White & red cone caution

A Cautionary Tale

You did the interviews well, your references were checked, you accepted the job offer and now you are

You did the interviews well, your references were checked, you accepted the job offer and now you are in your new director of development position. Suddenly, WHAM! Reality hits. The job, the fundraising goals, the board, your supervisor and the charity’s culture are nothing like what was presented to you during the interview process.

Now what? Do you make a go of it? Do you try to change the charity’s culture? Or do you immediately start going through job postings?

Everyone has been through this experience at least once—or know a fundraising professional who has. The questions are always the same.

  • Why does this happen?
  • How can development professionals protect themselves?
  • What should a charity’s management and leadership do to prevent this from happening?
  • What happens next?


The Situation

A seasoned professional with his CFRE is hired by ABC charity as the new director of development. Having previously done a small contract job with the charity, he has an idea of the challenges the charity faces but obviously doesn’t have the complete picture. He is nonetheless eager to tackle this new challenge and is both excited and anxious to have his first experience in a director role.

However, he quickly realizes there are many issues plaguing the charity:

  • The interim CEO was appointed for a one-year term and has no previous management experience;
  • ABC charity receives 85 to 90 percent of its funding from government grants;
  • A previous board of directors had closed the fundraising department during its last restructuring several years ago. Therefore, there had been no donor relationships cultivated in years;
  • The current board is neither affluent nor influential; it does not understand governance or its fiduciary role or even its role in relation to philanthropy;
  • There is no proper database to speak of, and the new development director has been given one month to fix the problem;
  • The development director is prohibited from directly contacting board members and must always clear any communication through the CEO first;
  • The board president, vice-president of finance, and the chair of the fundraising committee have set an unrealistic fundraising goal that was not based on past donations (or any data for that matter);
  • ABC charity had hired a consulting firm that convinced board members they needed a capital campaign and could raise $3 million in two years—without conducting a feasibility study or having a functional database or any active donors;
  • Despite numerous requests, the development director is given his budget six months into his one-year contract and then is immediately asked to cut it in order to maintain a balanced budget;
  • ABC charity is in its last grant year, and the call for proposals from the government keeps being pushed off. In other words, drastic cuts are forthcoming;
  • The organization is unionized, and its culture is still permeated by the founder’s approach of “paternalistic entitlement,” i.e., staff feel there is no need to raise money because there is a general belief that it’s the government’s responsibility to fund the charity.


Is your head spinning yet?


If you’d ever find yourself in this situation, what would you do?


No Fundraiser Is an Island

The 2012 national study by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, points out that conditions for long-term fundraising success involve more than simply hiring one qualified person for the job. In fact, some of the indicators of the non-profit’s being “up to the task” include:

  • investing in fundraising capacity and in the technologies and other fund development systems it needs;
  • engaging all the staff, including the executive director or CEO and the board, in fundraising as ambassadors and, in many cases, as solicitors;
  • understanding and valuing fund development and philanthropy across the entire organization; and
  • viewing the development director as a key leader and partner who is integrally involved in organizational planning and strategy.

With this in mind, it is possible to deconstruct the situation the development director experienced.




Board involvement in the philanthropic process


Being a board member can be a difficult task when a charity does not provide adequate orientation, training and support. Often not understanding, or misunderstanding, what is expected of them and how they must contribute, board members grow disengaged and frustrated.

It is critically important to ensure board members understand their roles. Have clear policies, job descriptions and performance evaluations. Despite these efforts, having an effective board can be elusive. In fact, Dr. John Carver, creator of the Policy Governance® Model, and Miriam Carver wrote: “Boards tend to be, in fact, incompetent groups of competent individuals.”

Not only did ABC charity’s board members not understand their role in fundraising, but they also did not understand fundraising as a whole and their implication and accountability toward reaching fundraising goals. Despite the success of a “making the ask” training held during a board meeting, board members resisted any further similar activities, citing “other priorities.” In fact, the executive committee of the board refused having any directors present at board meetings besides the CEO and the vice-president of finance.

When the development director was prevented from attending board meetings or contacting board members, what was he to do? Should he work with the CEO to properly communicate the board’s role in relation to fundraising? What have you done when a CEO or executive director does not understand their role and the power they hold to ensure the charity stays on target?


Leadership and organizational culture


The correlation between leadership and organizational culture cannot be denied. In her book Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, Simone Joyaux says that one of the relationships an organization must develop is with “itself … creating the holistic infrastructure [culture and systems] that produce a healthy enterprise.”

Organizational culture change is not something one person can accomplish alone. In fact, it is one of the most difficult leadership challenges facing not only charities but also the corporate world. That is because it involves competing goals, roles, processes, values, personalities, experiences, communications, attitudes, cultures and assumptions.

These elements form a system that, together, solidifies into something like an armor that protects a soldier. Changing a culture is a colossal undertaking in which leadership and perseverance are critical.

The issues in this case are two-fold, and the development director has absolutely no recourse whatsoever.


  • The remnants of the charity’s (defunct) founder’s management style still permeates the charity’s culture, even years later. The cult of personality, also referred to as “charismatic authority” by sociologist Max Weber, has created a somewhat complacent attitude and a sense of entitlement from the staff who behave as though they can run the organization.


  • The presence of a union also contributes to this thinking and behavior, exacerbating and fueling internal conflict between senior management and unionized staff. Although he has forged a very positive and collaborative relationship with the union executive and many staff members, the development director is not in a position to assume such a huge undertaking alone.


The interim CEO has no previous management experience. Admittedly, he was put into an impossible position, where the indicators for success were nonexistent. Much like the development director, he is not supported by the board during this transition period. At the same time, the interim CEO has done nothing to create a sense of teamwork, collaboration and vision among the members of the senior management team, which includes the development director. Despite the development director’s repeated offers to help, the interim CEO has pushed issues off onto others, avoiding tackling them rather than asking for or accepting support for his senior management team.


Professional readiness


Since this is the first senior management experience for the development director, he reads every management article possible in order to prepare for this new challenge. These include articles touching on such topics as managing staff, the relationship between the director and the CEO, leading and inspiring a team, etc. Despite being very self-aware and driven, the development director’s shortcomings include not knowing what his own management style is, what it entails and how to lead in a way that forges positive relationships with the interim CEO and board members.

In short, it appears that the organizational culture and the board’s misunderstanding of its role toward fundraising are the crux of the development director’s woes. What should he do, and what can you learn from this experience?


a) How can fundraisers protect themselves from getting into similar situations?

Ask tough questions during the interview. Do not forget that you are interviewing the charity as much as it is interviewing you. It has to be a good fit on both sides. Ask questions that go beyond the tasks and responsibilities related to the job.


b) Can this situation be prevented?

Yes, absolutely. Do your due diligence. Become your own private investigator, and try to find someone who may have contacts in the charity in question. Check into the charity’s reputation by talking to other organizations in the same sector. Even if you think you know the charity, as the development director did, dig deeper until you have the most complete picture possible.


c) What can one do in such a situation?

No one wants to feel as though the only option is to give up until every possible solution has been exhausted. However, self-care should be your primary focus. If the job is making you sick — physically, emotionally and/or spiritually — consider walking away. It is not a failure. It is self-preservation.


In fact, you may be surprised by the support and understanding you can get when it reaches that point. Devising an exit strategy so you can leave the organization having accomplished whatever is possible under the circumstances will not make everything right, but at least you will be able to leave with your head up and ready to tackle a new and exciting challenge.

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