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Fundraising: Smoke Alarm, Fire Escape, or Security Blanket? | Part One

By Tom Watson on February 19, 2009No Comment

Although admittedly I listened with half a brain at first, carefully checking for icy areas, I quickly came alert when I heard that the fire was disastrous because the smoke alarm wasn’t working.  Fortunately the survivors (no deaths, much to my relief) were able to abandon the burning building; all too often, though, such fires result in fatalities.

Because I was driving to work where I knew a number of people and organizations would be calling or e-mailing me with fundraising dilemmas, I began to think about fundraising and the various real-life situations.  How many fundraising disasters might be averted if we became more alert to the warning signs — the verbal smoke alarms of job ads — and heeded them?  I began to reminisce about some of my colleagues, students, clients, and others who engage in fundraising, whether as full-time professionals or part-time volunteers  — whether as mere dabblers or serious contenders for today’s philanthropic dollars, and some situations they had encountered. 

I remembered Joe*, a vibrant, energetic, knowledgeable young professional who already had some good experience working as a fundraiser for a foundation that supported student scholarships.  Not quite content with his opportunities for career advancement and a bit disillusioned by the slow pace of the organizational culture, he began to respond to job ads.  Being single and therefore mobile, he thought it would be an adventure to relocate if the right job didn’t surface in his mid-Western city.   

One job ad interested him in particular.  This was from a small New England college.  As usual, the ad proclaimed, “Vice President of NoName College: Excellent opportunity for a serious and seasoned fundraiser.”  It then went on to list the job’s responsibilities, including:

Development Plan — Propose quantitative fundraising targets and strategic, capacity-building priorities on an annual basis and lay out an action plan of initiatives to achieve goals.

Annual Fund — Execute annual appeals and direct mail campaigns. 

Board Giving — Work with president, board chair and development committee chair to define a board solicitation plan and major gifts strategy.

Foundation & Corporate Giving — Meet with president to update funding priorities and develop new ideas for funding proposals; work with development staff to turn ideas into fundable proposals. Work with board to identify relationships that will improve foundation and corporate giving relationships.

Events — Identify events for the year and supervise and support development staff in coordinating event logistics and details.

Endowment Gifts & Planned Giving — Develop a fundraising strategy to double the endowment in 10 years and identify a target audience and develop a planned giving approach.

Major Donor Identification — Identify potential major donors and develop a major gifts strategy.  Best qualified candidates will have a track record of raising seven-figure gifts. 

“Wow,” thought Joe.  “This seems like a lot to demand from one professional.  Wonder what the catch is?  Maybe there is quite a large staff and I’ll be supervising more than I’m accustomed to.”  He reviewed the responsibilities once again, mentally plugging in his experience under each responsibility description.  Looking at it optimistically because he had been raising funds for scholarships and that fit nicely with higher education, and because he thought career advancement was most favorable in that environment, he took this step seriously.

His optimism began to fade quickly.  “What?  No fundraising plan?  And this is a higher ed institution?  Maybe they just want me to draw up a new one, or refine the old one.”  So, he forged ahead.  “Hmmm.  They say there’s a fundraising staff but they want me to ‘execute annual appeals and direct mail campaigns.’  If this is a senior position — a vice president position — why would the ad say this?  Well, maybe they misspoke in writing the ad.”  He skimmed further down and the major gift item made him stop.  A small college with possible gaps in the fundraising operations — if he was reading the job ad correctly — and yet the expectations were in seven-figure major gifts?  And this after the phrase, “identify major gifts . . .?” 

However, being the perennial up-beat guy, the optimist when others cringed at challenges, the let’s-do-it person when others shrank back, Joe kept reading the ad.  He next focused on the qualifications section.

A sincere commitment to higher education and a comfort level in diverse social settings — from mixing with board members, to working with faculty, to visiting alumni groups, to presenting to foundation heads.

“Whoa,” he thought again.  “How many of us actually get to meet foundation heads?  Isn’t that a bit too optimistic, or even unrealistic?”  He read on.

A minimum of seven years of progressively responsible experience in fundraising with a track record of success in securing support from foundations and individuals as well as some capital campaign experience.

“Hmmm,” he mused again.  “I don’t recall anything in the responsibilities section about capital campaigns.  Well, OK.  Maybe they’re leading up to one.  Might be great experience.  But wait — I’ve never done a capital campaign.  Does this leave me out?  Surely my major gift experience, although not even in the six-figure range, would carry some credibility?”  And he read on.

Experience asking for gifts and positioning others to make the ask.

Understanding of the relationship of marketing to development.

OK so far, but then the next item caused him to pause. Demonstrated management ability, with strong planning, prioritizing, project management and tactical execution skills with experience in organizing a development department, coaching staff and overseeing vendors.

 “So, does this person inherit a fundraising team, or organize one?  And what’s this about overseeing vendors?  Does it mean relationships with vendors?  Do I become a purchasing agent on top of everything else?” 

Experience organizing the president and board around tasks they need to accomplish and ability to partner well with administrative team, board  and program staff.

A touch of relief set in.  Joe had always liked organizing people and programs.  No problem here.  But wait.  Should he read between the lines and deduce that the president and board weren’t engaged in fundraising up to this point? 

Outstanding written and verbal skills with the ability to articulate the college’s  mission, programs and special strengths, and to present the college in a compelling and effective manner.

Superior interpersonal skills with a “can do” personality, an entrepreneurial bent and high energy level.

Well, no problem here, Joe thought.  His natural energy and optimistic attitudes would be well suited to the desired qualification.
Ability to think strategically and analytically with excellent follow-through, strong attention to detail and the ability to balance a variety of tasks with deadlines. 

Flexibility to respond quickly to new opportunities and changing priorities.

Computer skills essential, especially with the latest versions of Word and Raiser’s Edge.

Again Joe paused.  No problem with the strategic thinking and follow-through.  These were comfortable operating habits.  But what’s that about Raiser’s Edge?  Familiarity was one thing.  But for a vice president to be “skilled” in Raiser’s Edge?  That was quite another!

Bachelor’s degree required; advanced degree preferred.

“Nothing about a CFRE preferred,”  Jose mused.  “Might that indicate a lack of professionalism at this college when it comes to fundraising?”

Joe was about to toss away the ad but curiosity got the best of him.  At that point he called me for input.  Having been in some courses I had taught, he thought perhaps I could lend perspectives. 

I listened, then responded, “This sounds like a typical ‘smoke alarm’ situation to me.  While we need to consider that perhaps the wording in the ad was poorly chosen and expressed, maybe there are enough warning signals here.  Why not make a list of them, and then let’s talk again to see if it’s worth the time and effort it takes to apply for this job?  More importantly, this will alert you to warning signals that the job isn’t what you want.  If you get an invitation to interview, you’ll at least know what questions to ask.”

Joe did just that.  He made a lengthy list of his questions, decided to apply in spite of the warning signs because the location and mission of the college appealed to him, and was invited to interview.  Tune in next time to see if this “smoke alarm” situation turned into a real fire, and if the institution was actually in a fire-escape mode.


*Joe, of course, is a pseudonym but could apply to a significant number of friends, former students, colleagues, etc., who have had less-than-positive experiences in fundraising jobs!

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