When I first started working for a small arts organization as the Director of Advancement, I was given some invaluable information by one of my board members: a study about the national challenges facing nonprofit fundraising. This 36-page document called “Underdeveloped” was a joint project between CompassPoint and The Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund in 2012. The study addresses the vicious cycles that are threatening nonprofits from reaching their optimal success in raising resources.
There were two parts of the study that struck me. The first was called the “revolving door,” which analyzed the instability of the role of the Development Director, including how long development positions stay vacant, and the length of time Development Directors anticipated staying in the organization and in the field of fundraising. I was startled, but not surprised, to learn that there is an undeniable correlation between the size of an organization’s budget and the longevity of a fundraising professional. In a nonprofit with a similar sized budget as mine (around $1.5 million), my life expectancy in the organization appeared very bleak. According to this study, the chances of me staying in this organization for more than two years was less than 51% and the likelihood of me continuing to work in the field of development was even more grim (19% chance of leaving within two years).
The second part that I found particularly interesting, if not unsettling, underscores the disappointment that Executive Directors feel towards their board’s level of engagement and their lack of key fundraising knowledge. Once again, the budget size revealed some interesting truths: the smaller the nonprofit, the less satisfied Executives were with the board. Executive Directors, as a whole, feel unsatisfied with both the board’s fundraising skills and the Development Director’s fundraising ability and performance. Furthermore, the study revealed that 26% of Executive Directors identify themselves as novices at fundraising.
At this point in the study, I started to feel very uneasy. While I have always been attuned to the challenges of most nonprofits and aware of the high turnover for development professionals, I was not expecting the outcomes to be this discouraging. I took this particular job to have a positive impact in the community, build meaningful relationships with donors, and promote a cause that I cared deeply about. According to the statistics, however, my boss and I were going to have a strained relationship, our board was going to be unengaged, and my future in the organization and the field both had a doomed fate. This did not sit well for an ever-striving high achiever like myself. Then I realized, surely there must have been another reason my board member sent me this article, other than to instill deep fear in me (remember, I was very new to the job then).
The board member sent me this article because while she was new to our board at the time, she was not new to nonprofit boards and had seen many of these scenarios play out in real time. I suspect she also wanted to highlight the part of the article that came next, stating that fundraising is a task that cannot be carried out by just one person—but with the help of the Executive Director and the board, a culture of philanthropy must be created as a team. What I gleaned from this study is that it’s critical to have trust between the Executive and Development Director, no matter the budget size. That partnership lays the foundation for successful fundraising efforts, but it is also incumbent upon both to engage the board, build relationships with donors, and involve staff and volunteers in order to build alliances and get everyone partnering in fundraising efforts.
I am pleased to report that I beat the statistics and not only stayed in this role for four years but continue to provide fundraising consulting in my current position. My time at the small arts organization actually became more fulfilling with time and my steadfast relationship with the Executive Director and the entire board paid itself in dividends. They consistently treated me like a key leader in the organization who was integrally involved in the planning and strategy of all organizational fundraising efforts. Together, we were able to have some of our most fruitful fundraising initiatives and events in the nonprofit’s history. I learned in this role how the power of partnership and an influx of support can defy odds and yield great success.