Why fundraisers and boards don’t get along…

Published by Nigel Harris on


Welcome to the IFC Series 2013!

Earlier this year, the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non Profit Studies (ACPNS) at QUT released research examining leadership and fundraising in Australia. While this study highlighted some positive themes there were also significant concerns identified which potentially impact fundraising effectiveness in non-profit organisations.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “that the most common form of human stupidity was forgetting what you are there to accomplish“. It can be argued that the job of a leader is to remind people what they are there to accomplish.

We have forgotten what we are there to accomplish.

One of the most significant impressions I have taken away from these research findings of the study of leadership and fundraising is that Boards, CEOs and fundraisers have, to some varying extent, forgotten what they are there to accomplish.

For me, there were few if any surprises in these findings. They confirm my market observations formed over the past 30 years in this sector. And just for context, I’m looking through a number of lenses – fundraising professional, CEO, Board member, sector leader, very occasional consultant and more frequent pro bono advisor.

I have maintained an active interest in fundraising and leadership over many years. This research contributes greatly to a discussion that has largely been, up until now, based on anecdotal perspectives which too often are highlighted by dysfunctional points of difference. It shines a light on what I think is a fundamental question to be asked of non-profit organisations engaged in fundraising. Why aren’t we more effective in our fundraising? Not efficient – effective!

It takes both courage and honesty to ask and answer that question. It’s a lot easier to fall back on familiar assumptions and references – and sadly, engage in blame. In my view the research findings point to where that may be the case – and also to where things could be different. And let’s not confuse effectiveness with efficiency. Low expense ratios may well be the biggest barrier to meeting mission for those organisations that proclaim them.

From my observations of fundraising, management, leadership and non-profit organisations I believe many non-profit organisations are less effective than they could or should be in fundraising. The shame of that is that it leaves gaps in serving mission – which after all is what we are there to accomplish! And this is a leadership issue

So with a CEOs lens – and that of a fundraising professional – I want to make a few observations of leadership in the context of these research findings.

The points on which Boards and CEOs disagree with fundraisers.

fightOrganisational leaders and fundraisers think differently as to what extent fundraising is a profession. I have the view that fundraising is a profession – an emerging one. And that view is based on commonly held tenets of what makes a profession. They exist in fundraising practice.

The finding that Boards and CEOs disagree with this suggests to me that there is less enquiry than there should be in understanding contemporary fundraising practice. Now that is entirely up to Boards and CEOs but as a Board or CEO, if fundraising is your business – no matter whether it is 1%, 10% or 100% of your business – there is a leadership challenge to get to know that part of your business – to meet your mission.

Fundraisers don’t help themselves here. Many seem to do their level best to ignore practice knowhow, training, professional association, qualifications, credentialing, ethics – and I could go on – and yet lament that they are not taken seriously. Just being good at your job isn’t enough – I don’t even know what being good at your job really means! This is a big leadership challenge for fundraisers.

There is also disagreement as to whether a Board needs at least one person with fundraising experience. I’m really not sure about whether this is right or wrong. I personally agree with it, but I don’t know if it is essential. But knowing your business is, so somewhere, someway, fundraising insight has got to be of value. Another leadership opportunity?

The impact of staff turnover.

The research also identifies different thinking as to whether Board leadership impacts fundraising staff turnover. I can point to any number of examples to argue that it does. The finding is as incredible as it is unsurprising. This is a leadership question indeed – and on the basis of the research findings the answers highlight a leadership gap.

North American research released earlier this year also highlights some big gaps between fundraisers and CEOs and Boards. In reporting on this research the Chronicle of Philanthropy ran with the headline that 50 % of fundraisers want to leave the top job within 2 years. That’s a problem – on both sides. And anecdotally, it is reflective of the Australian experience. It needs to be addressed – for organisations that want to be effective in fundraising – by Boards, CEOs and fundraisers together!

RTRK KidsThe role of fundraising

The research also identified that fundraisers disagree with boards and CEOs on understanding the role of fundraising; donor satisfaction & communication; compensation, training and resources; and also role expectations.

This should be a big flashing red light. Boards and CEOs can ignore it, dismiss it, trivialise it – but the question of what you are trying to accomplish doesn’t go away. I would suggest it’s a massive clue to fundraising effectiveness – and again it demands a leadership response.

Fundraisers don’t get off the hook on this one either. Generally, there is a lot more that can be done by fundraisers in influencing these issues. Again, it’s about leadership, and looking beyond just doing your job as a fundraising technician. Fundraisers – own a different space – a bigger organisational space. So be more than just a fundraiser!

If Boards identify challenges around fundraising as asking; role in fundraising; time commitment to fundraising; then here’s another challenge. If we look at fundraising through a bigger lens, as a servant of philanthropy, it will open up an entirely different view of fundraising and the role of board members.

Communication, power, role ambiguity and turnover are identified as issues. They certainly are constant themes of discussion and lament amongst fundraisers. So again, if it is a problem, do something. That’s what leaders do. And I’m putting my CEO hat on firmly here. This is an issue for CEOs – to recognise, address and resolve – if we want to be effective in fundraising

Boards only need to ask how they might help more

The research findings offer a challenging conclusion for Boards to do no more than ask their fundraisers how they might help more. As leaders, with responsibility to serve mission, maybe there is even more that can be done, much more, by Board members, CEOs and fundraisers alike. After all, that’s what leaders do.

Interrested? Join me at the IFC.

This year at IFC I have been given the opportunity to present a workshop (“Of fundraisers and organisations”) that will share some insights and counsel around the challenge of making fundraising effective within an organisational context. I will be discussing leadership, organisations, and key roles in achieving fundraising effectiveness. For me, this understanding has been a major success factor over a 30 year career – and one not limited to geography.

And if this theme is of interest to you, I would also recommend attending Gavin Coopey’s workshop (“Lessons from the top”) for some further insights around leadership, fundraisers, CEOs and Boards.

ifc2013 logoNigel is the second IFC speaker to contribute to the IFC Series 2013.

Check out HERE where you can see Nigel present at the IFC.

101fundraising is proud to once again be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress 2013!

Nigel Harris

Nigel Harris is the Executive Director of Mater Foundation based in Brisbane. He has been with the Mater for 18 years and has worked in fundraising for 30 years, specialising in the health and disability sectors. Holding an MBA majoring in fundraising as well as qualifications in Public Relations and Marketing, Nigel is also a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE). In 2012 he was recognised as the Arthur Venn Fundraising Professional of the Year. He is a Fellow and Past Chair of FIA and has also served on the CFRE Board.


Stefan Pfaender · October 2, 2013 at 14:29

Thank you very much for this great article. It describes what we often see in organisations. I always try to raise awareness of this problem in my consultancy.

Charlie Hulme · October 3, 2013 at 15:12

I could not agree more with the phrase “Low expense ratios may well be the biggest barrier to meeting mission for those organisations that proclaim them”!

Looking forward to your session at IFC

Gavin Coopey · October 5, 2013 at 13:29

Thanks Nigel – some great insights as ever. As you say though, we fundraisers also have a responsibility to lead more, as we often appear only interested in our functional specialisms of fundraising. We need to engage better with other functions and other areas of strategy such as service delivery so that we can be seen as broader strategic thinkers by Boards (and often CEOs). Sounds like it will be a great session at the IFC – see you there!

Amanda Spink · October 9, 2013 at 03:14

Very interesting insights into fundraising in Australia!
Founder & CEO, CharityDOs.com.au – Australia’s Charity Event Calendar

rusticboho.com · July 30, 2016 at 21:08

I work with a guy whose grandfather Andrew Svenson was one of the key writers who conceived many of those series, and also wrote a good deal of the early

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