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New Study Questions Level of Fundraising Skills, Organizational Support for Philanthropy

A new study of American charities and fundraisers raises strong concerns about the number of skilled professionals available for jobs and the lack of infrastructure in most nonprofits to support effective fundraising and philanthropy.

The study, conducted by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Hass, Jr. Fund, surveyed more than 2,700 executive directors and development directors across the U.S. and included 11 focus groups with nonprofit staff and board members. Major challenges were found in the skill sets possessed by many fundraisers, high turnover at charities and lack of institutional support for fundraising at many organizations.

One key issue is that organizations are struggling with turnover rates and long vacancies in the development director post. When the development director post is open, it is vacant on average for six months, and nearly half of those organizations reported vacancies longer than that. In addition, half of development directors said they expected to leave their current jobs in two years or less, and that rate was even higher for small charities.

But, according to executive directors leading the hiring, the issue isn’t a small pool of candidates, but a small pool of qualified candidates. Asked about the last time they tried to hire a new development director, more than half of executives (53 percent) said the search produced an insufficient number of candidates with the right mix of skills and experience. Almost one-third of executives are lukewarm about or dissatisfied with their current development director, and one-quarter said their fundraiser has no experience or is a novice at securing gifts.

Robbe Healey, MBA, NHA, ACFRE, a former chair of AFP and adviser to the study, agrees that more work needs to be done in educating and training fundraisers new to the field. “Demand is strong for fundraising positions, and we’ve experienced a large influx of people new to the profession, especially younger fundraisers, who have a wide disparity in skills and experiences,” she says. “There’s no doubt that associations like AFP and others need to cast a wider net to reach out to different fundraising demographics, and new practitioners need to understand the importance of receiving continuing education and training.”

But for Healey, the real issue is the lack of philanthropic culture found in many organizations and how fundraising is viewed by executive directors and boards. “The study underscores what I’ve seen in my many years of fundraising: there are organizations that truly understand, value and embrace fundraising and philanthropy, and there are charities who still don’t get it,” she adds. “Philanthropy is a program that yields a revenue stream that is unique to the nonprofit sector. It can be incredibly inspiring and transformative for our organizations—IF we view it as part of our core mission and operations, and not something that is ‘distasteful or external to our program and our values.”

No Culture of Philanthropy

To Healey’s point, the survey found that many organizations don’t have the infrastructure, systems and culture of philanthropy to support effective fundraising.

Incredibly, almost one-quarter of nonprofits surveyed (23 percent)—and 31 percent of charities with operating budgets of under $1 million—have no fundraising plan in place. In addition, one in five—and 32 percent of charities with operating budgets of under $1 million—have no fundraising database.

The lack of support extends to the board and executive director. Three out of four executive directors say their board isn’t doing enough to support fundraising, and 26 percent of directors indicated they have no competency or are a novice at fundraising. Almost twenty percent said they disliked asking for money.

Relationships between executive directors and development directors were not as strong as they should be to ensure a strong fundraising program. Just 41 percent of development directors characterized their partnership with their executive as strong, and 21 percent felt their relationship was weak or nonexistent. Curiously, executive directors tended to feel those relationships were stronger than the development director did. In addition, development directors were far more pessimistic about their organizations’ fundraising efforts and the existence of a culture of philanthropy in their workplace than their executive director was.

How to Move Forward

The report acknowledges that fundraising cannot be a solo mission and must be the responsibility of the entire organization. It suggests four signs that an organization is “up to the task” of finding long-term fundraising success. A successful organization will:

  • Invest in its fundraising capacity and in the technologies and other fund development systems it needs;
  • Engage all of the staff, including the executive director, and the board in fundraising as ambassadors, and in many cases, as solicitors;
  • Understand and value fund development and philanthropy across the entire staff and
  • View the development director as a key leader and partner who is integrally involved in organizational planning and strategy.

The study also suggests ten broad strategies for helping charities create better conditions for success, starting with the sector to adopt a “profoundly different stance towards fundraising—moving away from an approach that is passive, apologetic and siloed in nature, to an integrative approach that deeply values donors and constituents and puts them right in the center of our organizations and movement.”

The ten steps include:

1)     Embrace fund development
2)     Elevate the field of fundraising
3)     Strengthen and diversify the talent pool
4)     Train boards differently (to focus on fundraising and create a culture of philanthropy)
5)     Apply the transition management framework to the development director position (apply the same sort of reflection, evaluation and investment in the development director as organizations do for executive directors)
6)     Invest strategically in grantee fundraising capacity (more foundation funding for development director transition and investment in fundraising)
7)     Leverage technological innovation—embrace creativity
8)     Set realistic goals for development
9)     Share accountability for fundraising results
10)  Exercise fundraising leadership

Some of the strategies can be implemented by individual organizations, but others will require a sector-wide effort to educate charities and leaders about the importance and value of fundraising and the internal support it needs to be able to grow.

“Years ago, I attended The Fundraising School when it was still Hank Rosso’s proprietary business, and what he said then still resonates today,” said Healey. “Hank emphasized, ‘The degree to which fundraising will be successful in your organization is directly proportional to the degree to which fundraising is viewed by your organization as a program, and with the same importance as every other program and service in your organization.’ If we don’t value fundraising—if we’re content to simply rely on government contracts and operating revenue, or think the fundraiser alone will create miraculous success—then we won’t be successful. If we embrace fundraising for the long-term, then no matter how small our organization or our budget, we can find success.”

A full copy of the report is available at the CompassPoint website.  

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