What They Don’t Teach in Fundraising School

Do you know what they don’t teach in fundraising school? The situational realities of fundraising, such as:

You’re given a goal far greater than any previously achieved at your institution.

Your boss chose that goal because other organizations have raised that amount, never mind they had a hundred-year start on you, twelve times the staff, are considered much more prestigious, and have long-established relationships with highly wealthy donors. If other organizations did it so should we, your boss reasons. Setting that unprecedented goal may be the reason your boss got the job, got the board off her back for now, or may be a part of his greater career advancement plan.

But now the wildly unrealistic is your responsibility.

You study organizations that have raised that amount or more. You learn, on average, that 28% came from their board. Your board has never given more than 10% of the total in one year and has never achieved 100% participation. You’re expected to raise more money from non-board members who have no access to your CEO and have no say in setting the direction of the institution. However, more exposure to your CEO rarely leads anyone to commit to greater philanthropic investment.

Further, you’re expected to raise it for uses determined by organizational leaders like endowment and unrestricted, even “budget relieving.” Highly distinguished organizations with broad, well-developed bases of support might get away with such a mundane fundraising menu but you don’t have those assets.

You work a few miracles along the way and raise much more money than has ever been raised for your organization but you are still met with disappointment, criticism, or worse because you fell short of the unreal.

You’re a seasoned, successful fundraiser. You have good intuition and the ability to match strategy and tactics with donor interests and inclinations. You know how to develop relationships and you enjoy interacting with current and prospective donors. You keep up with the field. You’re an ethical practitioner – but little of that mattered because of the situation in which you found yourself.

Șo if fundraising schools, seminars, articles, and books don’t address these issues and don’t teach the situational realpolitik of fundraising, isn’t that like trying to teach white water rafting in a kiddie pool?

What Fundraising Schools Should Be Teaching
  • Setting realistic expectations
  • Recognizing and managing unrealistic expectations
  • Resources for managing boards and bosses
  • Deepening your self-awareness (so you can help your bosses and board members deepen theirs)
  • Developing early warning systems of struggles ahead
  • Creating the conditions that will facilitate sustained fundraising practices
  • The upsides and downsides of cross-organizational benchmarking (what you can and can’t compare)
  • Self-management in stressful situations
  • Orchestrating interventions when your organization is racing in the wrong direction


Jim Langley is the president of Langley Innovations. Langley Innovations provides a range of services to its clients to help them understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support. Jim has authored numerous books including his most recent book, The Future of Fundraising: Adapting to New Philanthropic Realities, published by Academic Impressions in 2020. 

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1 month ago

I think you just described my job

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