I’ve been asked this question a lot, and was asked it again the other day by the CEO of a growing, successful nonprofit, so here are some thoughts.
First, let’s clarify who’s asking the question and what this means about what they’re looking for.
For a long time I’ve argued on this blog that the nonprofit sector has radically misunderstood what fundraising means, what fundraising jobs are, and, consequently, how to staff the fundraising (“development,” whatever) department. To recap: it’s not separate from “the real work.” It is core to your strategy, to who you are, and to how you deliver on your promise to the world.
There’s a lot of talk about what “traditional fundraising” is and isn’t, and whether in the brave new nonprofit world in which we live, we need to re-imagine fundraising (yes) and what a fundraiser looks like and does (probably).
I think part of the reason we’ve ended up walking down the wrong path is because professional fundraising was born in a university setting – which unfortunately is a poor model of what most nonprofit fundraising is really like. Referring to the 2-by-2 matrix below, I’d describe university fundraising squarely in the bottom-left corner: “existing constituency” and “primarily execution.” That is, there is an established constituency (alumni) with an existing ties to and strong relationships with the university, and the role of the professional university fundraiser is largely to execute on a set of giving targets for this constituency. University fundraising for really big donations can certainly drift to the top left corner of the matrix – think new chairs, new fields of study, new departments – but by and large the ability of the Development team to regularly and significantly impact the overall university strategy in the short- to medium-term will, in most cases, be limited because of the sheer size and scope of the institution.
Contrast this with the world of the startup / growing nonprofit: it has no constituency and its strategy and aspirations are evolving, expanding, taking sharp turns.
Suddenly it’s obvious that you’re looking for a different set of skills than what’s needed in a big, established institution. An organization in the top-right corner is mobilizing resources against an idea with no defined constituency in place, and it is going through a period of its evolution in which there will be a constant interplay between the financial resources that can be mobilized, the promises made to funders and the overall organizational strategy.
So how do you find a successful top-right corner fundraiser? There are no simple answers, but I think that this role is different enough from the traditional nonprofit fundraising path that you don’t need to put “demonstrated track record” on the top three list of things you have to see (great if it’s on the list, but you have to decide in advance if the absence of that disqualifies folks. I’d say it doesn’t).
This is a terrifying notion if you don’t know what you are looking for, so I put together this list of things I’d be on the lookout for when scouring those non-traditional resumes:
- You want someone you want to be with, someone who has both the gumption and drive to get the first meeting and who is consistently interesting, personable and engaged enough that he’ll consistently get the second meeting.
- You want someone who cares deeply about your organization’s mission, who has a personal reason for being there
- You want someone who can tell the whole story of the organization, who can dive in and across the organization and get into the weeds with folks, but who naturally thinks in and talks in terms of narrative. The person absolutely doesn’t need to be (and won’t be) an expert in everything you do, but they have to have the intellectual facility and curiosity to get their hands dirty.
- Inevitably you will want someone systematic, because when you have a few people (your team) managing a lot of donor relationships, you’ll need to build some sort of systems to make the whole thing work. The level of sophistication of these systems will vary, but if you want to build something lasting for your organization, you’ll need to build more than your funding base and your funds raised – you’ll need to build out HOW you do this in the long term.
- Gumption (whoops I’ve said that twice now…maybe I should say it a third time), fearlessness, drive and passion go a long way
- Obviously they have to be articulate
- And finally, if you’re looking for nontraditional cues that might indicate success, you might look for people who have an element of performance / “it’s showtime” in their background. This could be artistic, athletic or even military, but some element of: “the lights are on…now go!”