The Third Sector Report By Jeffrey Wilcox

The Great American Fundraiser: An Endangered SpeciesJeffrey Wilcox - The Third Sector Report

March 11th, 2013 – A perfect storm has been brewing and it’s too bad that scores of intelligent people couldn’t see it coming. For several years, powerful fronts have been building up in all corners of the nonprofit sector and the forecasts are pretty clear that a rare bird known as The Great American Fundraiser may not be able to survive. Especially in the wake of the sequester.

Compass Point Nonprofit Services in San Francisco recently released its survey of 2,700 development officers and chief executives. It paints the sobering truth: 50 percent of senior fundraisers plan to leave their positions within two years and 40 percent are thinking about leaving the fundraising profession entirely.

There doesn’t seem to be much love lost about those numbers coming from the corner office either, as one in three nonprofit chief executives report they are “at best lukewarm” about the performance of their professional development staff.

In a society that benefits from early childhood learning centers, the performing arts, environmental preservation, religious missions, civic projects, world-class medicine, renowned secondary education institutions and basic needs for the poor, there’s surely a statement to be said about the plummeting numbers of men and women who are signing up to advance these worthy ventures; and, for those who have, they’re looking elsewhere.

Another major front in this brewing storm is the strong reticence towards fundraising amongst nonprofit professionals and volunteers who don’t hold the title. When the subject surfaces in the nonprofit board room it’s as though the unwanted dinner guest has just shown up and a lively crowd falls silent. The Compass Point study revealed that 75 percent of respondents’ boards don’t help in seeking gifts for their causes. Over a third don’t have fundraising committees.

It’s a fact and the numbers are proving it: The Great American Fundraiser, whether paid or voluntary, is on the endangered species list. And, it’s high time we asked ourselves: “Why?”

Is it possible that it’s actually the scarcity of developed human capital that is stagnating fundraising results for organizations, not a scarcity of financial capital that people are willing to contribute?

A long-standing gripe of grant makers has been the strategic plans submitted by nonprofit organizations that have devoted countless pages toward the elaborate and grandiose strategies for developing financial capital for their organizations. Yet, hardly a paragraph can be found that is devoted to its own professional and voluntary human capital development.

The starting place to reverse this trend is to stop pointing the finger that all the shortfalls and ill will about fundraising must be “somebody’s fault.” We’re running out of people blame: Fifty-three percent of nonprofit CEO’s say their most recent search for a top fundraiser failed.

The real culprit is a failure to recognize fundraising cultures that have become toxic to people, productivity and passion. It’s far easier to talk about what’s wrong with people and tighten the grip in a failed strategy than to discuss the culture in which the failure was destined to occur.

The results: Revolving-door development departments, stringent mandates, disengaged boardmembers and desperate executives who foster financial scarcity rather than community abundance as their default leadership position. These characteristics aren’t exactly breeding grounds for the endangered fundraiser.

Changing the fundraising culture requires tough talk to dispel perpetuated myths about fundraising that are eroding both the profession and its results: How the myth that fundraising is just the nonprofit version of business sales disenfranchises people who want to make a difference. How the false notion that simply hiring people to raise money dramatically short-changes the nonprofit business model. How the ridiculous belief that simply calling friends to cough up for the cause can distort the nonprofit definition of community equity. And, how the training of the solicitor disarms the power of the advocate.

Thanks to some great causes, we now know what it takes to lift a breed from the endangered species list. It’s more than mating or cloning. It’s about creating and sustaining the right environment in which the breed can survive and ultimately thrive.

The endangered Great American Fundraiser that lives within each of us is a textbook example of such a species that can’t and won’t survive in the current one.

(Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief executive officer of The Third Sector Company, Inc. Join in on the conversation about this article on Facebook or drop us a line at jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com)