nonprofit organisations can also make it hard to change traditional ways of thinking and working. And that can be challenging.

Organisational leadership does not always recognise the importance of fundraising as a vital part of its business. Fundraisers are often not part of the management team. I find it quite amazing how many strategic plans still don’t include fundraising as a strategic imperative.

Big, transformational change in the sector relies on its leaders – those who want to make sure the right decisions are made, no matter how difficult, for the long-term greatness of their organisation and for the achievement of its mission, independent of consensus or popularity.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot

We often call ourselves the not-for-profit sector. Why do we describe ourselves by what we’re not? It’s incumbent on us to make a profit and we should say so with pride. We are different to the private sector in that all of our profits are reinvested into our business, which is to make the world a better place.

We also can’t call ourselves the voluntary sector any more (even though many of us depend on the incredible contribution of volunteers). And many of us do not see ourselves as part of the charity sector – we regard charity as a tax status. So let’s call ourselves what we are – the social impact sector. This is all-inclusive and puts us on par with government and the private sector.

What we do is extraordinary. We should hold our heads up with immense pride because we do great things with far fewer resources than our business counterparts. We had and continue to have a lot to teach other sectors on how to do more, for less. We are also the biggest sector in the world – imagine if we disappeared?

Never apologise and do take chances

We seem to be constantly apologising for fundraising and overheads costs and being asked to do more with fewer resources. Let’s talk instead about investing in the impact of the amazing work we do (yes, thank you Dan Pallotta). We should be inviting people to join us and talk to them about the change they can make in the world.

The people who give to us and invest with us want societal impact. They want ideas and values, not stuff, outcomes not outputs – they want to solve problems. They are at the heart of what we do.

Organisations must believe and either invest from reserves or allow fundraising to reinvest income to drive growth.

A challenge for us is that because we don’t have a huge amount of resources, often we have a needy and risk adverse attitude. We don’t test. We don’t allow ourselves to fail. Failure can teach us great things. As leaders we must be prepared to take a chance and allow the people we lead to test, and take risks and to be allowed to fail. Lionel Messi was told he was too small to play football as a kid. Imagine if he’d believed that!

Disruption can only be a good thing

One of the things I love about the world at the moment is the pitch for disruptive change. We should all be practising disruptive change. Kodak is a good example of this. Its leaders said, “We make the most brilliant film cameras in the world. We know our business. We have a very successful business. We know we will always stay this way so there is no need to change what we do.”

So Kodak didn’t change and look at what happened to the company: the digital camera became popular and that was that. But the most incredible thing about Kodak is that about 30 years ago it had the design for the very first digital camera but decided not to do anything with it.

So it’s about looking at what we are doing and constantly asking ourselves why we do the things we do, why we do them the way we do them and why shouldn’t we do them differently.  Sentences like, “We’ve always done it that way” are like swear words to me.

Of course, some changes are beyond us. The digital world is changing faster than we can keep up. From one day to the next there are new opportunities and we must keep an eye on what’s happening in the digital space, not only in our own backyard but globally. Everyone is connected. People look at their phones on average 30 times a day. We can certainly do much better than Text $3 donation to this number.

Alberto Cairo from the International Committee of the Red Cross spoke at the International Fundraising Congress last year. He said, “You have to cherish change. Change brings new life and new things.”

We need to be smart about the difference between a trend and a fad. The ice-bucket challenge was amazing but what ALS has done as a result to grow from that is marvellous. After I ran the first Daffodil Day for the Cancer Society NZ lots of people asked me, “Find us a gimmick, a flower like the daffodil.” You can’t duplicate Daffodil Day – lots of people have tried but it’s never worked. I was very proud of that campaign – and it made me a something of a fundraising celebrity!

To be a leader is to be brave, to lead the team, the purpose and the future.

I welcome the moves towards more strategic philanthropy and cross-sector collaboration, and greater focus on collective impact, shared value and social investment.
We all know our fundamental business is about people and emotion. We thrive through the people we engage, and the relationships we nurture and grow. Fads or trends don’t change that.

Good enough is never good enough. We must be absolutely aspirational to be the best we can be, in all our business practice, in everything we do. We owe it not just to ourselves but to the people we serve and care about.

Kitty Hilton

Kitty has been a leader in fundraising for over 25 years. She has held several Board positions, including with the Resource Alliance, and has provided strategic counsel in Australia and New Zealand for many organisations. Kitty describes herself as a ‘champion for social impact’.

This fundraising leadership article has been sponsored by not-for-profit performance improvement specialists, Advanced Solutions International (ASI).



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