There are few greater challenges in the profession than serving as the chief advancement officer (CAO) of a small to midsized shop. Your boss and board have high expectation for your department and yet have little appreciation or understanding of the true dimensions, complexities, and public exposure risks (think gala) of running a high performance advancement operation. Almost all of your decisions carry long-term consequences because smaller shops have very thin margins for error and far less “wiggle room” than larger shops. There simply isn’t anyone to lend a helping hand especially if a program or initiative is underperforming or slides off the rails.
Whether your focus is healthcare, the arts, education, human services, social justice, or other most worthy cause, there are three core decision points that no CAO in a smaller shop should have to solve on their own. These include prioritizing donors, efforts, and staff. I have personally faced these issues in the past and watch my clients of all sizes wrestle with them as well. Let’s take a look at each in order to provide some context, guidance, and support for your choices.
Issue #1: Donors
Should your priority be attracting hundreds of small and mid-range donors OR keeping your three or four largest donors – who have been carrying most of your advancement goal for years – engaged with your organization?
Here’s the challenge. You know in your gut that the long term success of your advancement program will depend on a broad and deep donor base, and the methodical process of building it is critically important to do. At the same time, your top donors are committed, cherished, and valuable for today’s success. And there are only so many hours in the day.
Fortunately, here you can have it both ways! To paraphrase a famous Beatles song, “You can get by with a little help from your friends.” Share your relationships with your top donors with others in your organization. “Buddy” them up with an appropriate senior administrator, a dean, a trustee, or a program manager of a beloved program. It is not essential that they are part of advancement; what is important is that they have a passion for the organization and can communicate that with key donors. Try and reduce the time and energy commitment of you or your gift officers by sharing relationships with trusted colleagues. Your job is to coach relationship “buddies”, provide bridge opportunities, and encourage the growth of their relationship with longstanding and generous advocates. You and your team will then have more time to identify and steward other donors along to the top of the heap.
Issue #2: Efforts
Should you as the CAO do frontline fund raising (or have a very small portfolio) OR should you be a strong external fund raiser with a significant portfolio, at the expense of a “hands off” approach to managing the shop?
The bottom line here is management trumps structure. The most well established advancement office structure will fail or underperform if poorly managed.
I am a big believer in the value of good management, and three decades in this industry reviewing countless development operations – the good, the bad, and the ugly – have proven this over and over again. It is frustrating to watch clients and other shops go through all sorts of system design changes, reorganizations, and job swapping, all in the quest to find the formula for success… while all the while, the problem is with management.
So what’s the ideal balance here? In a perfect world, the most effective CAOs need to be strong managers first, then manage the gifts team (staff and volunteers) to success within the prevailing system, and carry a small portfolio of the highest value or most promising donors.
Issue #3: Staff
Should you as the CAO hire a gift officer who has great innate talent and has been very successful in other organizations… but is poor at documenting moves and details OR should you recruit a mid-strength, solid gift officer who documents well and will confidently close many unremarkable gifts?
Here it is important to look at this choice through short, medium, and long term lenses. The first staffing option (the lone wolf model) may reward with larger gifts in the short run, but puts your organization at risk in the medium and long run if this person has a short tenure. The second option (the team player model) is associated with standard rewards and lower risks at every point.
Gift officers can leave two legacies to their organization – the tangible and intangible. As for tangible I mean the new building, scholarship program, capital improvements, etc. that were made possible by the dollars raised by the officer and their relationships. By intangible, I mean the actionable and well documented database, which should be a treasure-trove of information about the interests, personalities, family dynamics, communication styles, hot buttons, aspirations, and personal and philanthropic missions of your donors and prospects.
While the mid-strength gift officer may or may not ever close a remarkable gift, their well documented portfolio probably contains prospects with great potential. A good advancement manager will recognize this and “turf” these individuals to a broader relationship circle so the prospect’s promise can be realized.
1. Sharing best donor relationships with your top internal organizational advocates pays dividends in added productivity and donor engagement.
2. Management trumps organizational system and structure.
3. Leave your legacy in funds raised and stories documented.
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