Let’s Address the Real Reason Great Fundraisers Are in Short Supply

Friday, January 27, 2023

Let’s Address the Real Reason Great Fundraisers Are in Short Supply
By: Lisa Piilar Cowan, Vice President, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and Michelle Flores, Consultant. This piece was originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy on January 5, 2023.

“We need a unicorn.”

That’s what we hear nearly every week from organizations seeking their next development director.

Nonprofit leaders say they need somebody who both understands their organization’s mission and “speaks the language” of potential donors, and they lament that very few people possess both types of knowledge.

That may be true, but it’s also a no-win approach that is thwarting the ability of many nonprofits to bring in the funds they desperately need to provide essential services, advocacy, and other work that improves the quality of life of their constituents.

The Chronicle’s just-released study of the fundraising profession makes it clear how urgent the staffing problems in the nonprofit world have become, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

In its survey of 685 fundraisers, the Chronicle found that “nine in 10 said that unfilled fundraising positions significantly increased their workloads. Similarly, 89 percent agreed that their nonprofit didn’t employ enough people to raise as much as they had the potential to attract.”

The Chronicle talked to nonprofit leaders and fundraisers themselves about how to improve working conditions, and many of those interviewed offered ideas such as more paid vacation, health benefits, flexible schedules, remote work options, and retirement funds. All of these are important human-resources practices and should be offered to every staff member doing the hard work that most nonprofits do. But there is a central structural consideration that is not touched on by the survey: the need to link fundraising practices directly to an organization’s mission.

As a former development director (Michelle) and a foundation staff member (Lisa), we think the real problem in recruiting fundraisers is that we force people who take those roles to navigate a system where it is almost impossible to attract donations in ways that are consistent with a social change or social justice mission.

Our current approach, in which organizations seek gifts from foundations or wealthy individuals, gives both fundraisers and donors incentives to pursue a “charity” model that keeps donors separate, above, and apart from the communities they ostensibly support. Fundraisers are required to work like translators or guides, bridging (and maintaining) the wide social gap between the world donors inhabit and the people the nonprofit serves. For many organizations, this social gap is defined largely along lines of race and class. The same racist systems that create the financial gap between donors and many nonprofit constituents explain why development staffs are overwhelmingly white people and program staffs are so often made up of people of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

Exacerbating the problem: Longstanding conventional wisdom holds that it is essential for an organization seeking funds to court, praise, perform for, and bestow thanks upon the donor in all kinds of time-consuming ways that do not reflect or support a world in which power is shared and all peoples’ time and cultures are valued.

That means fundraisers either have to hold their noses and go through the paces knowing that they are not consistent with their missions or create a separate space for themselves where they can integrate the mission into their daily practices.

For fundraisers of color, it’s particularly exhausting. This might partially explain why in that Chronicle survey of “nearly 700 fundraisers, three-quarters identified as white, 4 percent as Black/African American, 3 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 2 percent as Asian American/Pacific Islander, and 4 percent as multiple races.”

In short, a system designed by wealthy white donors to reinforce the social inequality that made their wealth possible in the first place has not invited, welcomed, or appreciated the talents of fundraisers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. And without significant change, the field will continue to miss out on a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience.

To change this system, the first step is for fundraisers to name the problem and talk about it. As is so often the case, there are fundraisers across the country who experience this dynamic as a personal or organizational failure rather than as a systemic one. The recognition that others are feeling the same things can come as a validation, provide relief, and help us begin to shift.

Next, we propose that organizations:

Reconsider the role of fundraising in carrying out the mission-focused work of an organization. Rather than making fundraising a separate function apart from its programs, an organization’s development efforts should be integral to its overall work to change society.

That would mean rethinking what fundraisers have the power to do: the relationships they cultivate and make space for, how they connect and build a community, and what the role of that community is in financing and realizing an organization’s mission.

Stop competing and start collaborating. Imagine that, instead of vying with similar organizations for limited foundation dollars, we worked together as a community to invite grant makers into a relationship of trust and collective transformation. Imagine readjusting our relationships with individual donors to invite them into a movement that transforms the power they hold. Organizations that choose such an approach offer a special opportunity to grant makers and other donors to focus their giving in a way that begins to more directly repair the harm caused by an extreme concentration of wealth.

Seek transformers, connectors, and organizers. With a fundraising model more aligned to mission, we can reconsider what skills and experiences are needed for people in the development profession. If we value greater, more organic connection between organizations and the communities they work within, we should encourage hiring from among the people nonprofits serve and creating space for these relationships to flourish. If we’d like to see less competition over funds and greater collaboration between organizations, we should hire people skilled in new ways of collaborative decision making. Hiring transformers is about looking for leaders who can fully contribute to an organization’s best vision for itself. It’s also about recognizing talent that has been marginalized and devalued by creating space for people who’ve experienced intersecting oppressions to fully flourish.

The approach we suggest to make fundraising more sustainable for fundraisers requires change not just from nonprofits but also from donors.

How Foundations Can Help


Organized philanthropy can play a crucial role in changing the dynamics. We can stop asking the groups we support to do work that mainly serves our institutional needs. We can minimize the work for grant seekers by developing easier application processes. We can do more to learn from the organizations we support — following their own goal-setting — rather than demanding that they meet our individual evaluation criteria. We could visit them less often and ask for fewer reports.

Perhaps most important, we can change our point of view, no longer seeing ourselves as people who bestow money and our grantee partners as those bestowed upon. Instead, we can see ourselves in a partnership that shares work and thereby lessens the load on the grantee.

Such approaches, spelled out so well in work by the Trust Based Philanthropy project, are available to all of us, whether we are giving from our own pockets or from an institution.

As donors and grant makers, we should understand the invitation to fund an organization is a gift. This means it’s time to stop thinking that the thanks and cards and naming opportunities should flow to us. So instead of asking for the Jane Doe plaque on the Girl Scout boardroom, Jane Doe should recognize that she can do the most good by naming 10 percent of her paycheck after the Girl Scouts.

Taking on the shortage of fundraisers requires a transformation of how we all view the process of fundraising. And even though that transformation is difficult and slow, it’s not as hard as unicorn hunting.

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