Organizational Journey: How Fundraisers Become Boundless Managers, Leaders

It’s not enough to identify, train and reinforce people skills

Great nonprofit fundraisers generate resources and serve as ambassadors for mission. But to be a great manager, one must generate goodwill and be a steward of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), both inside a development shop and across the organization as a whole.

Today’s nonprofit managers need to be effective at recruiting and retaining a strong team, setting vision and goals, guiding project execution, solving problems, understanding and leveraging data, and attending to one’s own energy. Some of these skills grow more easily from having worked as a fundraiser than others.

Skills developed in a career in fundraising — emotional intelligence, strategic and thoughtful relationship-building, articulating goals and plans, and accountability to measurable results — all translate beautifully into managing.

However, fundraisers also can be highly competitive and protective of their portfolios. We’ve seen this time and time again. Fundraisers often perceive their subordinates as competition, believing that somehow the success of those below them might be detrimental to their own job security, especially at senior levels. Being results-driven — a trait that often leads to success in fundraising — can be a double-edged sword. It can also cause a lack of respect for process and impatience with collaboration, which can be detrimental to team-building as well as guiding effective meetings and complex projects. If not checked, ultimately these habits can hinder collective impact.

It is not enough to identify, train and reinforce core management skills. Being a great manager in today’s nonprofit sector also means developing the cultural competency needed to attract, retain and fully embrace a truly diverse workforce.

As documented by CompassPoint in its 2013 report UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, our sector’s lack of investment in strengthening and diversifying the talent pool has contributed to a “vicious cycle” of under-resourced, unstable organizations where development directors and executive directors are predominantly older than 40, female and white. This means nonprofits are less effective at addressing social problems, with numerous studies cited in Equity in the center’s Awake to Woke to Work report demonstrating that diverse teams lead to better outputs. As Edgar Villanueva wrote in Decolonizing Wealth, people of color and indigenous people bring unique creativity that strengthens organizations: “We are… masters of alternative possibilities…We cultivate this level of awareness in a way our white colleagues, especially the monolingual ones, never have to. It’s a burden, but it’s also a superpower.” Codeswitching and the ability to communicate authentically with diverse audiences should be recognized as valuable assets, and treated as such in decisions around hiring, competency, and compensation.

Joshua Tobing and Nancy Withbroe

Equity is too often expressed as a dull bullet point trailing a long list of other organizational priorities.

The Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead reports show that the gap is not due to differences in skills, interest or education among people of color, but rather stems from structural issues within the sector. They offer these calls to action that we must take to grow into great managers in our increasingly diverse country:

• Recruit more diverse teams;

• Identify and address implicit bias in our organizations;

• Pay staff fairly and create transparency around pay scales; and,

• Invite donors to invest in these efforts.

At the National Women’s Law Center, we recognize that management and DEI skills can be taught – and that this learning must be intentional and ongoing. Under the leadership of Fatima Goss Graves, our first black president and chief executive officer, we have invested significantly in staff development, including mandatory anti-bias training. Thanks to intentional shifts in our recruitment practices, a majority of our staff now identify as people of color. Our fundraising team used to be entirely white, straight and female; now 40 percent of that team identifies as people of color. We have also updated our non-discrimination policy and are designing a new compensation program.

Recognizing that making time for management and unlearning old habits is not easy, we are experimenting with strategies to ensure skills stick. We formed an internal working group comprised of a diverse community of staff — across race, ethnicity, generation, seniority, and team — who serve as partners to the chief operating officer and chief of staff regarding how to reinforce this continuous learning and ensure that best practices are implemented consistently. We recently added capacity to our human resources team, hiring a director who is a certified coach and DEI expert, and have brought in trained facilitators to lead team retreats. None of this would have been possible without a transformational five-year grant from the Ford Foundation’s BUILD program.

Embarking on efforts like these is not for the faint-hearted. This work is messy, complicated, and emotionally draining, disproportionately so for people of color. Because staff of color are more concentrated in entry and mid-level roles, there is an imbalance in positional power that requires senior- level staff, who are more likely to be white, to be culturally and emotionally skilled and able to recognize and mitigate bias when it shows up — and to avoid reacting defensively when we empower staff to be explicit about racial dynamics as they play out in routine office tensions.

Equity is too often expressed as a dull bullet point trailing a long list of other organizational priorities. What too many managers and leaders fail to realize is that when equity and inclusion are made core institutional values and practices, other priorities fall into place, we attract more donor dollars, and we achieve more impact.

The National Women’s Law Center is more effective at advancing its mission — to fight for gender justice through law, policy and culture change — because we are strengthening our management practices and explicitly centering equity, including with our fundraisers who aspire to become great managers. Since we began this journey in 2017, our budget and staff have each grown by nearly 50 percent, our major media mentions have tripled, and we’ve taken on housing the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.

We have a long way to go on our journey to fully live our DEI agenda, but we know that our most promising fundraisers can grow into great managers, and that they will help us become an even more effective and powerful institution.


Joshua Tobing and Nancy Withbroe work for the National Women’s Law Center. Tobing is a development assistant and Withbroe is chief operating officer and chief of staff.