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Fundraising Nightmares: Is It Your Boss, or the Board?

By Tom Watson on December 4, 2008No Comment

The development department was separately located from the rest of the orchestra’s staff, in rented offices down the street from the performance hall. There seemed to be no interest in teambuilding between the two staff complements, and unofficial contacts were just as indifferent. And Keith, her director, did very little to inform the development staff about staff initiatives in the other departments.

The board was another mystery that he never discussed — one that Cathy wanted to learn about as part of her growth towards an executive director position.

When Cathy asked for more responsibility, Keith gave her the task of working with Steve, the consultant undertaking a feasibility study for a projected endowment campaign. She spent many hours lining up interviews, arranging meetings, briefing the consultant, and preparing presentations that others delivered. The consultant, too, was impressed with her capabilities.

Finally the study was complete, with very promising results. A board meeting was called to consider the final report and decide about committing to the campaign. EMSO was such a significant client that the consultant missed a day of the American Symphony Orchestra League conference to fly to Elm Mott for the meeting.

The entire development staff began fidgeting about half an hour before the meeting was scheduled to end at 2 p.m. that Friday. They were keen to get started with the campaign and excited about its possibilities. All wondered how the board meeting was proceeding.

At 2:10, the development director and the consultant stormed through the office door, both looking furious. Two minutes later the consultant picked up his bag and left. The director slammed the door to his office. No-one saw him for the rest of the afternoon.

Cathy waited until most of the staff had left that afternoon, and quietly knocked on his door. After a few moments, the door opened. “Are you okay, Keith?” she asked.

“They didn’t even consider the report,” he said softly. “It was supposed to be a one-issue meeting devoted to the feasibility report. Instead, they spent the entire two hours on lunch and minor operational matters, and then at 2 o’clock, we lost our quorum. Steve flew all the way up from Houston when he could have been soliciting business at the ASOL conference. They didn’t even let him speak.”
Cathy was appalled. That night at home, she tried to figure out what had happened.

Was Keith, her boss, so disliked that none of his initiatives would be approved by the board? Was the board dysfunctional, did they not understand the importance of fundraising, or were they just colossally rude? And how would it affect her own growth opportunities if her champion had no influence, or if the organization itself was known to be dysfunctional at the highest level?

Keith resigned two weeks later. A week after that, the supervisor of the ticket office was appointed to the development director’s position. Soon after that, a new position focusing on corporate sponsorships was created and filled without any visible internal or external advertising. Neither the feasibility study nor the endowment campaign was mentioned again.

If you were Cathy, how would you read the tea leaves, and what would you do? Would you ramp up your job search efforts using your departed boss as a reference? Would you request a meeting with your new boss to review your capabilities and your accomplishments and express your hopes for more responsibility? Would you seek a lateral transfer into a department that was closer to the action?

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