Fundraising is not one person's work

A fundraising team solves problems together.

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Ministry leaders must work collaboratively to think about all assets of an organization and how they can grow together.

Once upon a time, loyal donors generously supported many wonderful ministry ideas, often based on the donor’s trust of the institution and its work. Institutional leaders’ primary work was to devise the grand plans. The funds would flow, especially if “missions” was involved. Ministers and missionaries did not have to worry about raising money. They focused on doing quality work.

In an era of tight budgets, I hear more and more institutions of all types grumbling about the need to raise money. The most popular solution is to hire a fundraiser, as if having a development officer is the cure. It turns out that both fundraisers and their bosses are deeply frustrated.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy published the results of a recent study by Compass Point Nonprofit Services, which found that half of the chief fundraisers surveyed plan to leave their jobs within two years and 40 percent are considering leaving the field. More than half of the executive directors, the Chronicle reported, can’t find qualified chief fundraisers.

“Too many organizations lack a culture of philanthropy, which means that development directors don’t have the conditions they need to succeed,” Marla Cornelius, a senior project director at Compass Point Nonprofit Services and co-author of the study, told the Chronicle. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

One element of the challenge is that all fundraising is not the same.

Raising small gifts from a large number of donors, writing grants from foundations and soliciting major gifts from individuals are three very different activities that require mutually exclusive gifts and preferences in the fundraiser. Most professionals have expertise in one area with limited exposure in the other areas. Institutions have to define a strategy before they know who to hire.

A deeper challenge is that fundraising is a team sport. The Chronicle reports that the “high-performing” organizations don’t consider fundraising as the work of an individual but the work of the entire organization.

The experience of nonprofits is a warning sign to those who believe that hiring a fundraiser will solve persistent budget deficits or provide resources to expand services to meet increased needs.

Ministry leaders must now lay plans for generating revenue alongside plans for providing services. Laura Nichol consults with organizations on raising financial capital by encouraging them to focus on raising network, service and intellectual capital. Thinking about all the assets of an organization and how these can grow together results in developing new ways to fund a ministry.

Metro Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen is a great example. In 2012, the church and its sister nonprofit leveraged their location to attract 700 volunteers, who donated time and materials to serve 1,400 to 1,600 community members through an outreach program that involves preschool, after-school educational programs and homework help, a teen center, English-language evening classes for adults, and direct services to the community through a food pantry, a clothing closet, school supplies and toiletry kits, and holiday meals and family events.

How might your ministry create the conditions for a self-reinforcing cycle in which great needs are met, the lines between those served and being served are blurred, and a community is changed?

An organization might need a fundraiser to help sustain or grow such a system, but the fundraiser cannot create the conditions for the cycle. Everyone involved in the ministry shares that work.

I wish we could go back to the days of my childhood and not have to worry about raising money. However, thinking about the sustainable design of a system is what distinguishes entrepreneurs from those who simply have good ideas.