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Fundraising: Smoke Alarm, Fire Escape, or Security Blanket? – Part 2

By Tom Watson on March 27, 2009One Comment

This is the second in a three-part series as part of our feature, Fundraising Nightmares and How to Wake up From Them. Read the first installment here.

After saying “yes” to the offer and sending e-mails to friends and family which exuded enthusiasm and excitement for his new position, Joe arrived on site and moved into his new office.  The school year was into its second semester, so Joe had extra challenges in catching up with the campus routine, events, corporate culture, and demands of his role.

He had only been ensconced in his new environment for about a week when the president called him in.  Joe hadn’t been in the campus leader’s office before.  As he sank into the leather chair that faced the president’s desk, he thought, “Maybe I overlooked something.  Shouldn’t the president have communicated with me earlier?  Is he going to be a significant leader for my fundraising efforts?”  A little nagging doubt crept into his mind and made its way down to his midsection. Then he was brought back to the moment by the president’s first words, “Joe, we have a problem.”

A problem?  What kind of a first-time greeting was that?  A distinct sense of “uh-oh” took over Joe’s mind and feelings.  “Yes, sir,” he replied, not sure how to respond to this first encounter with his new institution’s leader.  An uncomfortable silence descended.

The president cleared his throat, looked down at the pile of papers on his desk, finally raised his eyes to meet Joe’s worried and intense gaze.  “Yes, we have a problem.”  He hesitated.  “I might as well be blunt about it.  We hired you with the expectation that we would receive a large foundation grant which would pay your salary and also help us get started with fundraising in a big way.”  Once again he paused and hesitated.  “Well, the grant didn’t come through.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied again, really not knowing what would be an appropriate response.  The whole scenario became more and more puzzling.  What had he not been told?  What had he not heard, or listened to?  What had he forgotten to ask?  Had he really walked blindly into a no-win situation?

“Yes,” the president continued, “so we have to ask you to get really busy and not just raise the funds we need for finishing out the school year, but also to raise your salary.”   He then added, “With your stellar reputation and accomplishments—yes, we checked into your background well—this should be no problem for you.  Right?”

Stunned, Joe looked at the rich carpet beneath his feet as his face assumed the same hues as the red in the floor covering.  Yup, he thought, my mentor was right about the smoke alarms.  His mind jumped to the old cliché, “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”  Clearly they were viewing fundraising as a fire escape—a desperate measure to get out of the red, to pay the vendors, to meet payroll, and who knows what else.  He stared at the president and asked, “I’ll get paid as agreed, right?  I spent my own funds moving up here to take this job and have depleted most of my savings.”

The president mumbled something that Joe didn’t quite hear.  “Pardon me,” Joe leaned forward, “what did you say?”

“Well, we were hoping you could volunteer until the funds come in to pay you.”

To recap the feelings and thoughts that went through Joe’s mind would take too long.  He left town as soon as possible, realizing that the smoke alarm situation really did lead to fundraising being viewed as a fire escape—a way out of a desperate situation.  Fundraising really wasn’t sustainable at NoName College, had been sporadic and only geared up when great needs motivated action, and was in somewhat of a disarray.*

As he trekked to his previous haunts, hoping his old job hadn’t been taken yet, he mulled over the “fire escape” situations he knew about or had heard from others.

  • A youth-service agency that was existing on a large grant from a local foundation that was nearing the end of its three-year funding period but was only now gearing up to do fundraising.  Friends who worked there feared it would go out of business when the grant ended.  What would then happen to the clients, to the youth who badly needed these services?
  • Another small college that was doing minimal fundraising from alumni—sort of maintenance level fundraising—but suddenly “discovered” a rather significant debt and wanted to gear up a major campaign to raise funds for debt reduction.  Joe wondered what kind of donor loyalty existed that would even begin to justify a major campaign, especially one for something as unpopular as debt payments.
  • A community orchestra that had existed happily on the largesse of a single patron whom they honored and feted, but who had suddenly landed in a hospital with major surgery and complications.  Why had they not diversified their donor base when they had a good income?
  • A community service organization for families and children that operated with state funds, yet a recent change in government administration caused a drastic reduction of the grant, and the organization hadn’t engaged in fundraising to any great extent—just an occasional small grant now and then was all they could claim, so there was little fundraising history and therefore a limited donor base.  What would happen to the needy families and children?

He pulled off the highway to get a cup of coffee and lick his wounds—both financial and psychological.  His faith in his own professionalism was shaken.  He had fallen for a lofty and idealistic job description, only to find that fundraising was not a significant part of the organization’s operations and activities and was only addressed when a “fire escape” was needed—a way out of a difficult or challenging financial situation.

Like a dog crawling out of a wet and icy pond into which it had inadvertently fallen, he shook himself and grimaced as he headed back to his car.  Next time, he vowed to himself, I’m going to wrap myself in a security blanket when it comes to a fundraising job.  I’m going to look for an organization that has a sustainable, active, on-going, successful fundraising program where my talents can be used and I won’t be lowering the fire escape ladder!

*This incident actually occurred recently, unrealistic as it may seem.

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