I was on a flight to Portland recently when I happened upon an article in BusinessWeek magazine about Portland resident Dan McLaughlin. Having never before picked up a golf club, McLaughlin somehow talked Nike into sponsoring him as a professional golfer. McLaughlin decided to become a golf pro after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which posits that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at any skill. Recently he passed his 2,000th hour of practice, and he’s now shooting in the mid-90s. Not quite PGA material, but he remains convinced that if he sticks to the “Dan Plan” he will get his tour card within a couple years and win his first PGA tournament within six years.
This got me to thinking. What makes a great fundraiser? Is it a skill that is learned through thousands of hours of practice? Or is it an art that you are born with? At Dickerson, Bakker & Associates we’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of fundraisers. Some are good, some are mediocre, and a few are great. We’ve recruited many of them for fundraising jobs with our clients.
So what makes a great fundraiser? And how do you go about recruiting one to your organization? This article considers both of those questions, and some of what we conclude may surprise you.
Let’s start with what it is not. For starters, a “great fundraiser” is not defined solely by the amount of money they raise. Some years ago I consulted with an organization that had two key fundraisers. One had been with the organization for years and had accumulated most of the organization’s top donors on her list. The other was new with the organization. In pure dollar terms he was raising only a fraction of what his more tenured colleague was raising. Yet I can recall sitting in a meeting with each of them to review their donor accounts. The junior team member went through his list without checking a note, reporting on visits made, recent phone calls, proposals presented, and commitments received. The senior team member, on the other hand, had to look to her computer time and time again to answer even basic questions about her accounts. Who would you say was the better fundraiser?
Being great at fundraising is also not the same as being great with people. Being the “life of the party” does not make you an effective fundraiser. Recently while conducting an Executive Search for a key fundraising position we were shocked to discover that one of our top candidates ranked in the bottom ten percent in terms of extroversion on a personality assessment. Yet by all accounts he was a very effective fundraiser. We talked to many of his references and each of them said the same thing—while he shied away from being the center of attention in a large group, he excelled at authentic one-to-one relationships with major donors, earning both their trust and their big dollar gifts.
That leaves the question, then, of how do you define “greatness” in fundraising? I believe the answer to that question can be summed up in these eight words: Consistent year over year growth in fundraising outcomes.
Even the most hapless of golfers can make a good shot occasionally. They might even put together a string of a few good holes. But to stay at the top of the standings year over year, despite injuries, nasty weather, and any other number of setbacks—that’s a sign of greatness. The same is true in fundraising. Great fundraisers don’t stand out for bringing in an occasional big gift; they stand out because they bring it time and again, year over year.
Tiger Woods was born with a natural talent for golf. At the age of three, Woods gained attention when he beat the famed comedian and avid golfer Bob Hope in a putting contest on national TV. A couple years later he appeared in Golf Digest magazine and was featured on the popular ABC television show That’s Incredible!
But natural talent wasn’t enough. Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, was himself an athlete and “scratch” golfer, and introduced Tiger to the game at the age of two. He recognized his son’s talent early and devoted most of the rest of his life to developing his son’s talent and to furthering Tiger’s career as a golfer. That leads to question, what if Tiger’s father had not been an avid golfer?
At Dickerson-Bakker we’ve had the privilege of working with many top-producing fundraisers. We’ve also conducted in-depth background checks and administered personality tests to many of them as part of our executive search program. We’ve developed a good understanding of characteristics that top producing “natural born fundraisers” possess (you can read more about that in our blog article, Top Ten Characteristics of Top Producing Major Gift Fundraisers).
Talent alone is not enough—experience is critically important as well. We’ve seen this up-close—people who have all the right skills and characteristics to be successful but who struggle when they step into their first fundraising job. Imagine if Tiger Woods’ father had never played golf. I doubt he could step onto the links and win a championship without the benefit of a lifetime’s worth of coaching and experience. In the same way even the most naturally talented fundraisers need to have training, coaching, mentoring, and progressively grow into increasing levels of responsibility to succeed.
So what’s the lesson here for those who are hoping to recruit top fundraising talent to their organization? For starters, understand that experience matters. You can’t take an inexperienced fundraiser and drop him or her into a high-level fundraising position and expect them to excel anymore than you would expect an inexperienced golfer to win a tournament without showing up for practice first.
In our view, the best advice is to learn to recognize talent early and recruit them to your organization while they are still “growing up” as professionals. Good fundraisers can be exceptionally hard to recruit away to a new organization once they are established. But early-career fundraisers are often unnoticed, under-appreciated and itching for new opportunities. This means you need to think about putting as much or more emphasis into recruiting good quality line-level development officers as you do into hiring for your chief development officer position. Then provide them plenty of opportunities to learn, grow, and hone their skills. In a few years you won’t be looking to recruit top-talent to your organization—you’ll have all the talent you need right on your own team.