My Line of Thought…Fundraising Will Get Done Last

Is fundraising at your organisation taken seriously? According to Philanthropy Australia 1 in 4 charities depend on philanthropy and giving for 50% or more of their total income. Therefore, one could surmise that at least a quarter of Australian non-profits are taking it very seriously. The latest statistics from Philanthropy Australia state individuals gave $12.5 billion, foundations and trusts (private and public ancillary funds) gave a combined total of $660 million, and businesses gave $6.2 billion. In the United States, Giving USA reports individuals gave $281 billion, foundations gave $59 billion, and corporations gave $18.5 billion. If your nonprofit is not taking fundraising seriously the numbers indicate perhaps it should, but a word a caution when doing so.

If you give someone more than one thing to do and one of those things involves fundraising, fundraising will get done last, if at all. I am baffled by an organization’s cry for more gifts, but see wisdom in assigning non-fundraising responsibilities to their fundraisers. For some smaller organizations, for example, the shear lack of resources requires a person to be a fundraiser and a non-donor related event planner. However, this practice is not limited to under-resourced organizations. Some chief fundraisers are also responsible for organizational marketing, public relations, communications, and/or government relations, etc. Is this doing the organisation a disservice?

It can be a blessing for the chief fundraiser to have access to marketing and public relations resources, but at what cost? Granted, fundraising requires excellent marketing and communication messages from the organization that are fundraising “friendly.” However, managing areas like marketing or communications responsible for messages not directly related to fundraising, e.g. future student recruitment or handling a ‘hot’ issue, takes focus and time away from fundraising. These areas contribute to the case for support for fundraising efforts, but managing them can spread the chief fundraiser too thin.

Fundraising is like a sales position, it is necessary to be out of the office to build relationships in order to close a sale. Granted there are those occasional bluebirds—when you happen to answer the phone and the prospect informs you they want to make a major gift—but these are few and far between.

What benefit is an organisation giving up by giving their fundraiser(s) more than direct fundraising duties? Ultimately, more financial resources. Fundraising is about the numbers: the number of contactable prospects to solicit, the number of mass appeals and response rates, the number of attempts to secure personally scheduled visits, the number of personal scheduled visits, the number of solicitations, the number of attendees at a fundraising event, dollars raised, dollars paid, etc.

I appreciate the chief fundraiser has necessary duties beyond chasing major gift prospects all day. However, these responsibilities are typically related to the fundraising operation: strategy development, budget, personnel matters, fundraising marketing and messaging, volunteer coordination, establishing KPIs, etc. Any additional responsibilities have a direct impact on the chief fundraiser’s personal prospect portfolio. More responsibilities equate to a smaller portfolio and less prospect visits as there is only so much time in the day.

Many academics, and university leadership who came up through the academic ranks, are not typically accustomed to chasing philanthropic prospects for appointments or making the fundraising ask. Students typically seek appointments with professors or conference organizers extend the invitation to speak. Academics who consult can appreciate the art of chasing prospects. Chasing prospects takes time, energy and an optimistic attitude. Additional clutter and noise gets in the way of effective prospecting.

The financial health of an organization can influence the allocation of duties. For many universities philanthropy is viewed as a means of maintaining or enhancing excellence. Securing a gift to endow a chair allows the university to attract top talent or endowed merit-based scholarship will increase the number of high performing students. However, philanthropy, for a university, doesn’t keep the doors open—that is tuition income. With multimillion dollar plus annual operating budgets philanthropy income is viewed as a drop in the bucket. Further, in some cases the donor’s restriction on the gift is not seen as helpful or making an impact.

A long-term view of philanthropy is required as it can become an incredible force in making a difference for a university. A combination of philanthropic gifts and investment returns over the years have allowed Harvard University to amass a US$37 billion endowment, Yale University a  US$27 billion endowment, Stanford University a US$24 billion endowment, The Ohio State University a US$4 billion endowment, Oxford University with a nearly £3 billion endowment and, in a much shorter time frame, The University of Melbourne with a AUS$745 million trust. And these universities are not letting up with ongoing massive (1 billion dollar plus) fundraising campaigns executed by professional fundraisers.

The chief fundraiser for the aforementioned universities are part of the president’s cabinet, but not to undertake non-related fundraising activities. Rather, their place on the cabinet is to stay informed about university plans and activities, weigh in our strategic plans, communicate the pulse of the alumni community and donors, demonstrate to the university community that fundraising is important, lead and communicate on a university-wide campaign, and maintain an unfiltered communication relationship with the president.

Universities are layered with bureaucracy and getting entangled in fundraising related bureaucracy absorbs enough time as it is. The added burden of time spent on those items that will not advance fundraising initiatives is the opportunity cost of building relationships. Not all fundraising is the same, e.g. the annual fund solicitation compared to the major gift solicitation. The latter requires more personal attention and involvement because a donor’s philanthropic investment is greater.

Securing major gifts requires a steady pipeline of quality prospects. Research can provide invaluable information to help narrow the major gift prospect pool (capacity), but in many cases the personal visit is needed to help qualify a prospect (e.g. determine the level of connectivity). There are many necessary elements for a university to be successful in major gift fundraising, but relationship building is paramount. 

Additional non-fundraising responsibilities for the chief fundraising professional, especially when there isn’t a team of major gift officers on the road to assist, means less relationships are getting built. Although there is no universal correct way to organize the duties of the chief fundraiser there are better practices demonstrated daily by those fundraising operations leading the pack in raising monies. Your organisation could be leaving thousands, or millions, of philanthropic dollars on the table and restricting the chief fundraiser’s duties to capture this potential revenue is a demonstration that the organisation does take fundraising seriously.