Re-Thinking the Crisis in Fundraising

To mark the third anniversary of the publication of Underdeveloped: A National Study of the Challenges Facing Fundraising, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services has announced that it will soon release an Action Guide for nonprofit’s seeking to break the “vicious cycle” that results in a revolving door among development directors. According to Compass Point, the revolving door among development directors is part of a larger “syndrome” in which:

  • Development directors experience high levels of job dissatisfaction
  • Executive Directors are dissatisfied with Development Directors
  • 25% of all Development Directors are fired, and
  • Half of all fundraisers consider leaving the profession altogether.

CompassPoint describes the process of this “vicious cycle” (in brief)

(1)  as organizations not having the requisite conditions for fundraising success

(2)  then, organizations hiring development directors

(3)  because these organizations lack the conditions for success, the development directors are not supported and/or do not succeed. Therefore, the development directors leave their positions prematurely (either by quitting or by being fired)

(4)  which then results, again/still, in the organization not being able to create and sustain the requisite conditions for supporting a culture of development.
The “crisis in fundraising” that the report outlines has been much discussed. The evidence for the crisis is largely from the CompassPoint/Haas study and other similar studies that focus on the opinions of development directors and executive directors about how they feel about their positions, their work, and about each other. Taken by themselves, these data are very concerning.

The recent release of the 2016 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report by Kivi Leroux Miller provides a comparative focus that helps us view some of the conclusions of the Underdeveloped report, and some of the discussion that has followed, through a different lens.  For example, Ms. Miller reports that among nonprofit communications staff, 48% of Communication Directors and 61% of Communication Coordinators plan to leave their current position within the next two years—rates similar to those reported in Underdeveloped and other places about nonprofit development directors. Also reminiscent of research on development directors, the Communications Trends report shows that only 40% of communications directors believe they have a good, strong relationship with their Executive Director.

Other research on workplaces outside of the Third Sector has found large numbers of workers dissatisfied with their work, hating their bosses, and calling their workplaces “toxic.” Gallup’s 2012 polls, for example, revealed that only 30% of the US workforce was “engaged and inspired” at work (and that 20% admitted to being actively disengaged, spreading rumors, wandering the halls gossiping). According to the The Bully at Work by Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie, an estimated 54 million Americans have been bullied at work.

Further, Jeffrey Pfeffer from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, writes about the decline in tenure of all company leaders, especially CEOs, and about the declining effectiveness of CEOs. A poor relationship with an Executive Director may not be something that a Development Director and/or a Communication Director alone experience. It may be part of the growing trend he observes of leadership incompetence.

I don’t mean to share all of this to say that the Underdeveloped study is invalid or its conclusions wrong. In fact, I believe that many great things have come from the Underdeveloped study. I think the concept of a culture of philanthropy is a very important one and that the focus on developing a culture of philanthropy that has resulted from the study and the ensuing discussion has been very useful. I also believe that the study’s emphasis on reminding organizations that fundraising is not the responsibility of one person alone is a message that can’t be repeated often enough.

But, while I am not saying the study is wrong, I am saying that before we sound the alarmist bells and talk about a “crisis in fundraising,” a comparative perspective on the data might be useful to help us understand to what extent the trends observed about development directors, their brief tenures, and their poor relationships with their CEOs might be part of a broader pattern of workplace issues.

I recognize that the anecdotal evidence suggesting that development directors are uniquely problematic—in the sense of being quick to go and hard to replace—is strong. Without comparative analysis (of development directors versus other nonprofit professionals and development directors with other professionals), that’s all we really have, though, isn’t it? Anecdotal evidence? Before leaping to conclusions and rushing to reform the profession, our training, and our practices, we should pause and take a look at broader trends to see to what extent the data we have captured accurately reflect problems that are not shared by other parts of the sector or workplaces in general. If we discover the trends we have observed are part of a bigger trend, the solutions we might wish to consider could be very different than if we continue to perceive that the challenges are unique to the fundraising field.

As we look at these questions in 2016, let’s make sure that the crisis in fundraising really is a crisis in fundraising and not just a crisis in the workplace.

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