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Mistake 1 – Musical Chairs

Dick Taft is working on a  new book planned for 2017 release. Learn more by reading an excerpt from Mistake 1 – Musical Chairs:

In the preface to “Ten Colossal Fundraising Mistakes” I stated that the “musical chairs” syndrome is rampant in the hiring of many fundraising professionals. Nonprofits waste a lot of time and money recruiting people who don’t last very long on the job…about 18 months on average, according to most analyses. It’s a serious and debilitating matter for the philanthropic field.

As an example, I talked briefly about one of my recent clients. This fine organization retained a respected recruiting firm to conduct a search for a top-level development officer. After a while, the executive director asked me to interview the recruiting firm’s top candidate. As the interview unfolded, red flags began to wave in my head. In just a few hours I became convinced that this person, however experienced, was wrong for this particular situation and I made my opinion known. I guessed that the candidate, if hired, would not last more than a year on the job. The client, understandably, was eager to get started after the long and diligent search and decided to move ahead, notwithstanding my cautions. After all, the recruitment firm was a good one and I could easily have been wrong. As I confessed in my preface, I was dead wrong. The new hire was dismissed after six months.

What did I hear? What did I sense? Why did I conclude that the candidate, with years of experience, good references and high enthusiasm might turn out to be a bad match for my client? There are dozens of signals I could point to. Let me discuss just a few.

All Nonprofits Are Not Created Equal

All nonprofit organizations are clearly not created equal. Some possess what I call, an affinity donor base. By that, I mean a group of potential supporters who have an existing attachment, emotionally, or intellectually, to the organization and are thus pre-conditioned to being supportive.

Colleges and universities, for example, have alumni and alumnae, the vast majority of whom have been through a binding emotional experience. Churches and synagogues provide welcoming sanctuaries and strong spiritual connections. Local and regional museums have members whose children benefit greatly from the educational resources these institutions provide. Community hospitals serve the health needs of people in the immediate region and often save lives. These nonprofit types fit my affinity donor base definition. In these situations development officers will almost always find it easier to access and solicit potential donors.

By contrast, there are countless nonprofits that do not fit my affinity definition. These are most-often national cause organizations. Such groups must cast a wide net to find, educate, involve, cultivate and ultimately solicit supporters without the historical and geographical ties that benefit affinity nonprofits. It is therefore understandable that a fundraiser, coming from an affinity-type organization to a non-affinity type, will often find the fundraising challenge quite different, and occasionally, daunting. And why not? Competition in the philanthropic world is fierce. And it is fiercest in the non-affinity nonprofit world where brand building and marketing require a very different mindset.

My client’s potential hire had worked primarily in alumni relations–raising money from graduates of a fine university. College and universities have deep affinity to their graduates. Half the marketing work is done by graduation. By contrast, my client was a relatively young, national educational and training organization. Its mission promoted an important and meaningful cause. But there were at least half a dozen other organizations out there purporting to do much the same thing. All these organizations were essentially competing in the same donor universe. This was a complex marketing challenge involving extensive prospect research, communications planning, brand building, materials development, special events, mailings and more–quite different from the candidate’s most recent work experience at an old and deeply respected university.

The candidate apparently came with a good track record and solid recommendations. Nevertheless, this disparity between past experience and new challenge concerned me deeply. I thought the candidate might feel like a fish out of water in this new and very different environment. More importantly, as our conversation progressed, I sensed overconfidence and a failure to understand the hugely different competitive challenges between the new job and the past experience.

What About the Budget?

After some general discussion, I asked a question I considered essential: “Aside from your salary, have you discussed the financial resources and budget that will be made available to you for staff, research, marketing, communications and other aspects of the job ahead?” I already knew that the organization was pinching pennies at every turn and that funds available for an aggressive development operation might be either limited or simply underestimated. I was surprised when the candidate confessed to never having even raised these issues.

I have learned that sometimes applicants for a job are reluctant to ask these questions out of fear of losing traction for the position. Often, they figure that if the salary is attractive (and in this case it was) the hiring organization will certainly be willing to invest significantly in the other resources required for success. I consider applicants naïve if they fail to ask about things that will almost certainly affect their chances for success. I have often advised clients to be wary if a potential hire does not bring up the resource issue.

Some months later I learned that the new development officer, instead of getting out in the field to work with leadership, network and meet prospects, was spending most of the time mired in planning while also writing foundation proposals, direct mail letters and undertaking other tasks that almost certainly should have been done by professionals skilled in these disciplines. Frankly, I never knew whether staying in the office to do these things was driven by lack of resources, or more by fear of going out after prospects not likely to be as welcoming as in the past. Whatever, the Board of Trustees—well aware that there is no money to be found in the office—became impatient. And the rest was history.

And Then Those Unasked Questions

The candidate knew that for several months I had been studying the problems of the organization. If I were interviewing for a position like this one, I would have loads and loads of questions. What are the key marketing challenges? What sort of leadership am I likely to get from the Board members? Are there any holes in the staffing that need to be considered? What are the priorities for research and a deeper understanding of our potential marketplace? What communications strategy is likely to be most effective? And so on.

I asked myself after the discussion whether I was being too harsh in my judgments on this matter and whether my reaction might reflect the bruised ego of an experienced consultant. But honestly, I find it strange when someone, interviewing for a position like this, would not want to probe into issues that would surely affect his or her success. First and foremost, I would want to know as much about the leadership as I could learn. I would certainly want to explore many of the marketing challenges in what would be a totally new and competitive fundraising arena. I consider good, hard, challenging questions the hallmark of a top fundraiser. A healthy dose of skepticism is very valuable in fundraising because, among many nonprofits, things are seldom as they seem. . But the candidate was clearly more interested in sharing personal perceptions rather than learning what I, with two months of study under may belt, might have observed.

In any event I soon realized that here, once again, was another potential game of musical chairs unfolding before my eyes. I was not surprised when, some time later, I learned the new fundraiser’s tenure was cut short by a disillusioned and impatient group of trustees. Subsequently, I also heard that the new hire was not considered “collaborative” by many on the staff and. pretty much out of touch with the hopes, goals and timetable of the leadership. I was not surprised; just disappointed that this fine organization–with outstanding leadership and a great program—fell prey to a syndrome I had seen over and over again. Musical chairs? Frankly, this is music I think nonprofits can do without.