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Leadership Nightmares and How to Wake Up From Them

By Lilya Wagner on May 25, 2011One Comment
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John is chief development officer of a medical school foundation.  The CEO of the foundation and CFO have met and discussed the budget, and he expected to be consulted about the amount of money he should raise. To his surprise, he sees the budget by accident and finds out that the board has already approved it, and he is to raise $3,750,000. John is concerned. He wanted to construct a gift range chart and discuss a realistic goal with his superiors. So what should he do now?

Susan is development director of a symphony in a city of about half a million population. On her organization’s board are some well-connected people because the symphony is the “chic” nonprofit with which to be involved.  She has a fundraising goal for the annual fund and needs to meet with volunteers. However, her CEO has made it clear that she must go through him before making any board contact. She is quite surprised, and asks if this is also true for the development committee and its chair. Yes, the CEO replies. So Susan has a problem. How can she work with volunteers if she has no access to them?

Have you ever experienced the above challenges or similar ones such as these?

  •  Your boss micromanages and gets involved in minute details.
  • You don’t get enough information about organizational programs or decisions and are caught off guard when talking with donors or board members.
  • Your boss wants you to report on your weekly activities.  This takes time, and you feel he/she is checking on you.
  • You go on solicitation calls out of town, and when you come back, your colleagues ask, “Did you have a good time?”  They obviously don’t understand fundraising!

 If so, you’re not alone.  Fundraising as a profession is a challenging one, which of course makes it a most desirable profession for many of us.  Yet at the same time we experience challenges that make our work more difficult than necessary at times.  In the previous set of columns which I wrote for onPhilanthropy, I and guest writers/colleagues handled “fundraiser nightmares” and discussed some of the problems that we encounter when trying to do our best for the organizations we serve. 

 In this next series of columns we will look at problems we have with leadership and our fundraising functions and professionalism.  Having the support and involvement of leadership is crucial for fundraising success, but sometimes situations caused by or influenced by leaders result in more headaches and heartaches than we expected, and impede our progress.

Recently I spoke at conference for nonprofit personnel (including fundraisers) and asked the approximately sixty participants present to consider what challenges we have when “leading up,” or when having to exercise leadership skills and qualities from any position.  This question was based on my book, Leading Up:  Transformational Leadership for FundraisersThe premise of the book is that we need to not just be professionals in fundraising but need to add to our repertoire of expertise and skills the necessary leadership traits that allow us to handle difficult situations.  Leadership isn’t just from the top any more.  Leadership occurs at many levels, and fundraisers have to exercise such skills in order to work at their optimum.

 The group of nonprofit professionals in my session compiled the following list of challenges posed or presented by their leadership:

 Unrealistic short-term goal expectations

Inconsistent engagement in process

Lack of clarity/respect for role boundaries

Working inside of accounting bureaucracy

Everyone wants credit, no one wants responsibility

Working with lack of leadership

Unfocused leaders

Supervisors putting staff in compromising ethical situations

Change of leadership to dictatorial, micromanagement

Board not engaged

Board stretched too thin

Ignoring conflict

Lack of feedback/communication

Not listening (or not hearing)

Inter-generational communications differences

Gender differences in leadership styles

Authority without responsibility and/or responsibility without authority

No final authority

No clear delegation of duties or authority

Visionary leader but poor commitment to execution

Being self-aware to let go of control

Not being open to change

Time management

Reluctance to change the way we have done it in the past

Education of volunteers, stakeholders, constituents and colleagues

Managing feelings/emotions

Sharpen focus:  need common language, common vision, common ground

Emotionally driven decisions

Boss not understanding job

Cognitive dissonance—blind spot personality

Leadership likes ideas, lacks action

 In the coming months one or several of these problems, if interrelated, will be discussed, with suggestions for action provided by several professionals in fundraising and nonprofit management.  We invite you to send an e-mail when you have suggestions on how to resolve these leadership challenges, or to comment on a previous column if you have further ideas on how to handle the challenges listed. 

 Dr. Lilya Wagner, CFRE, is an experienced fundraiser, consultant, editor and author, teacher and trainer. She can be reached at

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