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A fundraiser's guide to cultural revolution: How teamwork and relationship building basics sparked a revenue renaissance

In my career as a fundraiser, I’ve faced a long list of internal challenges that have frustrated my efforts before they can even get underway. Among others, there was the ED who didn’t want to ask donors for money; being forced to track donations in an Excel spreadsheet rather than dedicated software; and the times I had no say in the budget, but was responsible for reaching unrealistic income targets.

A study published by CompassPoint in 2013, based in a survey of more than 2,700 nonprofit CEOs and development directors, affirmed those experiences as part of a larger trend doing real harm to nonprofits. An alarming rate of turnover in fundraising staff, they found, has been driven largely by work conditions that set fundraisers up to fail, including inadequate support from board, staff, and internal fundraising systems.

Importantly, the study justified my sense that we were missing significant opportunities when my colleagues were uninvited, unable, or unwilling to help with fundraising – and not just because they weren’t trained, but often because they had the mistaken impression that asking for money is a manipulative, one-sided, or otherwise objectionable act.

RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING, DEMYSTIFIED

Prepare

Do your homework before each meeting. Review the background of anyone you’re meeting with. Draft talking points and questions in advance to help the conversation flow.

Connect

Get to know the person you’re meeting with by showing concern and interest. Share who you are, and find common ground. Rapport is the basis of all good relationships.

Help

Listen closely for opportunities to address needs, keeping in in mind that no problem is too big. We all have resources, knowledge, and connections that can be helpful. You can use those powers for good.

Thank

Always follow up with anyone you meet with and thank them for their time. Get creative: Send a note on personal stationery, or a funny graphic online. Gratitude is almost always appreciated and remembered. 

Indeed, CompassPoint’s report (UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising) asserted that fundraising success was achievable for organizations that had invested in a “culture of philanthropy,” incorporating these key elements:

- Most people in the organization act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building. Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving.

- Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization.

- Organizational systems are established to support donors.

- The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.

When this report first appeared in my inbox, I was three months into my new position as development director at Moving in the Spirit, a 30-year-old youth development organization that builds confidence in kids through dance. Fortunately, we had some strong fundraising infrastructure already in place: a charismatic ED in Dana Lupton who didn’t shy away from the ask; a program director raising $30,000 a year through a giving circle he started; and a managing director who monitored income and expenses closely, and made projections based on financial realities.

The question for me was: How do I build on this foundation to implement a culture of philanthropy, despite staff members’ anxiety over fundraising? Looking to our fundraising strengths, I saw how effectively our ED raised funds by creating and nurturing relationships. Her fundraising visits were social calls that focused more on donors’ well-being than on organizational needs. If she could help a donor in any way – from weekend plans to job opportunities for a new graduate in the family – Lupton was quick to help them make the right connections. And the ask? Buoyed by her friendly, relaxed, helpful style of engagement, we regularly found donors asking us how they could help before we had a chance.

To me, the solution was clear: reframe our culture around relationship-building, and use those deep connections to drive fundraising. That would require focusing on relationships at every level – not just with prospective donors and funders, but with parents, teachers, board members, vendors, community partners, neighborhood residents, politicians, and more. What I hoped was that nurturing relationships intentionally throughout the year, and not just when we needed something, would put us in a position to meet our fundraising goals; what I knew was that it would be no easy task to turn each staff member into an ambassador for the organization, a cultivator of relationships, and a dedicated part of the fundraising process. That’s why we took it one step at a time, staying committed, responsive, and patient.

First, I set out to educate staff on the inner workings of the organization and the goals I had in mind, sitting down with each staffer to share details from the CompassPoint report and to outline our budget. I wanted each person to understand the financial impact of their role, and the meaning behind any tasks that felt unimportant. With approval from the ED and managing director, I instituted a mandatory weekly staff meeting to discuss fundraising, keeping everyone informed about achievements, key relationships, changing circumstances, and more.

The next step was integrating relationshipbuilding into individual work plans. Again, I met with staff individually to discuss existing and potential relationships tied to their role, helping them establish a portfolio of relationships and strategize ways to deepen each one. For example, our director of education made it a priority to connect with teaching faculty outside of their regular monthly meetings to learn more about them and explore mutually beneficial opportunities.

My misstep was underestimating the difficulty of getting staff buy-in. My big idea, while invigorating for me personally, put additional pressure on already hardworking staff. For many, relationship-building felt foreign – particularly for program staff unaccustomed to leaving the office for social visits. Tempering my eagerness with patience, I answered their angst with easy-to-deploy talking points, tactics for networking at events and online, and, most importantly, a simple scheme for demystifying and finding the fun in the relationship-building process. 

We were missing significant opportunities when my colleagues were uninvited, unable, or unwilling to help with fundraising.

Four years later, the relationship-oriented approach permeates the culture at Moving in the Spirit, and fundraising has become a part of our organizational DNA. Every decision we make is filtered through the lens of development, and the results have been astounding. Our budget has grown 42 percent, crossing the million-dollar mark two years ahead of projections. We have also benefited from extraordinary opportunities springing directly from relationship work, including substantial new funding from the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities and a partnership with MARTA.

Best of all, staff members are more knowledgeable about the organization overall, comfortable in the role of ambassador, and proud of their part in ensuring the mission is supported by a healthy bottom line. As important as my position was at past organizations and when I first joined Moving in the Spirit, serving in my reframed role as Director of Opportunity has proven more impactful, and more rewarding, than I could ever have anticipated.

Heather Infantry is director of opportunity at Moving in the Spirit.

 
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