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Fundraisers’ Nightmares: More Tips on the Boss Who Doesn’t Understand Your Job

By Lilya Wagner on December 7, 2011No Comment

This is the concluding installment on the recent column that advised fundraisers on dealing with executives who don’t really understand what it is that development professionals do. On this topic, I’ve asked colleagues to help me give some solid advice to frustrated fundraisers trying to wake up from this “nightmare.”

Marc Hardy, director of the Nonprofit Executive Education department at the University of Notre Dame puts a practical, profession-oriented look at this question—“What if my boss doesn’t understand my job?”

Probably the most dominant comment I hear from development officers is that bosses need to understand that the relationship with the donor is more important, in the long run, than getting a certain donation within a certain time period for a certain project. For instance, one person shared with me that the secret to his success is asking donors what they are trying to accomplish with their philanthropy. If the officer’s organization does not have a program or cause that matches the donor’s objective, he always tries to suggest other organizations that might help the donor achieve the desired outcome. This might seem counter-productive in the short-term, but it first and foremost lets the donor know that the officer is focused on the donor’s desired mission and not his or her money. Second, it builds a deep trust between the donor, the officer and the  institution that can have major positive benefits down the road in terms of an even larger major or planned gift.

Marc goes on to put this professional dilemma into a larger context.  “Given that some studies suggest that the transfer of wealth in the next 30 to 40 years will yield at least $6 trillion dollars in charitable bequests, the largest ever, this could be a very good advice–even more so since these studies were made before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett started ‘The Giving Pledge,’ which has encouraged more than 50 billionaires to pledge 50% or more of their wealth to charity. This is far and above the traditional 15% of wealth that is usually bestowed for charitable uses.”

Then Marc adds the clincher:  “Given these predictions, it seems that bosses truly need to be thinking long-term about development instead of focusing on short term fundraising quotas.”

Obviously the purposes of these columns on “leadership nightmares” aren’t designed to cover each topic thoroughly but to share some pointers on how to handle challenging leadership problems, and what my three colleagues have suggested above may lead you to think of your own next steps and maybe even solutions.  In summary, perhaps the following actions might be helpful in overcoming the situation of “My boss doesn’t understand what I do.”

1.      There is no substitute for good planning which promises outcomes and has a strong rationale included for doing what you do.  This plan should have the input of staff, board development committee, and others who add credibility to your plan.  Share this plan with the boss, asking her to sit down with you as you go over it briefly.

2.      Report to the boss, as promised in your plan.  Promise periodic updates focusing on results.  Include hard-to-quantify steps along the way toward showing the results, so the flow of activity is clear and ends in a measurable.

3.      Ensure there are clear accountabilities in your plan, with promises of results.

4.      Use influential people or groups to motivate your boss toward action, and to make her desire to be part of a successful effort.  Perhaps you can make an ally of a major donor—without ever divulging that you may have problems with your boss, of course—or a volunteer who is particularly enthusiastic.

5.      In appropriate ways share information about what works in fundraising, what the trends are, what the experts are saying, what successes organizations similar to yours are experiencing and why, and what the research states.

6.      Above all, conduct yourself in a professional manner.  Even if your position is under mild (or at times, severe) attack, keep your cool, maintain a professional demeanor, don’t get riled up by questions that may range from innocent inquiry to negative criticism.

7.      Ultimately, as San Francisco fundraiser Tony Adessa concludes, if your situation shows signs of becoming untenable, consider dusting off your resume.  Not all battles are winnable.

Comments and questions are welcome!

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