I cannot count how many times I have heard nonprofit volunteers and staff exclaim, “What we need is to hire a good fundraiser to meet our budget!” This view is what I call the Sir/Lady AskALot fundraising strategy. The thinking behind the Sir/Lady AskALot strategy is, “Let’s hire a fundraiser who because of their personality will ask a lot and thus raise more money.” This seems to be an omnipresent strategy in the nonprofit sector. When asked the specific criteria regarding what makes an individual a good fundraiser few agree on the determining factors. A persistent answer refers to relational and social characteristics and the expectation that the fundraiser will boldly ask where no one has asked before.
The Sir/Lady AskALot thinking is a costly and failed strategy. How costly? The current development hire lasts on average less than 24 months. Sadly this is about the average minimal time it takes most professional employees to get comfortable and effective in their position. It certainly takes at least this amount of time for effectiveness in fundraising positions which depend heavily on consistent program and relationship development. This short window of employment is a very costly to an organization. One report estimates that the costs to find a replacement is over $127,000 per hire.
This failure is not the result of bad hires but bad systems. The expectation is that the Sir/Lady AskALot strategy will be a quick and simple fix to meet budget needs. Unfortunately meeting these budget needs are typically the result of deeper, more fundamental organizational problems and challenges.
The Sir/Lady AskALot strategy is guided by delusional thinking. Delusional because in spite of the costly results this strategy continues to be repeated again and again. Organizations keep tossing the dice hoping for the lucky win instead of addressing the deeper organizational issues related to their funding need.
The Sir/Lady AskALot strategy primarily fails because successful fundraising is NOT the result of an individual’s personality, skills, and experiences. Success derives from the organization’s culture, plan, mission and impact. An individual is only as effective as the organization. Being good with people, a great asker, and good communicator is not the determining factors in ongoing fundraising success.
Over the years I have been involved in helping organizations secure support for millions of dollars. None of these dollars donated, I repeat not one single dollar, was the result of merely my effort, personality, skills, or experience. I am not being falsely modest. I am being truthful.
The fact is any fundraising system that asks for support will raise some funds. But the important question is “How effective is the system?” A successful fundraising system is effective if it demonstrates positive sustainable results which supports program impact. In a successful fundraising organization positive results occur no matter who fills the fundraising position(s).
At best organizations that follow the Sir/Lady AskALot strategy will experience episodic results. However, sustainable success occurs when nonprofit organizations integrate philanthropy into its overall culture. This is not to downplay the importance of leadership. Or the role that knowledge, skills and personality have in organizational success. Rather it highlights the fact that success is the result of an organizational system which drives the entire business.
What is an organizational system which supports fundraising? Minimally it is a business system guided by:
- A value-infused mission that drives behavior,
- A learning organization which uses solid data and ongoing analysis to maintain and improve outcomes, and
- A consistent alignment of its organizational values throughout the entire structure.
Individuals alone cannot create or sustain this success by using the Sir/Lady AskALot strategy. The Sir AskALot strategy is rolling the dice in a rigged game. The odds of consistent success are low and very costly.
Giving up this strategy requires more than changing hiring practices. It requires addressing basics. This means recognizing that the goal of a nonprofit development program is to create a robust, consistent, sustainable fundraising strategy aligned with organizational values. Alignment in which the structure is infused with values committed to philanthropy as an important means of meeting the organization’s values. If this alignment does not exist then no strategy or tactic will create sustainable success.
Management consultant Peter Drucker is loosely noted to have expressed the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is, the best fundraising strategy will die on the office shelf without a belief in the important role that fundraising serves in the organization. It will fail because it does not connect fundraising to the organization’s mission and values. Without this cultural alignment the fundraising task will be perceived as instrumental to the organization rather than fundamental to its cause.
Establishing and maintaining cultural alignment is number one on the essential to-do list required if the nonprofit sector wants to increase its impact. When nonprofit leaders, development professionals, and donors commit to this cultural alignment effective outcomes will result. Donors serve an important role by demanding that their gifts will be connected to the outcomes they value. Nonprofit leadership, especially development professionals and CEOs, must educate and train boards, volunteers, the general public, and program staff to value the fundraising enterprise as an integral component to the organization’s value-driven purpose.
Unfortunately, without these changes nonprofits will continue to limp along, rolling the dice, hoping that some great Sir/Lady AskALot will be the next fundraising messiah who will deliver them from their episodic fundraising woes. Given the faulty basis of this strategy the best I can say regarding this tactic is: “Good luck!”