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Cutting Fundraisers Doesn’t Result In Greater Efficiency

By Paul Clolery - March 1, 2016

Mike Rowe has done every unimaginably ugly job there is on his television programs, “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel and now “Somebody’s Got to Do It” on CNN. He has slogged through human and animal excrement. He’s been a fish gutter, bat guano collector, septic tank cleaner, sludge recycler and shark suit tester.

He’s never been a fundraiser, although most of those jobs could serve as a training ground for some of what fundraisers face every day. It is probably the most misunderstood and professionally dangerous job in the charitable sector.

It is stunning when an organization lets go of 50 or more fundraisers as was done recently by The American Red Cross. Fundraisers are often the first to go when budgets are slashed. The employment life of a fundraiser is often less than two years, which is barely long enough to find the corporate restroom. It sometimes takes more than a year for a new accounting and/or constituent relationship management system to be installed and for it to be operating efficiently. That gives a fundraiser little to time learn the system before moving on, voluntarily or otherwise.

Fundraisers today must understand psychology, technology, budgeting and human resources. They need to understand most elements of the fundraising process. Direct mail people must understand database technology and online strategy. Planned giving officers must understand financial instruments such as donor advised funds and what might happen if the law changes and DAFs go the way of the Edsel.

Fundraising has always been a challenge, as are most jobs that depend on revenue generation and hitting numbers. It has also become very specialized and siloed. Turf wars break out in a fight for whom gets credit for a donor and whether there should be exclusive access to that donor by the silo through which the person was brought into the organization.

When did advocating for a cause become so cutthroat?

Management experts have been harping for decades that nonprofits should operate more like for-profit corporations. Well, now they are emulating many for-profit firms. They just aren’t selecting the correct organizations to replicate. Successful for-profits “sell” their way out of a recession. That means adding staff to move product and find new leads. Charities have tended to go in the opposite direction, laying-off the revenue drivers when budgets get tight instead of doubling down on those hired to generate the income.

The U.S. economy goes into recession roughly every nine years with varying lengths and depths. It’s not as if charity executives can’t see one coming and plan for it. When the higher-ups screw up, the fundraisers are the ones who either get chopped or pushed to do even more with a donor base that shrinks every day.

Raising money has become a high wire act and unfortunately fundraisers are the people who do a figurative Wallenda, falling off and landing on the pavement 10 stories below because some else on the team miscalculated. (Yes, it was windy but high wire performer Karl Wallenda fell to his death due to equipment placement failure.)

There are some fundraisers who carry themselves as stars and think they are above the fray. They are in the minority. It is time fundraisers had more of a say in program development so that revenue generation can immediately be brought into the discussion.

Mike Rowe recently jumped out of an airplane with a precision jump team. Fundraisers shouldn’t have to do the same thing.

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