Transformative change depends on a new kind of leader

Published by Kyla Shawyer on

Non-profits are no longer guaranteed a free lunch. We have to work harder than ever to raise the funds we need, which — as we have seen in many instances around the world — leaves us vulnerable to accusations of hard selling. The potential impact of this on trust and confidence — and therefore our ability to support the world’s most vulnerable communities — is worrying. After all, this isn’t just about money. It’s about people, animals, our environment … and in some cases, quite literally the difference between life and death.

However, despite the criticism that has been directed at our sector lately, little seems to have changed. It appears to be business as usual for many charities.

That’s unfortunate, but not surprising. The social impact sector is built on passion, which is good. What’s not good is when passion for the mission translates to passionate stubborn adherence to practices and mind-sets that support the status quo. And it does – too often, especially when the status quo is seems to be working.

12191214_321299961327177_7045420405178721609_oThe Resource Alliance has been working to identify the root problems around this issue, scope out potential solutions, find new pathways forward and create disruptive change. We haven’t found all the answers, but what we do know is that this isn’t just about refining and improving the tools and techniques we use. Although that’s important, this is about more than that. It’s about organisational culture and values systems. And more than anything, it’s about leadership.

We need big, transformational change in the sector, and that relies on leaders who are fearless enough and innovative enough to make decisions to ensure the long-term success of their organisations and the achievement of their mission – even when those decisions are difficult, unpopular or a little scary. Especially when they are.

Understanding the donor experience
Non-profits that offer the right kind of leadership enable supporters to feel connected to the cause. Poor leadership tends to have the opposite effect. It can manifest in short-term, transactional fundraising vs. longer-term relationship building with a shared value set developed between the charity and the donor.

When was the last time you asked your donors why they support you or how they feel about being a part of your work? At a previous organisation where I served, we asked donors of all giving levels why they gave and literally recorded their answers. We then brought everyone from the organisation — board and all — into a theatre, turned down the lights and asked them to just listen. It was immensely powerful to hear the words directly from our donors and helped the whole organisation truly connect with and understand their thoughts and feelings, and to see them as the integral part of the organization that they were. When we thought about our cause and our impact from the perspective of the donor, it opened up internal communications, helped to unite our fundraising and programmes teams, and influenced our ongoing approach to donor communications.

Relationship fundraising expert Ken Burnett talks about how his mother felt about the frequency and format of the mailings she received when became a “lapsed” donor. The fundraisers were focused on reactivating the file, with seemingly little consideration of the person at the end of the letters. “They are always shouting at me,” was how she described it.

“I worry more about fundraising leadership now than ever. I’m not sure it is necessarily worse but that fundraising needs leadership more. We really need to seriously examine how we do things,” Burnett says. “We need to find a way of keeping donors longer, of improving customer experience — and we need strong fundraising leadership to help us do this.”

He’s not alone in this. Other fundraisers are raising the same concerns:2e3f84ea-ae02-41be-8603-d0adc68f76c7-original

“We need to understand what it is that makes us different and why we have the right to ask for money,” says Ruth Ruderham, director of development at Prince’s Trust International. “Even organisations that have been out there for a long time don’t always understand this. Non-profits really come into ascendance when they find their why; they are so much more able to connect with the public.

Joe Jenkins, director of fundraising and supporter engagement at The Children’s Society, concurs that while money is important, great fundraising leaders focus their attention beyond that.

“They don’t just deliver more cash,” he says. “Their strategic vision, insights, supporter focus and clarity of core purpose help transform the approach of the whole charity and its impact in the world.”

Taking the long view
This difference between “transactional” and “transformational” leadership may hold the key to understanding why we’re experiencing such challenging times. Transactional leaders tend to be solely concerned with keeping the ship afloat and making sure everything flows smoothly today. Annual budgets are reviewed with a fine-toothed comb, and fundraisers are under intense pressure to generate returns now. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, place attention on long-term results and leading change, as well as the short-term. These change-makers focus on how they can develop a sustainable resource engine to deliver superior performance relative to their mission, through innovation, motivation and collaboration.

To that end, great fundraising leadership goes beyond the fundraising department. It unites the entire organisation. It helps programme co-coordinators understand donor motivations, helps the finance team understand the likely returns of particular techniques, and helps everyone understand that the success of the organization in honoring its mission is dependent on all teams working together in a holistic and collaborative way — whether they have a direct role in generating income or not.

“Great fundraising starts and ends with the organisational purpose and objectives — so fundraising leaders must provide that organisational perspective, to lead both fundraisers and colleagues across the organization,” Jenkins says. “Good fundraising leaders transform their organisation’s success at fundraising; great fundraising leaders transform their organisation.”

Fundraising is the muscle behind the mission. To deliver the vital work we are so passionate about, we need enabling fundraising environments – where resources are aligned to create value and where the traditional fragmented silos we have been working under have been broken down. Great fundraising leadership will drive this change.

What is great fundraising leadership?
Great leadership is about breaking boundaries and asking difficult questions, about doing something different. It’s about emotional intelligence, effective communication, informed decision-making, calculated risk-taking. It’s being willing and able to stay in one place long enough to implement transformational change. It’s choosing the right people, and equipping them and inspiring them to take risks, to innovate, to grow and deliver. And it’s about making fundraising everybody’s baby.

But what are we doing to support, encourage and grow our leaders and change-makers? To give them the foundation they need to be able to innovate and inspire? Why do we assume that people will suddenly become fantastic leaders simply by receiving a promotion?

Leadership may be innate for a few, but for most people it needs to be nurtured and developed. Leadership skills need to be taught. And yet so few of our leaders, current or future, receive training in this area. We need to provide opportunities for personal and professional growth so that our teams have the skills they need to truly shine. Imagine what we could achieve if we did.

“There are a lot of people in our sector who recognise the importance of changing the quality of leadership and the need to bring on a generation that is bigger and better than we currently are,” Burnett says. “This should be encouraged. We should put a lot of effort into training the leaders of tomorrow.”

Jenkins agrees: “There is much more we can and should do. We need to inspire more current leaders to turn their efforts from good to great and share their experience with others, and we need to create more opportunities for fundraising leaders of the future to receive the support, training and guidance they need to realise their potential.”

Fundraising leaders who have had the courage to make transformational change, to break down barriers, to try innovative ways of working and who apply leading-edge thinking to their approaches should be applauded and supported. Furthermore, these examples should set the standard in our sector.

May we all strive to support each other — and especially our next generation of leaders — as we take the next steps, the right steps, to achieving the change we want and need to see in our sector and for the benefit of us all.


This blog post is part of the IFC series. 101fundraising is proud to be the official blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress for the 5th year!


Kyla Shawyer

As CEO, Kyla Shawyer provides overall leadership to the Resource Alliance, working closely with various stakeholders including institutional partners and the global volunteer network, and engaging with the wider philanthropic sector. She has spent 20 years in fundraising, marketing and resource mobilisation both within the international non-profit community and the commercial sector. Most recently, she has led the international fundraising, marketing and programme delivery for Operation Smile International.


Richard Turner @ifundraiser · September 8, 2016 at 17:38

Love your observation on how such a simple step of getting donors to remind you why they support your cause can help you. At SolarAid we added simple free text field when people gave online, i.e. at the moment they gave, saying can you tell us WHY you have chosen to donate to us. Each week we would get wonderful comments and each week I would pick a selection and email them around the entire organisation including trustees. I’m sure it added to the donor experience (which actually was the reason we added it in the first place).

We even got insights – for example again and again new donors said they were donating to offset their CO2 (say due to flying). As a direct result we changed our search terms for people looking for a charity to donate to offset their carbon emissions.

    Kyla · September 8, 2016 at 20:33

    Fantastic ideas Richard! So much to be gained by listening and sharing!

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