How to grow fundraising leaders

Who would be a leader? Rarely worshipped nowadays, often reviled. Unable to live up to expectations or confirming people’s negative impressions. The weight of the world on your shoulders but often dependent on others. First into battle, last to eat – nowadays, it’s more often the other way round. When a leader is someone who inspires rather than instructs, we humans become misty eyed at their oratory or bravery and start thinking they can do no wrong, but the greatest leaders can be very different in their personal lives.

I was chatting with a fundraiser from another charity at a Parliamentary reception, and I felt sad. This person was passionate, knowledgeable, ambitious, creative and determined. She was actually an ideal leader. And she was also feeling sad. Worn down by a nightmare CEO and a weak Board of Trustees, both of whom were preventing her from actually raising money. The weight of the world was on her shoulders.

I knew how she felt because I’ve been there myself. I’ve spoken with far too many people who have lost their passion, fire and belief after years of refuseniks, blockers, risk averse and, frankly, ignorant leadership. Not so much fundraising leadership, but charity leaders in general.

The best fundraisers understand things well outside their scope. They get governance, finance, strategy, marketing, communications, volunteering, service delivery, human resource management and campaigning. That’s because they are excellent fundraisers and realise that income’s only value is what it can achieve. We can only raise more money when we grasp all the different aspects of charity. In fundraising, that wide view is essential. I think it’s also essential for other areas. How can you deliver services without understanding their impact, political context and where the money comes from? How can you hope to run a charity effectively when you don’t grasp all the different work areas? You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to have a broad understanding.

I worry that we may never resolve the issue of fundraising leaders (many honourable exceptions, of course) because the best fundraisers simply won’t stick around for long enough to reach the top. Why would they, when their talents are ignored and their working life is spent constantly being let down and told no? I understand that Directors of Fundraising like to see some stickiness in a CV, but three years can be an eternity when every day you are undermined, belittled, scorned and ignored. Of course fundraisers leave earlier. They want to achieve something with their talents.

I believe this is a pressing issue for far too many charities and therefore is a sector problem. Undoubtedly, there are some amazing fundraisers and fundraising leaders, and some fantastic general charity leaders, but these are exceptional. I don’t think there are easy or quick solutions to this problem, but if you believe in all that charities can achieve, and we all know ones that inspire us, then here are my suggestions:

Tell truth to power.

I used to be non-confrontational. I would bottle up all my frustration, I would leave, I would get pissed off, but I would never simply tell the boss what they didn’t want to hear. It never worked out for me and I realised that, scary as it no doubt can be, especially in terms of job security, I needed to just tell the truth. Again, and again. And when they didn’t listen, tell it to them when the poor results showed they had got it wrong. It screws your chance of a reference… or it eventually shows you actually know what you are talking about. Either way, it’s only through constant repetition that they start to see what you mean.

Fundraisers need to volunteer to be Trustees

If we had more professional fundraisers on boards, including aspiring fundraisers offering their skills to the boards of small charities, they could change minds from within. I am a Trustee. It’s enriching my professional practice (and feels good on a personal level, as it is volunteering for a very important cause) but I like to think I am also passing on my knowledge to the charity to help it become more fundraising conscious, to understand that it needs more emotive messages and to talk more about the positive impact of the amazing work it does. I would love to have a fundraiser on the Board of the charity I work for. If you’re a fundraiser and not a Trustee, please consider taking that step. Charities are crying out for trustees with fundraising experience (even if at the same time, they ignore the pleas of their paid fundraisers). This could not only make a difference across the sector if enough people commit, it could also give you an outlet for your talents to counterbalance the frustrations you have in your day job.

Help each other

Are you a Mentor? Have you been mentored? I’m lucky, I managed to find someone who had some particular expertise and had been involved with a sector-leading organisation. They voluntarily gave me their time, their ear and the benefit of their experience. It’s not easy to find mentors or for them, to find the time to be one, but the more that we help each other, the more those who have climbed the heights and can help others through difficult experiences with nightmare CEOs, the more likely we are to see growth in the quality and number of fundraising leaders.

Don’t be afraid to rock the boat

Stir things up. The most inspiring leaders and the ones who break through, and change things, are the ones who are different. I’m uncomfortable when I am forced into a box to suit someone else’s agenda. I want to nurture a culture where being outspoken and bold is acceptable (because isn’t that the foundation of strong fundraising?), where to be different is a positive, not denigrated. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat because it may not be easy where you work, but you will be noticed by others.

And yes, do leave. If you’re talented and you have passion, please don’t stick it out just for your CV. There’s a cause somewhere that can make more use of you to help more people or do more good things. Don’t waste yourself in an organisation that won’t change, they don’t deserve you. (Even if their beneficiaries do, make a judgement how much impact you can realistically have, and then decide.)

This is what we can do as fundraisers. The bigger question is what will other charity leaders do? We all work as part of a team achieving positive change. Fundraisers may be ultimately responsible for raising the money, but we also need people to plan how to spend it wisely, to manage the spending, to organise and plan how objectives will be achieved. Without that, it is difficult to raise money. Fundraisers are like the catering team to an army. The chefs need logistics and the army needs leadership to achieve its objectives. Food may keep hunger from the door but it won’t win the war.

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