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Growing Leaders from Within: 5 Skills to Look for in Fundraisers

There is a story that we’ve been telling ourselves in the fundraising industry. I’ve heard it told countless times, and in full disclosure, I’ve told it myself.

It goes something like this: “The skill sets for frontline fundraisers and managers are different. Just because someone is a high-performing gift officer doesn’t mean they will be successful as a leader. For this reason, we need to go with an outside hire to fill our manager position.”

We tell this story because we have “seen it happen.” And it can be true that not everyone who is successful as a solo performer can immediately transition to a great manager. However, in these instances, a lack of coaching and training on how to be an effective manager is usually the culprit.

The “fundraisers don’t make great managers” narrative damages morale, stunts professional development, and causes turnover. I suspect it is also a large reason why women, despite comprising 80 percent of the nonprofit workforce, are rarely promoted to executive leadership roles at large nonprofits.

Promoting skilled fundraisers ensures that you can retain and grow talent internally, minimizing turnover and attrition. It also gives new gift officers the opportunity to work with and learn from your top performers.

Here are five transferrable skills to look for when considering frontline fundraisers to promote into management roles.

Five leadership skills to look for in fundraisers

Building Trust

Gift officers who build trust with donors turn the experience of giving from a transaction into a transformational, long-term, philanthropic relationship with a nonprofit. They are skilled at building trust through rapport building, active listening, and dependable follow through. They demonstrate a willingness to understand donors’ interests and motivations and the capability of aligning donor passions with philanthropic opportunities.

When researchers at Google set out to learn what makes teams effective, trust emerged as the most important factor in predicting success. As managers, fundraisers can leverage their skills in building trust with donors to building psychological safety among their teams. The same behaviors required to build trust with donors – rapport building, active listening, and follow through – will also cultivate trust among direct reports.

Navigating Difficult Conversations

Gift officers are often on the front line of vulnerable and sometimes high-stakes conversations. They field angry phone calls from donors, disgruntled alumni emails, and demanding board members. They also work with grieving donor families to honor loved ones through memoriams and trusts.

The most successful gift officers turn these would-be-difficult conversations into opportunities to continue to strengthen the relationship of the donor to the organization.  These conversations require poise, precision, and emotional intelligence.

Likewise, managers must also be willing to have candid and occasionally uncomfortable conversations with their direct reports. The experience of navigating these discussions with donors and volunteers positions fundraising managers for successful outcomes when a difficult conversation is required.

Curiosity

Successful gift officers are always learning. They maintain a wide and deep knowledge of their organization in order to connect donors with their personal interests (and especially in complex healthcare and higher education organizations, this is no small task). They are abreast of current events, financial markets, and the New York Times Best Sellers. They have read that recent article in The Atlantic and listened to that Adam Grant podcast.

In addition to this intellectual curiosity, they are also socially curious – intrigued by what makes people tick and uncovering their motivations for volunteering, giving, and engaging with a nonprofit.

A powerful leadership skill, curiosity can be the foundation of skilled coaching conversations, lead to breakthrough innovations, and challenge confirmation bias.  Managers with curious minds are also likely to embrace a culture of continued learning and training for their teams. 

Data Analysis and Critical Thinking

The best gift officers know that there is an art and a science to fundraising and increasingly leverage data to drive their decision-making. They approach their portfolios and prioritize their outreach according to recent giving information, event attendance, geography, and prospect research. They develop strategies according to the information they’ve gained through prospect engagement. They use a variety of data points to determine when and how much to ask from each donor and how they will build toward their annual fundraising goals.

As managers, gift officers will be able to leverage these analytical skills to support decision-making about staffing and resourcing, budgets, goal setting, and strategy.

Personal Integrity

Gift officers are entrusted daily with sensitive personal and financial information of both donors and their employers. In fact, maintaining professionalism and confidentiality is key to the development of trust. They may know the donor who chooses to give anonymously or keep confidential the details of an upcoming career transition that a donor shares with them.

Research has demonstrated high ethical and moral standards to be among the most valuable competencies for effective leaders. Managers with personal integrity create environments of trustworthiness and fairness for their teams. They hold themselves accountable to high standards and will do the same for others. 

Wrapping Up

Adopting this new story requires a commitment from nonprofits to professional development. While high-performing gift officers have many skills and traits that are transferrable to management, they will still benefit from training and coaching as they take on new responsibilities.

Graham-Pelton’s Talent Strategy services can support this transition through coaching and training developed for fundraisers. We help first-time leaders discover their personal management style and develop their ideal career path, illuminating possibilities for future growth.

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