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Fundraiser Nightmares and How to Wake Up From Them: Strength in Numbers

By Tom Watson on August 21, 2008No Comment

Previously in this saga . . .

James had experienced a baffling year.  In his search to advance in his career he had felt fortunate to get a significant number of interviews at organizations he thought he liked and where he would fit.  Yet to his dismay, during his interviews most zeroed in on “how many millions have you raised?” He felt like he was in a dart-throwing contest and nothing short of a bull’s eye was acceptable.  He liked to think he had not just a respectable track record, but also one that exhibited some rather significant achievements, like getting a corporate gift campaign underway, a new endeavor at his workplace.  Was he really not marketable as a professional because he didn’t have all those major gift notches in his belt?

Then when he got the job he felt was just right, along came Max and his demands as a major donor.  Max’s mandate of “do it my way or else . . .” began to haunt his days almost to distraction.  He knew he had to handle this as delicately as the engraved crystal bowls he gave as recognition gifts to major donors, yet he would wake up at night with haunting thoughts of “what if I blow this?”  He even began to wake up in the early hours of the day and think, “Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a fundraiser after all.”

To continue this saga . . .

James decided to take action.  First he went to his president, to whom he reported directly.  Aware of the many demands on Dr. Morton’s time, he spilled out his tale as concisely as possible.  When he paused for breath, Dr. Morton interrupted him and said, “Surely you can resolve this in a way that won’t alienate our best donor and jeopardize our campaign!”  She paused, and James stared.  He had hoped to brainstorm on the various solutions that might be possible, but as he read the look in her eyes, he realized she had neither the interest nor, perhaps, the ideas by which to solve this.  The unspoken but easily-read message in her eyes said, “I hired you as a senior manager.  Just do it.”  James did his best to not, figuratively speaking, tuck his tail between his legs and left hurriedly.

What now?  Who would understand and at least consider solutions with him, when even his direct report wouldn’t, for whatever reasons?  He stared at his calendar and realized he was due for a fundraising professionals’ luncheon meeting, so he put his dilemma on the back burner and left.

At the meeting, it dawned on him, “Here are people who would understand and even if they don’t have the answers, they might at least listen to me and let me explore my ideas with them.  At best, maybe they even have some suggestions!”  He quickly sent around five notes to trusted professional friends, feeling a bit like a miscreant in fifth grade and remembering that he felt a lot smarter then than now!  “Could you meet for coffee afterwards so I can talk to you?” he wrote. 

The group adjourned to the nearest Starbucks knock-off and James unburdened himself.  A bit reluctantly he gave the background of his job search, related how pleased he was when offered his present job, and then told about Max.  At the end of his tale, he looked at the group and said, “So, what would you do if you were me?”  Silence descended for a few minutes as his friends stared into their coffee cups, as if reading the proverbial tea leaves. 

James broke the silence and once again asked, “What would you do about a donor such as Max?” The discussion picked up quickly and the air spun with ideas that James’s colleagues shared.  James took notes as quickly as possible, and after an hour, when the group broke up, he drove home, mulling over the points they had offered.  Mentally he summarized his options, glancing at his notes while stopped at red lights.

  1. No way, his colleagues stated, could he give in to Max’s demands — not because of stubbornness but because it would be harmful to the campaign in the short haul, and definitely harmful to fundraising in the long term.
  2. He could draw up the pros and cons of acceding to Max’s wishes, then meet with the development committee which was also acting as a steering committee for the campaign. He could, as objectively as possible, present the facts and ask for their advice, hoping that more likely than not, they would see the pitfalls and support his decision.
  3. He would meet with his best ally on the board who understood Max’s fervor for Ballard College and the campaign, and explain the pros and cons.  He then would ask this person to speak to Max about the pitfalls.  If he, James, didn’t have credibility, perhaps Max’s peer would. 
  4. He would restudy the campaign structure and plan, and see what alternative strategies and activities he might see as possibilities for Max’s energies.

It worked!  By taking these ideas and implementing them over the next six weeks, James was instrumental in redirecting Max’s attention to developing endowed scholarships, convincing him that he, Max,  was the best person to approach carefully selected donors, and that James would personally help him by identifying the prospects and preparing, with Max, the right case to make.  Max embraced the idea.  After all, what he liked best was to be “up front,” be a key person in the campaign, and hobnob with the major donors.  In order to accomplish what he liked to do, he accepted James’s guidance and eventually began to say, “James, my dear man, what if . . . .” and another prospect’s name or idea would emerge.

“Whew,” thought James.  That was a close call.”  Glad that he didn’t lose a major donor, and equally relieved that he surmounted his first major challenge of a new job, he reflected kindly on colleagues who had nurtured him through this dilemma.  “Maybe next time we get together for coffee,” he said to himself, “we should outline a list of warning signs of a no-win job.”  Basking in the aura of a victory won, James sat down and sent an e-mail to his friends.  “Thanks, my friends and colleagues, for giving me ideas on how to handle my problem situation.  Now, how about if we pool our ideas once again and help our other colleagues by developing guidelines for what to look for when interviewing for a job?” 

Case closed, at least for now, at least for James.  Next time, unless a better idea pops up from our readers, watch for “Warning Signs of a No-Win Job.”

We encourage readers to share their own fundraising nightmares, as well as their solutions to those presented by others.  Send an e-mail to with suggestions.

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