Strong fundraisers, weak bosses?

Published by Rebecca Davies on

The best leaders I’ve had in my career have been surgeons, academics, arts administrators, software sales executives, and humanitarians. Most have been brilliant.

The fundraisers, by and large, have not.

Now, this could just be bad luck, and I have had a few exceptions to this, and know colleagues who’ve only had capable, supportive, and inspiring fundraiser bosses and would follow them to any organization. And I really thought carefully before opening my blog post with this. But it’s my truth and experience, and I know I’m not alone because Tony Elischer has started the conversation of fundraising leadership as a way to stem, what, in his view, is a crisis in our sector.

In his 101 blog post, Tony presents the problem.

And last week, live from the International Fundraising Congress, Tony, and our other guest and 101 blogger, Rory Green, joined me in the first 101 webinar to examine the premise our sector is starved for leadership because it eats its young (emerging leaders). And I cast no stones; I also lead a team. I’m typing in the mirror.

And I’m keeping this blog post short because the webinar is long. Please watch it below (or click here), and then come back and finish reading and add to the conversation.

If you can’t watch, here are some conclusions so far by Tony and Rory with much, much more detail of course in the webinar conversation:

  • Everyone along the management chain can make actions to improve culture and management practices to spot talent early on, value and retain it;
  • Fundraisers have a responsibility to the sector and themselves not to job-hop;
  • Organizations need to think outside the tick-box when hiring. Shouldn’t attitude and track record matter more than how many years a candidate’s spent in a similar role?

And now it’s our turn. It’s our turn to respond, debate, and offer solutions. Because crisis is a scary charge.

For me, it was excruciating being the webinar host. I’m much better at editorializing than interviewing other people. But it’s given me a few days to think about my own experience, and start to answer these two questions upon which I hope you’ll all pile on and add your own. Here are questions for you, dear 101 readers, on the topic of emerging leadership and how we can save a sector in crisis (my answers in italics):

  1. What can leaders and/or organizations do to incent emerging and mid-career fundraisers to stay?

My answer: as a leader, I’ve fallen down when I haven’t learned the personality type and motivation of each member on my team, and be sensitive to the group dynamic, which is ever changing. I’m a direct communicator – at my subtlestI’m a neon sign – and with this, I must be aware of the style of my team member, and how they’re receiving me and my message. Know better, anticipate where everyone on your team is coming from. On motivation: it doesn’t matter if in five years a staff person sees themselves as a fundraiser, ornithologist, or humanitarian aid worker. I will support them in getting there. In the meantime, they’re expected to be the best fundraiser they can, and represent our department and profession as such. This has nearly always resulted in mutual loyalty and long, committed employment.

  1. What can fundraisers do for themselves to make sure they get what they need to thrive and grow into leaders themselves?

My answer: there’s the advice in real estate to ‘buy your second house first’. Indeed, the best jobs I’ve had have been those that presented the biggest stretches. And it turns out that with each of these I had a boss who hired me for a personality trait, or something – an attitude, or value – they saw in me unrelated to my fundraising. These bosses turned out to be supportive, always available when I needed them, but gave me trust, autonomy, and support when I failed. This undermines Tony’s statement that fundraisers need to grow into their jobs, but it does support wholly what we all agree: that people are everything, and this starts at the top.

Unrelated, one last question for you to consider and answer, please:

  1. We’ve had over 300 views of the webinar since Thursday, and had over 200 of you watching live! We’re going to plan a series of webinars for 2015, and of course they will be about what you want to hear about and will participate in. Some ideas brought for already: as I said on the webinar, niche fundraising. There’s been interest in bringing together fundraisers from around the world to discuss the peculiarities of, say, museum or church fundraising. Or would you rather we kept it broad and for everyone, like this first webinar on emerging leadership? Someone has suggested fundraising in China, which I know I’d love to learn more about.

And you? Please let me know here or at rebecca.davies@101fundraising.org your ideas for the next webinar.

Lastly, Tony Elischer and Rory Green are happy to chat in this space if you want to ask questions, get clarification, or ask them to deepen anything you heard them say on the webinar.

Now over to you, the 101 community!


This post is part of the 2014 IFC Series. International Fundraising Congress (IFC)101fundraising is proud to be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress!

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Kevin Baughen · October 20, 2014 at 15:25

If we want to discourage ‘job-hopping’, we could start by ensuring that salary and rewards at least keep pace with inflation and that we don’t take advantage of our people’s goodwill and commitment.

Charity folks don’t demand to be paid fortunes but respecting achievements, experience and acknowledging what it costs to live and come to work would be a good start… and that goes for tomorrow’s leaders as well as the rest of us.

    Rory · October 21, 2014 at 00:20

    HI Kevin,

    While I absolutely agree that fundraisers need to be paid more – I don’t think this is a simple increase our salaries problem.

    High turnover even exists in areas of fundraising – like major gifts at universities – where fundraisers are very well compensated.

    Every single fundraiser deserves to make enough money that they don’t have to worry about money – but I think this problem is more complex than that.

Kimberley · October 20, 2014 at 17:03

The most important answers often come from really good questions. Questions like: What are the core issues in our sector? AND What are the potential solutions to those issues? So thank you for starting this dialogue. This is such an important conversation. And, as I emerge from a bit of a sabbatical, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
I agree that leadership is a key issue. Although I think the most important issue was mentioned by Rory at 28:02! Bravo Fundraising Girl! Over the past fourteen years I cannot even count how many times program staff have come into my office and told me they need money for a X, Y or Z. I still remember the conversation about a required boat, like I could simply open up the suitcase of money under my desk and go buy a boat In another organization, mostly due to the leadership and support of the Executive Director we were able to advance a culture of philanthropy and help everyone see that the financial health of the organization depended on the entire team – not just me. It is a fundamentally important shift and now a year after my departure the program is still on a very solid growth trajectory.
I am currently working with three clients who are committed to making the necessary change required to advance a shift in culture and a establish an understanding of how everyone can play a role in raising more money for essential advancement of their respective missions. For each organization the change in culture will require different ingredients – in all of them the common element will be the CEO/Director of Fundraising as the central figure to drive the change.
Yes, there is an inherent lack of understanding for how our profession works. To Rory’s point about being positioned as core mission staff, just last week while working with a client to start a fundraising program I was asked how she could justify hiring a fundraising person when that person wasn’t even going to cover her salary in funds raised that year? Wow…I had to take a second to think that through, and then introduce the idea that a senior fundraiser on the team is different than a project coordinator who is funded through a specific grant. That just like assessing life time value of donors we need to see fundraising staff as essential to long term financial objectives and this will require an investment upfront.
I love the idea of being grit in an oyster. However, trust me when I say – being a change agent requires a certain grace and as Rory said humility. Perhaps one potential solution is to start teaching fundraisers more about the soft skills required to advance a culture shift without pissing everyone off. In addition to learning about giving pyramids, we also need to learn about how to put the big issues on the table in way that doesn’t feel like a threat? Empathic confrontation, problem solving, emotional Intelligence – within the context of our charitable work – those are the conference sessions of tomorrow.
Yes we are Super Hero’s (You know from previous articles I believe that) However, we need to be super hero’s who don’t get defensive, who aren’t self righteous and who work to help people better understand what we do without being bitchy and whiny. We need to see ourselves and our roles within an organization differently – even if it isn’t mentioned in a position description. And I think we need to better understand the perspective of the other staff. That is the leadership that is required.

Anyway, this is a very long comment. Thank you for reading it. All this to say : Yes there is a bigger conversation to be had. Thank you for starting it. While we talk about this, let’s be sure to focus on concrete solutions to the problem and how we can all contribute in a positive way to the change required in our organization’s and our sector.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate. The Webinar was awesome. Well done Rebecca, Reiner and team!

    Rory · October 21, 2014 at 00:22


    THANK YOU for sharing your story. And for your call for us to step up and be leaders to solve this problem.


Richard Therrien · October 20, 2014 at 17:20

Thanks for bringing this up – this has been a bee in my bonnet as well. From my POV we have a culture that promotes good fundraisers; i.e. make or exceed your budget and you are golden – don’t and you suck. The golden ones get promoted on the basis of results. But, being the sales manager vs the sales person is not the same and requires a different skill set entirely and is often overlooked in the promotion process. Although the CFRE is a good step, the boards of directors of foundations need to ensure that the CEO or ED is ensuring good and sound management principles when promoting. It would seem as our industry grows so too should a more professional approach to management of fundraising staff. I would note here, however, that by nature, I think most of us are curious and perhaps more free-spirited than, say, accountants, and so you get a huge cross-section of the population doing fundraising work from all kids of backgrounds.

As to job hopping – sure, some of us might need more loyalty, but again, being curious folks I think we yearn for change more than most and work in an area where job-hopping is common. I once had a head hunter tell me: What’s wrong with you fundraising guys? You never stick around more than two-years? To which I replied: then stop calling us. Not a practical solution but he then understood that he was just as much a part of the loyalty problem as anyone else.

My recommendation, and agreed this only works for larger places, is to hire more fundraising Chief Operating Officers who would be tasked to ensure a good mentoring culture, high standards of professionalism, etc. Obviously hiring a great COO would help ensure success. Looking back at a large place I worked at, the staff turn-over was huge – yet the place across the street, the one with a COO, the turn-over was a fraction of ours. Why was this? Did just having the COO make enough of a difference? Likely not – but I’m sure it was a huge step in the right direction.

    Rory · October 21, 2014 at 00:24

    “hire more fundraising Chief Operating Officers who would be tasked to ensure a good mentoring culture,” – AMEN Richard! I couldn’t agree more.

    The best part of that is – Dr. Adrian Sargeant has done research on what makes a fundraising shop great – and it turns out the most successful fundraising NPOs have leaders that do exactly that.

Jemma S · October 20, 2014 at 17:51

The job hopping comment is an interesting one – I beleive the average still seems to be about 2 years and I wonder if that is as much related to pay, management etc as it is to the nature of fundraisers and the need to have completely fresh challenges?

    Rory · October 21, 2014 at 00:26

    Good point. I think if managers work with their employees, they can grow a role with a fundraiser. I think of how I was given the chance to manage interns and teams of volunteers when I needed more of a challenge.

Rory · October 21, 2014 at 00:29


Thank you for moderating the webinar, and your honesty in your blog post.

I really commend you for being self-aware enough to recognize your own personal style, brave enough to admit mistakes, and humble enough to say you can improve. BRAVO. That is what leadership in this sector needs more of.


Lowri Turner · October 22, 2014 at 16:24

Thanks Rory, Rebecca and Tony for this really useful webinar! You raised some points that really hit home with me.

I’d like to ask, what would your advice be to young fundraising leaders who find themselves in positions where they don’t have anyone to nurture them within their organisation? I think that some times a young fundraising leader is spotted, snapped up, and then left to ‘do their thing’. How do you set about developing yourself?

    Rory · October 22, 2014 at 19:30

    Hi Lowri,


    First off – learn to manage upwards.
    Ask your boss for specific help / feedback. Communicate what your needs are, don’t assume your boss will automatically know. If you need guidance in a specific area, ask for it.

    Find a mentor – or a few mentors from outside your organization Learn from them. Take ownership of this process to – set learning objectives for yourself, so you can communicate clearly to a potential mentor what you are looking to get from the relationship.

    Read great fundraising books – borrow them if you don’t have the money to buy them – some libraries even have them. The CFRE reading list is posted online, I’d start there.

    Go to conferences and PD sessions – if you don’t have the PD budget, try volunteering at the conferences, you often get to see sessions for free.

    Develop a peer network of people in similar roles, meet with them, and share knowledge. Learn from each other.

    Be active in the fundraising community – try to find ways to help others where you can. Volunteer on a small nonprofit board. You’d be amazed how much you can learn that way.

    Just my 2 cents.


      Matthew Sherrington · November 15, 2014 at 00:35

      A great list. I’d add at the top of the list, give yourself an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses, and think about gaps and development you need. Get feedback from others to help with this. Bother to write down a personal development plan with objectives. All those great activities will then have focus. Obvious, I know. But I also know people don’t.

Kay Sprinkel Grace · October 31, 2014 at 02:06

For me, the biggest issue in growing leadership is getting away from calling us “fundraisers.” Fundraisers are measured by the funds they raise. They are “disposable” in that we can always find someone to raise money, right? I am personally and professionally so weary of the fundraiser label (which I do not wear because that is not what I do) because I think it discourages leadership and the sense of expanding (if not rising) in an organization. When we change the vocabulary away from fundraiser, then I think we will attract and keep the people who have the talent, drive, vision and possibility of becoming so much more. But we need to measure them by something other than dollars in the door — this denies that our biggest job is to build relationships. Build the relationships (based in shared values) and the money will come. Great job, Tony and Rory — love you both, as you know!

Simone Joyaux · November 2, 2014 at 13:58

Good comments from all. A good conversation about professional fundraisers – or whatever we want to call ourselves in this field. (Great comments, Ms. Kay about titles.)

I first wrote about fundraising professionals in 1997 in the first edition of my book STRATEGIC FUND DEVELOPMENT: BUILDING PROFITABLE RELATIONSHIPS THAT LAST — now in its 3rd edition. I complained about building technicians / tacticians rather than organizational development specialists. And I think this is still true. Fundraisers and money. Fundraisers and DM. Fundraisers and events. All about money. But many (even most, I sometimes think) fundraising problems aren’t about the tactics and techniques. Many/most fundraising problems are about organizational development issues. Board member recruitment. Service quality. Customer centrism. Leadership. Empowerment. etc. etc. etc.

Too many fundraisers only think money. Too many fundraisers don’t study leadership; don’t know governance; don’t know how to enable others to understand what philanthropy and fund development are.

See my monograph on my website — called Choosing Your Path: Organizational Development Specialist or Just Another Fundraising Technician. Read CompassPoint’s UnderDeveloped Report on the Internet.

We’ve made the problem. We can fix the problem. And so many of us have been talking about it for decades. Maybe the tipping point is here now?

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