Michael van Leeuwen reveals the critical questions you need to ask yourself before accepting a role as a Fundraising Manager.
Fundraising for NGOs can be very rewarding work. Enabling an organisation to meet its financial goals is critical for its sustainability and operational effectiveness. Greatly exceeding targets can have a transformative effect on that charity, allowing it to greatly increase its impact on the community.
However, there is a serious downside to this line of work. The overwhelming feature of fundraising positions in Australian NGOs is staff churn. The average tenure of a Director of a fundraising division in a major charity is only 18 months. People in these positions either leave for other opportunities or are “encouraged to seek excellence elsewhere”, as the saying goes, on a depressingly regular basis. Stories of burnout, lack of support from the Board and CEOs, as well as unrealistic financial targets, are all too familiar tales.
The individual and corporate costs to this staff turnover are massive, creating great strains on the fundraising effort, as momentum and organisational memory are regularly lost.
To give you the best chance of joining an organisation that is committed to giving you long term success in the job success (and their fundraising efforts), this article seeks to provide you with relevant issues to research in regard to the organisation to which you are applying, with relevant questions to ask at interview. It could also be useful to CEOs and Board Members in answering the perennial question: “Why is it so difficult to find good fundraisers?”
Fundraising: A risky business
Success as a Fundraising Director, like any senior management position, relates to the management of expectations – what you actually achieve compared against set targets. Fair enough, as long as the targets are realistic (more of which later). However, the fundamental problem with many fundraising jobs relate to the perception of the CEO and Board as to where the risk lies. Too many charities consider that fundraising is the sole responsibility of the fundraiser/s.
While fundraising is of course seen as vital for the growth and survival of the organisations, it is also often viewed as a slightly distressing business best left to others – i.e. you (fortunately, this attitude is declining in Australia). If targets aren’t met, it’s thus your responsibility and no-one else’s. In researching for your application and at interview, you need to be able to form some assessment of the CEO’s and Board’s perception of two fundamental fundraising truths:
- Successful fundraising is about the long-term cultivation of relationships – there is no other way.
- To meet and exceed fundraising targets, all aspects of the organisation should be aligned to fundraising, with the CEO understanding their role as the number one fundraiser, and the Board in full support.
Organisations that grasp and live these realities will be far more likely to have successful fundraising teams, avoiding continual staff churn. Above all, they will avoid short-term thinking – as in: “You’ve been here for six months, where’s the million-plus dollars you agreed to bring in?” Of course, you are there to lead the fundraising effort, but as part of a team.
The single most important person in successful fundraising is thus the Chief Executive Officer. HNWIs and senior Corporate people are most likely to agree to give to persons perceived to be their peers (Board Members, perceived as “volunteers” and the CEO) than fundraisers. The CEO also has the power to ensure that within the organisation, fundraising is given resources and support to do the job.
Ideally, there should be at least one Fundraiser at Board Level, and a Board Fundraising Policy. When new Board Members are inducted, they should be made aware of the importance of board involvement in fundraising, and their own role in that. If most of the Board simply can’t be motivated or lack the capacity to fundraise, a Development Committee could be formed. Again, the Annual Report will give valuable clues as to where the attitude of the Board lies in regard to a fundraising.
Baseline, baseline, baseline
In terms of expectation management, an important aspect of research for your job interview is to determine how much money has actually been raised through fundraising over the last three years (this is easily obtainable from their Annual Reports). It will clearly detail how much overall was raised, by sector (Trusts and Foundations, Direct Mail etc.). You can then compare this with their strategic plan over the same period, which will detail how much was expected to be raised. This will give you a very clear idea of the current reality of their fundraising effort, and incidentally will impress the interviewers that you have gone to that much research effort.
It will also assist you at interview in asking: “How much do you expect to be raised through fundraising over the next three years?” If the answer is a very large multiple of what they have raised to date, you can ask how they plan to do this, how realistic that is. If their only real answer is “That is why we are hiring someone like you”, it will give an insight as to their risk perception of fundraising.
It is also an opportunity to discuss with them how to plan to raise more money – with of course, their input. You can also have a general conversation as to what might be realistic targets. Better to have such an initial discussion at interview rather than once you are actually committed.
Another vital aspect of research is determining what resources are given to fundraising, relevant to fundraising expectations. This will basically be in two main areas: staffing numbers and the database. If the expectation is to raise more, then more resources will be needed.
Organisational culture – will you fit in?
Consider the old adage: “You’re hired for your technical competence, and you’re fired for your lack of cultural fit….”. By definition, NGOs have a very specific focus, leading to the saying, “when you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation”. This strong history leads inevitably to a very specific culture of how things are done.
There are two main elements to this: the charity focus of the foundation will attract like-minded people; and the size of the organisation. For instance, if the founder is still running the organisation, there will tend to be a very strong identity with that person.
Religious organisations will have a specific focus, very mindful of their traditions. Being a ‘hired gun,’ no matter how professional, a job in a strongly values based organization is very likely a poor fit. While you don’t necessarily have to have a lifelong passion for the cause, in this position, you will need to be able to speak with conviction and passion on the topic. If you are completely indifferent to the cause it espouses, perhaps you shouldn’t be applying for it. An example might be fundraising for a major art gallery, when you haven’t visited an exhibition for twenty years.
In terms of the size of the organisation, larger organisations will tend to have a more corporate outlook. You will have very specific tasks, with clear lines of management, etc. The smaller the organisation, the more you will be required to be a “Jack of all Trades”, often doing things at short notice that have little or nothing to do with your specific fundraising role. Both are fine – just think which one best suits your personal style.
Questions to ask at the interview
The interview is very much a two-way street; your opportunity to assess whether the organisation is suitable for you. Drawing on the research you have already undertaken, questions to ask can include:
- Do you have any specific expectations on what I need to achieve in the first year, in particular financial targets?
Hopefully they will have clear expectations, which you can reality test against what you know of their current fundraising levels over the last three years.
- What are the major sources of income for your organisation? Direct Mail, Trusts and Foundations, etc?
- What opportunities and threats do you see to your main income source over the next three years?
If no one on the panel has any real information on this topic, then draw your own conclusions.
- Is there a written fundraising plan to guide the team?
This will give a clear indication of how strategic they are about the fundraising effort. Of course, this may be your first task on the job.
- Can you tell me how long the previous two fundraisers stayed in this job and why did they leave?
If there is a nervous shuffling among the interviewing panel, and some platitudes being about “they both (in the last 24 months) moved on to seek other opportunities”, that is a red flag.
- What opportunities (and budget) are there for training?
As a complex job that is being revolutionised by digitisation, training is absolutely necessary for all people involved for staff involved in the fundraising effort, from the Chair of the Board down.
- How involved is the CEO and Board with fundraising?
You should already have some idea from your research and you know how important it is – hear what they have to say.
It’s not just about you
In considering an application for a particular fundraising position, you need to be aware that your own abilities and experience are merely one aspect of whether you are likely to be successful. Organisational culture and Board/CEO perceptions of who wears the risks of meeting fundraising targets are also major factors. If you do your research and ask the right questions, you can end up working for a charity that has a good chance of a successful outcome – for you, and thus the organisation as well.
Michael van Leeuwen is a Philanthropy Executive at Melbourne Legacy with more than 10 years’ experience in fundraising. Melbourne Legacy is dedicated to caring for families of Australian Defence Force veterans who have lost their lives or health while serving their country.