My Line of Thought…Fundraising is a Profession and Coaching Should be Considered

In the movie Rocky, Burgess Meredith plays Mickey—Rocky’s coach/trainer. He was a grumpy guy and even Rocky was somewhat afraid of him. Anyone familiar with the film would remember both Rocky and Mickey. Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most famous non-fictional boxer of all times and most have heard of him, but many have not heard of Angelo Dundee. Angelo was Muhammad’s coach. Angelo also coached Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman. 

You may have heard of Anna Sophia Robb or Carrie Underwood, but perhaps not New Zealander Miranda Harcourt, their coach. Helen Hunt 1997 Oscar winner for her role in As Good as It Gets thanked Larry Moss during her acceptance speech. Who is Larry Moss? Her acting coach. It would be hard to name a successful world class athlete, actor, or singer who wasn’t influenced by a coach. 

The professional at the top of his or her profession, or seeking to reach the top, has a coach. Members of the senior management team at universities and leading corporations often are assigned a professional coach to help them with skills in the areas of leadership, communications, or interpersonal development. 

It is time that the fundraising profession embrace the notion of the professional fundraising coach to support fundraisers seeking to enhance performance outcomes.

Coaching is not Mentoring

When commencing a job people often suggest securing a mentor. A mentor, however, is distinct from coaching. Unlike mentoring, which is reactive and serves more as a type of a sounding board relationship, coaching is proactive—hands on. Coaching is focused on bringing about effective change in the professional for the purpose of higher performance. Further, after receiving candid advice from a quality coach the coach will follow up on that advice to see if the coachee is acting on it, i.e., seeking a demonstrated and sustainable behavioral change. Coaching and mentoring are not mutually exclusive, but the objectives and outcomes can be dramatically different for the individual. Finally, there are plethora of fundraising workshops and these workshops can be greatly enhanced with follow up coaching sessions.

A Tailored Program

The importance of a tailored coaching program can’t be stressed enough because not all fundraisers are at the same level of experience and skill. Further, not all fundraising programs are at the same level of maturity; this may impact priorities of the front-line fundraisers. For example, in a less mature program prospect relationships haven’t been built and the priority will be on discovery visits versus a more mature fundraising program in the final push of a multi million-dollar campaign with a higher focus on solicitations.

Research and Theory

Fundraising research is not on the top of the list for most research universities, it doesn’t attract the same type of research investment like medicine, engineering, or business. However, there are quality research papers and books on understanding donor behavior, the efficiency of a fundraising program, effective prospect research, and the development of a prospect portfolio taken from an expansive database. Quality research informs outstanding practice and given the nature of fundraising (part art and part science) staying abreast of the latest research, as well as understanding of the foundational research in the field, can contribute to better performance.

Real-World Examples

Fundraising is a people business and understanding different personalities, and the scenarios that arise as a result, comes through experience. An experienced coach can demonstrate situations through real-world examples that are most relevant to the coachee and his/her organization. There is nothing wrong with speaking of aspirational gifts, but if examples used are all about eight-figure gifts and the organization largest ever gift is a five-figure it can be demoralizing for the coachee. A quality coach with experience can share about the times things didn’t go right—those coachable moments that can be shared with the coachee. 

Further, it is most beneficial to employ the coachee’s prospect list to talk through strategy and discuss possible next steps. An important role of a coach is to play devil’s advocate and walk through scenarios with the coachee to help the coachee think through a variety of possible outcomes when interacting with a prospect. Although one can attempt to script a visit or solicitation like many things in life things don’t always follow the script. Working with a coach helps a coachee develop those critical adlib skills.

Role Playing

How do our favorite actors and athletes make their craft look so easy? How about the ballet dancer who moves so gracefully across the theater stage? We know what they do takes enormous skill and talent to say the least, but rarely do we picture all the hours that went into the rehearsals necessary to make it a star performance. One gets better at something by practicing it. Fundraising is no different. 

If you are only making one face-to-face solicitation every quarter the chances are without any practice in between you run the risk of being a little rusty when you conduct your next solicitation. When are favorite football or basket teams are shown on the local news they often are shown passing the ball back and forth between players. The pass is a critical part of the game and so they practice it over and over and over. Players are developing muscle memory, endurance, and mental strength so in game situations execution is automatic. 

Granted the solicitation is not like throwing a football or a basketball, but having a demonstrated ability, e.g. it is not the first time you have encountered an objection, is similar. Just like the pass if you fumble the objection during the solicitation the solicitation is not going to end well. Role playing on how to overcome objections, how to secure the discovery visit, how to conduct the discovery visit as well as how to carry out the solicitation will ensure quality skills are being developed to support securing those major and leadership gifts.

An Experienced Subject Matter Expert Coach

George Bernard Shaw wrote in his play Man and Superman “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” There area a plethora of examples where this does not ring true. Richard Williams never played professional tennis, but did very well coaching his two daughters, Venus and Serena to championships early in their careers. Conversely, just because someone is good at something doesn’t mean this person will be good a coaching it. Coaching is about helping the individual to understand themselves and creating positive, and sustainable, change to help the individual achieve their objectives. Quality coaching involves excellent communication skills and detailed knowledge of the subject matter. When it comes to fundraising, however, a diverse background of real-world experiences by the coach, in all facets of the profession and the donor giving cycle, is needed to greatly enhance the outcome for the coachee. 

Like other professions fundraising should embrace the concept of using coaches to improve performance and it should be the norm, not the exception.

My Line of Thought…Workplace Giving is Changing

The Giving USA Special Report (Autumn 2018) provides valuable insight into workplace giving. Workplace giving is defined as “the practice of employees contributing time or money through the workplace.”  Historically, when an employee donated through the workplace by giving to the United Way, for example, the employee had limited direct contact with the end charity who benefited from the donation. Further, workplace giving campaigns were decided upon by senior management, not by the employees. This is changing along with other factors affecting workplace giving.


Workplace giving for a company is often associated with their overall Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy and objectives. CSR has many aspects, including giving. It is increasingly linked to business strategy, performance, organisational trust, and, importantly, the ability to attract and retain employees. Workers, and Millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) in particular, are demanding more from their employer when it comes to a company’s CSR; the CSR program influences their participation in a workplace giving program.  


Millennials are keen to know how their employer is impacting and contributing to society. Millennials want to work for a company that has strong social and environmental commitments so much that 64% would refuse a potential employer who did not have a strong CSR program. It is important that companies are aware of these feelings, as Millennials have no fear in using social media to provide feedback or share their opinions. Of course, this can impact the workforce, but it can also impact sales.  The Millennial CSR Study (2015) found that 91% of the Millennials surveyed would switch brands in a heartbeat if the company were better aligned with a cause important to them, if the price and quality were the same.


In addition to the coming of the Millennials in the workforce, other demographics of the workforce are rapidly changing. Sage charities look at the diversify of their donor base — does it represent society at large or reflect some of the diversity of the people the organisation serves?  For example, does alumni giving at a university reflect the diversity of the alumni body? The report states, “not only will the future workforce be more diverse in terms of age and ethnicity, but women are also expected to represent a larger percentage of the workplace.”


The Report highlights how women are more likely to participate in workplace giving programs than men.  Further, when men work in departments with more women, these men donate more to workplace giving programs. When it comes to age, research shows that people give as they get older to workplace giving programs, however, this giving decreases near retirement. This presents an opportunity through the creation of an employee alumni program.  


Too often a long-term employee retires and never hears from the company again. There are resources — for example, volunteer time — to be harnessed from former employees that can support a workplace giving program. A former employee can help liaise with their former colleagues — personally, I accept phone calls or return texts from former colleagues. However, having great dedicated people only helps when they feel connected or recognise the value in helping the charity the company is supporting. Volunteering for the CEO’s pet charity may not be met with enthusiastic cheer.


Workplace giving is affected by an employee’s alignment with a charity, but also by an employee’s relationship with their employer. Therefore, charities should seek out the pulse of the employee’s morale. A company embattled in a labor dispute, for instance, is likely to negatively impact any type of workplace giving program, especially if the program is in the early stages of development. There could be an argument made that such a program could help to improve workplace relationships, but proceed with caution.


Regardless, it is critical to have employees who are respected and liked to be ambassadors for workplace giving. The Report identifies that employees’ giving behaviour, and the level of this giving, is influenced by their peers. The findings in the Report referenced the article “Philanthropic Identity at Work: Employer Influences on the Charitable Giving Attitudes and Behaviors of Employees” by Jennifer Mize Smith (2013), who found “creating a ‘culture of giving’ in the workplace further positively affected employees’ philanthropic behavior, including support for workplace giving campaigns.”


An area addressed in the Report centres on workplace volunteers. These programs are particularly beneficial to charities: awareness is raised among volunteers, projects are tackled that would not have been possible without a corporate partner, and volunteering is seen as an entry point for possible future donations. The latter point is salient; there is the need for nonprofits to commence lasting, meaningful, and deep relationships with a company, as companies have moved away from transactional relationships. If your organisation currently has a relationship with a company, how institutional is the relationship? If your corporate contact were to depart the company, would your workplace giving program cease?


The Giving USA Special Report (Fall 2018) highlights trends and developments in workplace giving. For many charities, the biggest challenge can be to get their foot in the door of a quality company to commence a workplace giving program. There is plenty of competition and companies have a choice of their non-profit partner. When a charity establishes a workplace giving program with an A-list company, it is important that they do their research and listen to the challenges the company is having, as opposed to listing the company’s problems and the ways they can be solved.

My Line of Thought…Selfish Relationship Syndrome

Many nonprofits operate different programs, and this can mean operating between different teams. In these situations, a sponsorship or corporate partners program and a philanthropic program will have particular team dynamics to work with, which may include:

  • reporting to the same supervisor in the same department
  • reporting to different supervisors within the same department
  • reporting to different supervisors in different departments

Occasionally, unhealthy competition can grow between teams. If they view themselves as competing for limited external funds to help advance their organization, there can be a disincentive to collaborate (especially if housed in different departments).


When there are potential supporters being contacted for both corporate sponsorships and philanthropy, this can present a challenge. Some supervisors seek competition between areas as a way to motivate two teams to secure the maximum resources possible. As a result, teams often work harder to make their team look good and the other team look not so good—this will put their team in favour with leadership and, hopefully, secure more resources in the budget for the team.

This internal competition can result in a game of cat and mouse—with prospect information, reports of contact, and “ownership” of the potential supporter. For example, the corporate sponsorship team may be hesitant to make a soft hand off to the philanthropy team out of fear the corporate contact will be upset they are now being pursued for a donation or, indeed, that the contact will shift from being a corporate sponsor to becoming a philanthropic supporter. Added to this is the fear of losing the control of information and the relationship—especially the VIP relationship. The internal hand over is not worth the risk in the eyes of the corporate sponsorship team. The reverse dynamic is also commonly seen: the philanthropic team resisting opportunities to assist the sponsorship team.

The tension that has been created can inhibit teams from working together and in the end it is the organisation that is the loser when potential revenue is left on the table. What I term Selfish Relationship Syndrome (SRS) is the result of this competitive dynamic.


SRS becomes an issue when a staff member exhibits certain characteristics of relationship protectionism—opinions, emotions, or behaviours—with a key stakeholder. The staff member will be of the opinion that only they know the next best move in progressing the potential support to a sponsorship or philanthropic gift, and you will notice that:

  • other ideas are not typically embraced
  • information is withheld from the organisation’s database (this empowers the staff member because they know something about the potential supporter that others do not)
  • there is resistance to other members of the organisation meeting privately with the stakeholder (even if the staff members are professional and well-regarded)
  • answers are given on behalf of the potential supporter in a strategy meeting as if they know how the stakeholder would respond
  • visits or interactions with the potential supporter that are not recorded or shared among colleagues.

In the end, the staff member comes to believe they own the relationship.


Sometimes staff have good reason to be protective of their donor relationships. Often the rationale for SRS is the fear that something or someone at the organisation may do harm to the relationship or embarrass the organisation. When years of good work from a fundraiser or corporate sponsorship professional are undone by a team member, this incentivizes selfish donor relationships.

Similarly, risk factors can emerge when an organisation has a track record of previous miscues with potential supports. Not all engagement or cultivation scenarios go as planned and these hiccups often get repeated over and over at an organisation reinforcing cautious behaviour which can promote SRS.

If a member of the staff has any success in repairing a damaged relationship because of the historical blunders he/she will be rather protective of the relationship and will exhibit no shame in doing so given previous faults.


There are some businesses where a potential supporter may follow a staff member when they depart an organisation to go work for another, such as an accountant. However, this isn’t the case when it comes to philanthropic dollars or even sponsorships. Rarely, if ever, do donors follow a major gift professional to their next non-profit organisation and start donating to this cause.

Organisations need to prepare for changes to staffing. Fundraisers, and leaders, come and go. When a staff member leaves, often the organisation does a very poor job of a handover and this results in disengaged supporters moving their interest elsewhere. Building an institutional relationship is necessary for maintaining long-term major gifts, bequest consideration, or sponsorship opportunities.

There are ways to battle SRS and get teams, such as the philanthropic and corporate sponsorship teams, working together to produce a higher return for the organisation. You don’t need to create unhealthy competition.