Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Best People

The key to running a successful fund raising organization is making sure that your best people put your organization’s best proposals in front of your best prospects. Simple enough, right? Well, let’s see.

Let’s start with what it takes to recruit, retain and bring out the best in the best people in fund raising. What the best fund raisers want is to make a real and lasting difference in the human condition. Some believe that education is the best way while others look to medicine, early childhood development, the arts, environmental remediation, or a number of other worthy causes. I am reminded of this again and again, most recently during my trip to Indianapolis to deliver a keynote address for the good people that gather under the banner of CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) Indiana. It was immensely rewarding to interact with so many committed professionals in various areas of advancement. In the very best of them is a deep and driving desire to put their talents to their highest and best use, to somehow contribute to sustaining and strengthening the human family. That’s what gets them up in the morning, motivates them to work long hours, to sacrifice weekend and evening time with their loved ones, and to see their way past frustration.

The best fund raisers, therefore, want to help put those ideals in action; they want to broker philanthropic compacts between the high-minded doers in their organization and like-minded donors. They want to be able to put compelling proposals in front the most principled and practical philanthropists and say, “Do you see what we can achieve together?” They didn’t get into the business just to “make their numbers” or meet fund raising goals. They aren’t just in the business of chasing individual gifts but of securing and sustaining the support necessary to alleviate suffering, lift the human spirit, extend opportunity or provide liberty and justice to a greater segment of society.

The best fund raisers can’t achieve those purposes if their leaders aren’t asking themselves, “Who are we here to serve, and how can we do a better job of it?” Is it only in the context of honest self-assessment that true strategic planning can occur, that intentionality of purpose can be reviewed, revised and revived in light of emerging opportunities and obligations. Out of such an assessment will come a clearer picture of the gap between where an organization is and where it should be. It can then determine what it will take to get there, both by reallocating existing resources and securing new ones. It is then is in a position to explain to potential donors who will be better served, as well as how and when. The best people in fund raising will now have the best proposals to take forward. Two of the three conditions for optimal fund raising success have been met.

The best fund raisers know that they can’t just run out and ask the prospects for money no matter how strong their proposals. They know that the best prospects will make the largest gifts to the organizations that best align with their values, that have the clearest and most compelling plans, and that involve them in the planning and in the design of major initiatives, and that allow them to bring their talents to bear on the pursuit and completion of their goals. They know all of this takes time, that if they rush to the ask, they are likely to be told “no” or receive less support than the best prospects are capable of. They need the organizations they represent to respect their experience and trust their instincts. They need to be able to call on various people within the organization at various times, particularly the leaders to help the best prospects see the depth of commitment and talent, and to know who is charged with seeing the project through. They need to be a part of a culture of purpose, gratitude and accountability.

All too often the best fund raisers fall short of their potential because the organizations they represent instruct them to raise money to sustain internal functions or to placate internal stakeholders, not to achieve specific, service-oriented objectives, and to raise it as quickly as possible to meet the institutional metrical goals. All too often the best fund raisers leave or lose their animating ideals because they do feel as if their work is advancing a greater good or because the job is about what they must do to make their numbers, not what they can do to help their organization make a better world.

The best way to attract and retain the best people is to create the conditions that allow their best work; in turn they will help the organization create the conditions for more productive, predictable, sustainable philanthropic support.

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