7 Ways Bad Leadership in Fundraising Drives Away Your Best Gift Officers

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’” – Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple

Ahhh, leadership. When you have great leadership, the progress, growth, joy, and unity you feel is unlike anything else. This is true for nonprofits as well as any other organization or venture. Unfortunately, bad leadership in fundraising has the opposite effect. Just one or two poor leaders can derail whole organizations and discourage everyone involved, sending them fleeing for the exits.

Of course, there’s a lot of middle ground here between these extremes. Most leaders have a set of strengths and weaknesses, and the hope is that they learn to grow in their strengths and overcome their weaknesses – hopefully sticking around long enough for everyone to experience the benefits of that.

Gift officer turnover is a huge problem in the fundraising world, and bad leadership is one of the most disheartening reasons for this. If you’re a major gift officer struggling under inept, uninspired, abusive, or unethical leadership from your administrators, board, or both, hopefully you can find some hope in reading this article, because you are not alone.

And if you have a board or leadership role in a nonprofit, take a look at this list of seven ways bad leadership in fundraising can cost you your best people and set your organization back. Again, we all have weaknesses and blind spots, and everyone can grow. See if you might have elements of any of these flaws in your leadership, and work to improve on them.

1. Failing to Appreciate or Value Your Employees

Your gift officers are in many ways your most valuable employees, because in most larger fundraising organizations, they bring in most of the revenue. But most of these principles apply to all your employees, not just the gift officers. That said – losing a skilled gift officer who has built relationships with many loyal donors is a tough hole to fill.

That’s why you want to make sure your gift officers feel valued and appreciated. When they give advice or make suggestions, don’t ignore them. Listen. Consider their perspective. It probably comes from a place of sincerity as well as experience.

As Steve Jobs said in the quote above, seek and elevate the expertise of your gift officers – especially the experienced ones. Look for ways to empower them for greater success, rather than suffocate them with dictates and distractions. Commend them for successes. Provide coaching and opportunities for collaboration. Make room for training opportunities, even allowing the experienced ones to help the newer ones.

2. Pennywise Boards and Leadership

When gift officers feel under-resourced and yet have additional responsibilities continually added to their plate, their work starts to feel impossible. It turns into an endless uphill climb that’s impossible to complete. Gift officers should receive the most resources and support, because they bring in the most revenue.

And by the way, spending money on things that make their jobs easier is a great way to do that. MarketSmart’s system is beloved by gift officers from hundreds of organizations because it automates the identification, qualification, and early cultivation steps in the fundraising process.

It also prioritizes donors for outreach based on where THEY said they reside in their consideration process. It helps fundraisers learn when they are ready. Plus, it can even invite supporters to arrange appointments with fundraisers directly on their calendars.

In short, it makes their jobs easier, because they only have to talk with donors and prospects who have self-identified that they want to talk to someone. It reduces cold calling, hangups, and wasted time on bad leads. Here’s more about how MarketSmart helps gift officers.

Nonprofit finances can be complicated, because the CEO doesn’t always have the freedom they might want, depending on the nature of your board. Sometimes a CEO can feel just as hamstrung as the gift officers when the board doesn’t want to invest in proven systems and strategies. If that’s how you feel, send this page to your board members to show them how efficient, valuable, profitable (comes with a 10:1 ROI guarantee), and effective our system will be.

Like everyone else, board members also need to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, areas of skill and expertise, as well as areas where they have more to learn.

3. The Consultant Vortex

There is a cottage industry of nonprofit consultants. Many of them are great. But some of them know as little or less about major gift fundraising than boards and CEOs. Consultants have specialties and biases just like everyone else, and no one is an expert in everything.

This is an area where you can demonstrate how much you appreciate and value your gift officers and other employees. It’s not to say you should never work with consultants. Not at all. But like any other employee, leverage their strengths in tandem with your existing assets.

Some gift officers have told us of times they’ve made suggestions to their leadership about particular issues, and been ignored and sidelined for months, even years. Then one day a consultant comes in and makes the same suggestions, and the leadership eats it up.

When those same consultants throw the employees under the bus and don’t value the expertise already present in the room, it feels like a double blow. Not only are your gift officers being ignored, but now their contributions and skills are being minimized by this consultant.

That doesn’t feel very good. And if it happens enough, your best people will eventually quit and go somewhere else.

4. Double Standards

“A strong, secure leader accepts blame and gives credit. A weak insecure leader gives blame and takes credit.” – John Wooden, famed UCLA Basketball Coach

It’s probably a safe bet that every single person on earth hates double standards. One way this shows up in nonprofits is with accountability. When gift officers and employees feel like it’s accountability for me but not for thee, the resentment builds.

Holding gift officers accountable for their metrics is certainly part of the leader’s job. Although they need to do that with the RIGHT metrics, not just things like activities including number of visits.

The leader also must be held accountable for the things under their control. Leaders gain a lot of trust and respect when they stand in front of the staff and admit they fell short in a particular task or goal. It doesn’t make you look weak. It makes you look human, and demonstrates that you want to keep getting better, just like you ask of your staff.

From the gift officer’s perspective, are the leaders making sure gifts are actually being spent in accordance with the gift agreements with donors? Are they working to involve and maintain relationships with organizational partners? Are they making sure projects that need funding are getting it?

These and other tasks are the leader’s job. But when the rest of the team can see the leader failing in areas like these but then criticizing them because they only had eight meetings this month instead of ten, resentment and bitterness take root.

5. Dealing with Illegal or Abusive Behavior

This one hurts. There is a set of standards in fundraising developed by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. When gift officers see their leadership doing things like accepting inappropriate gifts, signing poorly drafted gift agreements, or violating other fundraising standards, it makes it hard for them to go before donors and prospects touting the virtues of the organization.

Dirty laundry is hard to ignore.

Likewise, when leaders are verbally or emotionally abusive toward their team, like questioning their professionalism or decision-making, especially in front of other people, they will only take it for so long before quitting to work elsewhere.

6. Unqualified Leadership

This is probably more common on boards than with administrators, but perhaps not by as much as you might think. Too many nonprofit leaders really just don’t understand fundraising.

And again – if the leader knows they need to trust and empower the expertise on their teams and focus on their strengths, this lack of understanding doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Maybe a leader excels at building systems and forging corporate partnerships, but doesn’t know much about the intricacies of major gift fundraising.

If the leader knows this about themselves, and approaches the gift officers from the standpoint of “How can I help facilitate you for success?”, this deficiency doesn’t have to be a negative.

The problem arises when a leader who doesn’t know much about fundraising acts as if they do, and starts making decisions that all the gift officers know will not end well.

For example, too many leaders view fundraising as simply extracting dollars from wealthy people – a transactional exchange. They scoff or belittle the reality that it’s almost entirely relationship-driven. They value speed and results instead.

Other times, leaders act and speak as if you can win gifts from wealthy people just because they are wealthy, regardless of their interest in your mission. This is why some administrators are so captivated by wealth screeners and RFM reports. They love seeing lists of wealthy people, and just hand them off to their gift officers, considering the job as good as done.

But at that point, it has barely begun. Gift officers know it. Leaders need to know it too, or trust the gift officers when they say so.

7. Clueless, Distracted, or Unengaged Leadership

“Leadership is about solving problems. The day employees stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or conclude you do not care. Either case is a failure on leadership.” -Colin Powell

As a gift officer, have you ever been in a donor meeting with an administrator there with you, and they completely go off script in the middle of the conversation? Arrgh!

Many gift officers even report board members and leaders making business pitches right in the middle of a fundraising meeting. This sort of thing annihilates most of the progress made up to that point.

As our signature online course Donor Story: Epic Fundraising teaches nonprofit teams how to do, the conversations you have with donors need to tread carefully and strategically as you work to build up their self-motivation to give the biggest possible gift they can imagine giving. Interrupting that process can cost you millions of dollars. Yes – millions.

Other times, leaders start their own little pet projects that have little interest to donors, but they seek funding for them and launch big campaigns that bear little fruit. This is a distraction.

Another very common experience is when leaders come to gift officers and their departments with new revenue goals they basically just pulled out of a hat. “We need more revenue, so here’s the new goal for this year.” It’s not based on anything practical or realistic. We just need more money, so go raise more.

That’s not how this works.

Unrealistic goals, and especially time-based quotas, will dishearten and drive away your best gift officers. Why? Because most major gifts take anywhere from six months to two years to secure. That’s a long time, and you can’t rush it. Even worse, often these unrealistic goals don’t come with any extra funding, staff, or resources like MarketSmart’s software – which does actually help gift officers do much more with less.

If you’re on a nonprofit board or in a leadership position, here’s how our system will make your major gifts fundraising work more profitable and enjoyable. And no – we are NOT a CRM.


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