Effective Fundraising: Hallmarks of high-performance professionals

For nonprofits, fundraising is a constant reality and effective development essential. Then why do so many organizations looking for a superstar fundraiser find skilled applicants few and far between?



The Revolving Door

A report by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, UnderDeveloped — a National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, tells us 53 percent of US nonprofit leaders reveal a shortage of eligible candidates when seeking to fill the position of Development Director.

Traditionally, the position of Development Director is known for its high turnover, what industry insiders refer to as a “revolving door.” Why are there so few applicants for the job of Chief Fundraiser?

Possibly because of these factors, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts professional fundraisers will see an employment growth of 9 percent between 2014 and 2024 – considerably faster than other occupations.

It isn’t surprising that effective fundraisers can be difficult to find. What would an ED put on a list of important attributes a fundraiser must have? What abilities does the prospective employer need? As for the candidate, are they up to the task?

Development jobs are often offered and accepted with a boatload of expectations, not all of them realistic.

The nature of the work requires a unique skillset along with attributes common to nonprofit professionals. One prevalent misconception is that fundraisers are PR people, sales professionals, or marketing mavens. Although the job includes aspects of all three, a fundraiser’s career has to include a stash of other capabilities.


What makes a great fundraiser?

As Ronald J. Guisinger, SPHR, CCP puts it, “Development professionals are often expected to work long hours and possess a perfect balance of personality traits—analytic and creative, assertive and warm, extroverted while insightful.“

Organizations can hope the professional fundraiser will be the answer to almost every problem, and Guisinger’s description wouldn’t be out of place on a superhero resume. But the truth is great fundraisers do share some key qualities.

In his pivotal book on the subject, Born to Raise, Jerold Panas defines ten qualities of a successful fundraiser:

  • Faultless integrity
  • Good listener
  • Ability to motivate
  • Perseverance
  • Presence
  • Hard worker
  • Concern for people
  • High expectations
  • Passion for the work
  • High energy

These are all qualities most nonprofit professionals possess to some degree. Charities could not exist without the passion, enthusiasm, and drive of those who want to change the world.

But are these qualities innate? Should would-be development leaders give up their career dreams because they lack some essential attribute? The good news is, a dedicated professional can develop these crucial skills.


Integrity equals confident leadership

Integrity comes from holding yourself to a high ethical standard and is foundational for nonprofit professionals. Fundraisers should have a sound knowledge of the AFP Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Practice and the Donor Bill of Rights.

By gaining a solid understanding of ethics and scruples, the development professional can improve their personal integrity. From this cornerstone, fundraisers can confidently take their nonprofit story to the world. Integrity informs leadership, giving development professionals a strong basis for their work.

The best fundraiser is a servant leader who can focus on the donor relationship and the needs of the development team. Using strategy, effective fundraisers develop campaigns and programs to make their organization successful.


Communication skills

Communication is central to several qualities on Panas’s list. Concern for people, high expectations, ability to motivate, being a good listener, and being passionate about the work will all go unfulfilled if the individual is unable to communicate effectively.

When considering the elements of the fundraiser’s role, a skilled communicator can write and speak equally well, delivering their message sincerely and engagingly. To effectively raise funds, the message must present a compelling vision, one that can’t be easily ignored.

The best development professional knows how to hold the attention of their audience, be it one individual or a hundred high-profile guests. And while articulate speech is important, listening intently is even more so.

All great fundraisers are donor-centric, understanding what their organization represents to the giver. Listening to donors and knowing their interests are central to a great fundraiser-donor relationship. For donors, the development professional is the link between the mission and the money.


Personal presentation

Few people realize their personal presentation or presence is a critical part of their communication skills. In the case of the development professional, they are the “face” of the organization.

The fundraiser confronts audiences made up of individuals from all walks of life. They could be meeting the board, their boss, a state senator, or a group of businessmen. The first thing these people will see is the development professional’s facial expressions, body language, grooming, and clothing.

Before a word is said, the fundraiser’s appearance will have spoken volumes. Rightly or wrongly, people make assumptions and draw conclusions. Humans can’t help it – we’re visual creatures, which is why first impressions are so important.


Let’s wind it up

Nonprofits are unique in the challenges and factors that govern an organization and requirements differ widely across the sector. But there are universal skills all fundraisers need to have to function effectively. While development is never an easy job, the current political environment and ensuing budget cuts have presented nonprofit fundraisers with new challenges.

One of the problems facing both the nonprofit and the candidate is a lack of understanding of the necessary criteria. Nonprofits should be clear on what they hope to achieve when hiring fundraisers. Likewise, candidates need to understand what skills they must bring to the table.

Fundraisers looking for a nonprofit career need to do their due diligence. And nonprofits should establish what their new development professional will be expected to accomplish. Clear communication between the parties can help close the revolving door.

Industry insiders tell us that donors want fundraisers who are passionate about their mission and demonstrate many of the qualities mentioned above. But most importantly, donors want to deal with people who love their work and do it with joy.


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