Fundraising: A knowledge industry
I like to praise the virtues of excellent fundraising in pursuit of a great mission conducted ethically by leaders of exemplary integrity. Seasoned fundraisers, wherever they sit within an organization or in its supporting environment, understand the virtuous cycle that appears with a successful fundraising program. There is focus on strategic priorities, buy-in from inside the organization and throughout the community of supporters, clear plans for interacting with donors and friends across all segments and phases of engagement, and there is celebration of the people who provide the resources that enable progress in pursuit of the organization’s vital vision.
I often wonder if leadership that does not emulate the process of fundraising even makes sense. When does a leader not ask others to do things differently, or to stop doing certain things, or to let go of possessions or practices, which they then do willingly and happily? And not only do I like to think of leadership and fundraising as synonyms in many ways, but as fundraising practitioners well know, your title or your position does not necessarily reflect your ability to succeed. Indeed, virtuosos of leadership and fundraising manage to make a difference regardless of their official position.
But I do think there is one key element that is missing by simply equating leadership and fundraising. The equation makes us focus on the techniques of relationship building and the process of crafting an effective community for strategic purposes. What is also indispensable to leadership, and increasingly vital to practitioners of fundraising, is knowledge.
We all know the cliché that knowledge is power, and we often take for granted the contextual knowledge fundraisers need to succeed. Fundraisers have always worked as translators and conveyors of information, combining the substantive knowledge that is key to their cause with the social and cultural knowledge that allows them to build meaningful relationships.
But all of these kinds of knowledge are changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Policies and regulations as well as new forms of social entrepreneurship and impact investing are challenging the nonprofit ecosystem. Donors like the Omidyars and Chan and Zuckerberg among others are choosing limited liability corporations instead of foundations to organize their efforts to improve the world. In addition, knowledge about effectiveness of interventions grows and becomes more complex and difficult to synthesize. Issues like poverty and education are being tackled by a wide range of nonprofit and government actors whose interactions are not fully understood. In one effort to draw on the information about needs in our communities gathered by The Salvation Army’s expansive national network of service delivery, The Salvation Army and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy have collaborated to create the Human Needs Index. It is consistent with government data, but is more timely and goes beyond the singular dimension of finance to assess need.
Our social and cultural environments are also becoming much more diverse as previous boundaries of faith, ethnicity and nationality become more porous. The news is full of once-lauded figures in our public space being questioned and deposed. Woodrow Wilson, John Calhoun, and Lord Amherst are no longer the same kinds of reference points in polite conversation that they were just months ago.
Absorbing, analyzing and synthesizing what is happening in the news and in policy circles is increasingly demanding. Few communities can assume the kinds of cross-generational consistency and uniformity we might have assumed in the recent past. Familiarity with a particular vernacular of privilege is no longer a recipe for acceptance into the fundraising profession, which is still considered by many to have a low barrier to entry.
It seems that our highly American tradition of philanthropy calls for practitioners to be equipped with another highly American tradition – a thirst for education, of the kind we normally call the liberal arts. Knowing how to navigate expanses of knowledge, to digest them critically and then to communicate them effectively – this is often an assumed requirement of the fundraiser’s job. But amidst the changes in which we now operate, the easy availability of this background knowledge cannot be assumed any longer. It requires constant updating through an active curiosity.
We at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy are pleased to help meet the need for more knowledge through the The Fund Raising School’s Leadership Roundtable. We are piloting a gathering early in 2016 to take stock of the field and what the new year is likely to bring. I hope you can join us and participate in a conversation about the knowledge we need to succeed.