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Building a Great Fundraising Operations Team

Resource Center - Foundation

(May 3, 2011) What are the characteristics to look for in a fundraising operations staff member--someone who will quickly become a valued asset to your team, however they are involved in the fundraising process? Author Christopher Cannon, CFRE, lays out ten top attributes to look for, and more, from his new book, An Executive's Guide to Fundraising Operations.

With all the technology being used in fundraising today and all of the necessary steps in researching donors and processing gifts, there is a whole world happening beneath the top layer of fundraising. Called by Cannon "fundraising operations," he wrote his book to guide fundraising executives in the ways to best harness the operations side of fundraising. In this article he discusses the ways to find and cultivate great operations staff members.

First, Cannon describes what he considers to be the top ten qualities of a great operations staff member.

Ten Characteristics of a Great Fundraising Operations Team Member

1.  Communication, interpretation and translation skills. This is the most basic skill. Clearly discussing needs and resources important to team members is an essential skill. The ability to listen, understand and translate discussions with end users is critical.

2.  Technical aptitude. Someone who understands relational databases or programming code in general can likely learn your organization's details. Without such aptitude, the team member will struggle.

3.  Numeric aptitude. The ability to understand numbers is very important. For example, while few of your team members will ever write a $1 million check, they need to know that such a commitment is worth a thousand $1,000 checks. Or they need to understand that a $.20 cost to raise a dollar means a net return of 400 percent. They need to comprehend this order of magnitude to help realize the potential of fundraising.

4.  Appreciation for Fundraising. You need staff members who care about the mission, no matter their role in the organization. If you hear an operations team member talk about fundraising as "begging," for example, that person needs training or a new job.

5.  Multitasking priorities. You need staff who can handle more than one project at a time. Operations should use business processes and protocols to handle priorities with accuracy and speed.

6.  Discipline. The detail-oriented nature of many operations activities requires consistent application of rules and protocols. Team members need to be focused and dedicated to completing each task accurately.

7.  Creativity. Creativity in operations is undervalued. Business processes should answer many questions and diminish the daily need for creative solutions, but the ability to solve exceptional cases will require creative thinking.

8.  Action-oriented. Another way to describe this trait is "ends-oriented." You need team members who complete their work as a means to an end, which is greater activity and outcomes for fundraising.

9.  Collegiality. Operations and frontline departments frequently create an "us versus them" environment. You need staff members in operations and throughout the organization to believe fundraising is a team effort and who value all of their colleagues, no matter the role.

10.  Service-oriented. The survey data on department titles shows that "services" is an essential part of how teams are defined. From every employee, you should expect that they exude this characteristic.

Of all the skills, however Cannon says communication is paramount.

"Communication in its many forms is the most critical skill set that a great operations team member can possess," says Cannon. "Technical knowledge is important. Hard work and analytic skills are important. However, the ability to train, the ability to persuade, the ability to collaborate, the ability to apply knowledge through interpretation and synthesis of many voices and vantage points expand operations' impact in ways that the other skills cannot match."

Tips on Hiring Promising Candidates

Operations candidates need to possess translation skills, so they can interpret between the high-tech and the high-touch world, Cannon explains. Skilled interviewers can uncover these skills through asking questions such as: "Describe a scenario where you had to communicate a complex idea to different audiences." Another powerful question is to focus on application of the tools of the trade. Experience with training is a good surrogate for this, so a question like "Tell me about your training preferences and how you convince your trainees to apply what they've learned" helps isolate this key issue.

A final question that helps identify top candidates focuses on the business of philanthropy. Many of us only know philanthropy as walks and bake sales, or worse, begging. The interviewer can understand the candidate's frame of reference for fundraising by asking "How do you think fundraising compares to other operations positions, such as banking, manufacturing, or sales management?" What the interviewer should look for in the response is a reverence for the mission of the institution and the efficacy of the work over for-profit positions. If it is just a job to the candidate (i.e., their skills could move from one organization type to the next), their ability to be persuasive and lead the operations effort will be marginal.

How important is it to have talented fundraising operations staff? Consider this example. At one of the world's top universities, an operations team member held the key to developing and applying performance measures that would help launch a billion-plus campaign. This team member knew data, technology, and process, and more importantly, was able to persuade end users to adopt and leverage performance measures to make more calls with better prospects. The end result has been more funds raised, an industry-leading analytics program, and the promotion of this team member over both the operations and the major giving teams.

A successful fundraising operations team is essential to the fundraising process. Learn more about this topic in the book, An Executive's Guide to Fundraising Operations: Principles, Tools and Trends, by Christopher M. Cannon, CFRE, managing associate at Bentz Whaley Flessner. The book is part of the AFP Fund Development Series.

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