Finding and Keeping Good Fundraisers

This article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy discusses some emerging thinking on the ways and places nonprofit organizations are searching for good front-line fundraisers, who have long been in short supply – a situation which continues to worsen.

The article references findings indicating that poor management and unrealistic expectations play a significant role in the high turnover among fundraisers. I agree with this assessment. My own take on this particular issue starts with the observation that the fundraising industry is absolutely obsessed with metrics and metrics-based individual performance evaluation. So much so, I believe, that the day-to-day experience for fundraisers subject to organizational over-emphasis on metrics is changed dramatically for the worse, and the quality of their work (or anyone’s work in any industry) can suffer because they’re forced to focus on the wrong things.

There’s common saying to the effect of “if you measure it people will pay attention to it.” The exact phrasing doesn’t matter; the essence, which pervades American thinking, is that if you measure things and make damned sure people know they’re being measured and that there’ll be consequences for failing to meet certain standards, they’ll do what you want them to do and their performance will improve (just typing those words out starts to make them seem absurd to me.).

Here’s the flipside, the unintended consequence of that line of thinking (unintended, yes, unforeseeable, not a chance): If you measure it, people will pay attention to it.

Wait, didn’t I say exactly the same thing? No. What I mean, and what most people realize intuitively, experientially, or both, is that if you over-emphasize metrics, people will focus on doing whatever it is they need to do to make their numbers, which very often is not at all the same thing as doing their core work to achieve real business goals. This doesn’t make them bad or immoral. It makes them logical and normal. If you’re told that a set of metrics will be the basis for determining whether you get a raise, get a promotion, or get to keep your job, then those metrics are going to become job #1.

We all know this, and we see and decry it everywhere. “Standardized testing forces teachers to teach to the test!” we lament. And yet we can be quite blind to this same dynamic in our own pursuits. How does this manifest in the development world? Examples include meaningless “contact reports” (“I saw prospect so-and-so in the parking lot at the grocery store.”), prospect poaching, top prospect hoarding, etc.

In any industry it looks like employees telling the boss whatever they think the boss wants to hear and keeping silent about known problems (who wants to give the boss fodder for checking a box on a form that says the employee isn’t “positive” enough?).

Sometimes the ways we measure and evaluate employees even puts them at odds with their teammates. If my performance evaluation is all about the number of records I update and the percentage of correct entries, how likely am I to put aside what I’m doing and focus on helping a major gift officer figure out an importance piece of information? If I am under tremendous pressure to complete a certain number of visits, contact reports, and asks, what are the chances I’m going to take the time to understand data so I can ask for in the right way (instead of blaming advancement services for “getting it wrong.”)?

It also looks like development officer job-hopping. A person can only endure a certain amount of pressure, micromanagement, shaming (group portfolio reviews?), “constructive feedback,” threats, and criticism before they look elsewhere. Of course, they’re likely to find similar conditions elsewhere, but when you reach a point at which you don’t feel safe in your current position, you don’t feel as though you’re being listened to and treated fairly and like a person rather than a set of numbers, and the anxiety is ruining the quality of your life, just about anything else starts to look more attractive.

In the dominant American management paradigm the nature of the manager-subordinate relationship is a hierarchical zero-sum (“I have to give you at least one ‘needs improvement’ so you’ll have something to work on next year,” “I can’t give both of you 5s, someone has to have a 3.”) game based on intimidation and carrot-and-stick methods (almost all stick). Clearly it’s not working, but little attention has been focused on the root issues.

Sadly, carrot-and-stick methods are ingrained in seemingly every aspect of our lives – the way we parent our children, the way we deal with behavior in the classroom, and, unfortunately, the way we manage employees. But the pervasiveness of the approach doesn’t mean it’s effective, or that it’s the only way. Perhaps we’re so far down that road we can’t easily conceive of another paradigm.

Of course, many will object that the problem isn’t the metrics, per se, it’s that they’re the wrong metrics. That’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say for now that after decades of “management by objective,” we’re still trying to find the perfect annual review to motivate, grow, inspire, and retain employees (Hint: it doesn’t exist).

If you’re genuinely interested in diving deeply into the fundamental flaws in the way we manage and evaluate people, you absolutely need not take my word for it. There’s a great deal of research and thinking on this subject from many experts and luminaries, including giants such as W. Edwards Deming. Other significant names include Alfie Kohn, Charles Jacobs, and Samuel Culbert, to name a few. It’s a shame their work is not well known. I hope that fact will start to change.

I am not suggesting at all that there shouldn’t be accountability for fundraisers. Nor am I suggesting that there shouldn’t be quantifiable goals and targets. I’m suggesting we do things differently. There are alternatives, which we explore in a future post.

Brandon Ferris
Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel
Zuri Group