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President won’t do fundraising? No problem! Fire the Fundraiser!

By Tom Watson on October 22, 2008No Comment

Lulled by this idyllic situation, Charles signed on the dotted line, thinking he had reached the pinnacle of his career.  Only fleetingly did he wonder if something that seemed so ideal could in actuality be a smoke screen for a set of serious problems.

In a euphoric state, and feeling somewhat smug when he attended AFP meetings where his colleagues moaned about one problem after another, Charles set out to ensure this job would be perfect, and he would emerge with the greatest success of his fundraising career.  In his office from the tenth floor, he would sometimes stare out of the wall of windows and marvel at his good fortune.  Little did he know that down the hall, his boss the president also marveled at his own good fortune – the implications of which would cause Charles many a sleepless night.

Charles did all the right things.  He identified funding prospects, he set up a database, he developed a plan which the development committee praised, and he had weekly update meetings with the boss.  He even achieved some collegiality with his peers in the senior ranks, who praised his presence and promised cooperation.

Then, little by little, nagging concerns began to plague Charles. When he wanted to travel to visit potential donors, he was told, “We don’t have that kind of money in the budget.”  He wondered about this, particularly since he learned during senior staff meetings that the president was, once again, out of town on a lengthy good-will trip.  “I thought we had an agreement that he would tell me when he could visit donors,” Charles thought.  When Charles would talk with the president about visiting a potential major donor, the president would say, “I’ll take care of it,” but nothing ever happened.  Soon Charles began to feel flummoxed.  Could it really be true that the president didn’t want to meet with potential donors, yet didn’t want Charles to do so either?

Charles began to feel more pressure from the board.  Although most of the development committee supported him, there was little action from much of the board, yet plenty of criticism about lack of big money coming in.  This caused a major communication problem for Charles.  For the first time in his rather lengthy career, he was not allowed direct contact with the board without first going through the president and getting permission to approach members.  He soon realized that he was being misrepresented to the board by the president.  “How could they have such faulty perceptions,” he wondered, “when I’ve been giving them reports on what I have achieved, and plans detailing what more could be done?”  He became even more perplexed when his boss began to cancel appointments or simply not show up for them.

Finally a caring colleague said to him, “Don’t you realize that your boss just isn’t going to do fundraising, that he thinks it’s beneath him, and that he hired you so the pressure would be off?  The board has made this a major point of his continuing employment.  He needs a scapegoat.  And guess who is the best candidate?!”

Charles drove home in shock.  He realized with dismay that what seemed like an ideal job to cap his career was turning into a first-rate nightmare.  He had a good track record; he had raised significant funds, some under challenging circumstances; he was considered an expert in his field; and he enjoyed the respect of his peers.  Yet here he was, in a seemingly untenable situation, because his boss not only didn’t want to raise funds but in subtle ways either refused to let him move ahead and take action, or subtly sabotaged his efforts by not following through and giving slightly obfuscated reports to the board about fundraising.  Charles’s discomfort and dismay grew when the development committee chair bluntly told him, “You have to produce more results or we may have to take another look at your employment agreement.”  Sadly, Charles realized that the old adage once again proved to be true – if something looks too good to be true, it probably is!  He had succumbed to age-old temptations to take things at face value if conditions were pleasing, to be too trusting, to not explore for hidden agendas.  Worst of all, his belief in himself as a professional who could handle any challenging fundraising situation was seriously damaged.

How could Charles set the record straight?  He reported directly to the boss, which had seemed like a compliment, yet the boss increasingly avoided talking with him, much less discussing fundraising.  And he couldn’t talk to the board members without the boss’s permission.  If he tried to explain his predicament to his peers, who weren’t on board as a whole anyway when it came to fundraising, he would seem like a complainer or whiner.  Because the boss had hired him without much consultation with senior staff, he was deemed to be a “favored son.”  Clearly not only was his job on the line if the truth didn’t emerge, but he risked losing his good reputation in the profession.

What options are available to Charles?  How might this problem be solved, or is it one for which the only solution is to resign before being fired? 

Readers’ comments are always welcome.  Next month there won’t be a mini-case study but will be a column on what to look for when offered a job, or when invited to interview for a position.  How do we avoid the no-win situations?

*A Greener Tomorrow is, of course, a fictitious organization.

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