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Home » Fundraising, Fundraising Nightmares, NonProfits

“My Boss Doesn’t Understand My Job!”

By Lilya Wagner on October 28, 2011No Comment

Leadership Nightmares and How To Wake Up From Them

Is there anyone of us fundraising professionals who has not been asked at some time in our lives, “What do you really do?”

In my case, my previous careers were quite clear and in most cases considered respectable — high school music and English teacher, PR professional, teacher of English as a second language, university professor, and so forth.  But when I became a fundraising executive about 25 years ago, my own parents would look at me quizzically and ask, “What do you really do?”

This and similar questions which address the general public’s puzzlement and mild confusion about us and our profession can be amusing, although admittedly at times disconcerting as well.  The latter is definitely the case and state of mind if our own bosses direct such a question to us — “What do you REALLY do?”

Given what we know about the serious role and responsibility of the leader of an organization in engaging in fundraising efforts, being asked “What do you really do?” is cause for major concern.  This critical question might be followed by some version of these additional questions:

  • Why do you have to spend so much time outside of the office?  Can’t you do your job while on site?
  • What’s with this expense report item about a lunch?  You want our organization to pay for it?
  • Why do you need me to go with you on that visit?  Can’t you do it by yourself?
  • You want ME to help you plan for fundraising?  What did I hire YOU for?!
  • You want to talk to board members?  No way.  That’s just not the protocol around here.
  • Why do you need such a big budget?  Are you being frugal or are you a spendthrift?  Sure looks like the latter!

These and many other possible questions are clearly a sign of a problem situation.  As Tony Adessa, a fundraising professional in San Francisco, explains,  “If your boss doesn’t understand your job, a very delicate situation exists.  For you to succeed in your development role, at least in the long run, this situation will have to change.  There is no easy way out or “quick fix,” but – with some careful analysis and planning – she can be educated, and progress can be made.”

Tony, who has successfully raised funds for a number of organizations while also maintaining a career in music (a career where it’s quite clear regarding “What do you do?!”) goes on to explain.  “Initially, you will want to establish a baseline and take stock of the situation.  Begin by asking yourself questions such as “How long do I want to work for this person?” and “How long do I need to work for this person?”  Your answers will shed much light on your plan and course of action; for example, if you need to work for this person, what you choose to do and how you go about doing it may suggest a more conservative, less risky approach.  Some bosses are sure they know it all, while others only think they do – and may be open to being educated.”

Tony has some practical suggestions for how to proceed with a strategy that will, possibly, eliminate or at least minimize the problem of a boss not understanding what you do as a fundraising professional.  First, proceed by imagining that your boss is your most highly coveted donor.  Then, just as you would for a real donor, conceive a highly personalized cultivation plan tailored to your boss’s persona, based on answers to questions such as: how long and how well have you known him?  What pleases and displeases him?  How does he learn most readily (e.g. verbal communication, technological applications, etc)?  How big is his ego?  The bigger it is, the more care will need to be taken not to seem superior to him in the educating process.   If there is a third party – someone both of you know and implicitly trust – asking this person to intercede on your behalf can soften and minimize the impact of what otherwise would be potentially more forceful (and personal), coming directly from you.  Understanding and effectively using psychology will be instrumental in helping achieve your goals.

Susan Harlow, Vice President for Development and Community Outreach at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, has these suggestions to share.  “For most of us in this profession, we would feel lucky if we only had one “boss” or person who assumes a level of authority (board chairs, volunteer leaders, deans, CEOs, fund development committee chairs, auxiliary presidents, etc) and they usually come with varying degrees of knowledge about the philanthropic process. My response as to how to handle this situation is the same for each: education, education, education–in a variety of ways and as often as possible.”

Susan relates an experience by which she handled a problem situation regarding an unknowledgeable boss.  “My previous position was as the Vice Chancellor of Advancement for a large public university in California. While the needs were great, there had been little strategic philanthropy for the campus in its 50-year history. The result was well-meaning but unsophisticated efforts on the part of the deans as it pertained to fundraising and little intentional efforts on the part of the other leaders.  I launched a monthly newsletter for the deans, senior leadership and the Chancellor. I had the top development director from each college/unit send me a monthly report of highlights. From that I edited an executive summary with successes, strategies, and partnerships. An additional section was always an educational piece on various aspects of building a successful fundraising program, national trends or highlights, etc. The result was a transparency that had never existed before, a little friendly competition among the deans, and a focus for conversations across the campus at all levels that hadn’t taken place before.”

Susan also initiated a quarterly speaker series on philanthropy topics that was attended by the same group which received the newsletter. She found that as her various “bosses” understood the process better so, too, did the conversations with her actual boss improve and reflect overall goals and strategies.

In the next installment of this column, Marc Hardy, director of the Nonprofit Executive Education department at the University of Notre Dame, will look at some important implications of this question for a professional fundraiser’s relationship, not only with her boss, but with important donors.

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