Help! What to Do When the Executive Director Cannot Raise Money.

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There are a lot of reasons why executive directors may not be raising adequate funds for their nonprofit. First of all, very few executive directors have any formal training in fundraising. Most are experts in operations, having climbed their way up from working in the trenches of their field. Too many are so busy engaging in day-to-day operations, managing personnel, volunteers, board business, and any number of crises, that fundraising simply requires more hours in the day than they have to invest. And, let’s face it, the temperament and disposition that makes some executive directors great operations managers can leave them ill-equipped to raise funds.

So, what is a board to do when it cannot get its executive director to raise money? And what’s an executive director to do when fundraising is simply beyond his or her abilities?

Let’s assume that the board truly has done all it can, short of replacing the executive director. That means, the board encourages and motivates the executive director to fundraise and has provided the executive director with formal training (and the funds to pay for it). The board has set written plans and targets, including clear benchmarks in the executive director’s job description and personnel evaluation. The individual board members are actively engaged in fundraising activities themselves. And, the board is maintaining the nonprofit’s credibility by managing its finances and reputation in such a way as to inspire donor confidence. If all of these things are true, the board is doing its job.

But the executive director still isn’t raising the money the nonprofit needs to thrive.

Welcome to nonprofit life in the 21st century.  Know you are in good company because many nonprofits share this problem. However, something needs to be done when things are beginning to trend downward: 

  • You’ve maxed out your special fundraising events.
  • Those federal and state grants are getting shaky and will soon be gone.
  • You do not want your nonprofit to fail ON YOUR WATCH!

It is a tough problem, but all is not lost.  First of all, I STRONGLY SUGGEST you hire a consultant to walk you through a solution.  An outside buffer can keep harmony between the board and the executive director when navigating this kind of problem and it is well worth the money.  A consultant can communicate openly and directly to help the executive director understand the skills needed and the action steps that need to be taken to be an effective fundraiser for their organization.   

Here’s what you can expect to happen:

  • First, the consultant will conduct a thorough assessment of the executive director’s performance, identifying strengths and pinpointing weak areas that are inhibiting fundraising productivity. This is going to sting a little. But it is necessary to get at the root of what’s preventing the executive director from being a successful fundraiser.
    • Next, the consultant may suggest a formal or informal time study, observe the executive director in daily operations, interview personnel or board members, or use other methods to formulate recommendations for improving the executive director’s fundraising performance.
  • The consultant is likely to recommend hiring a development director if your nonprofit doesn’t already employ someone in this role. Maybe that money is not in the budget (a minimum of $60,000 per year plus benefits is required to get someone with 5 years’ experience if you are not in a big city).   If you already have a development director, then the consultant will likely recommend ways for this person to step up and take more responsibility for reaching agency fundraising goals.

Managing a healthy working relationship between the board, executive director and development director is very tricky stuff, especially when the nonprofit isn’t meeting fundraising goals. This is where a consultant’s third-party independence will prove invaluable. In this situation, stress levels are high and relationships can be strained. The consultant can “take a few arrows” so to speak, moderate difficult conversations, and help to facilitate improvements in work dynamics that support productivity and empower success.

  • If you already have a development director, the consultant can help the executive director in meeting with the ED to communicate that the job is not getting done, and that the development director has to do it. Most of the time, these conversations reveal that the executive director is not really allowing the development director to take charge of the program.  In some extreme cases, it is necessary for the board chair to take over supervisory duties in order to let the development director feel comfortable really going out and doing the job. 
  • The consultant will seek to identify the minimum the executive director is comfortable doing. In many cases, it is taking the donor to lunch with the development director and receiving the check graciously.  The consultant may encourage allowing the executive director to play the “celebrity role” and it may lead to better fundraising from the executive director.
  • Consultants will likely want to make sure the development director comes to board meetings and has a prominent role in explaining the fundraising process. Allowing the development director full access to board members who can help with fundraising is often helpful.
  • The consultant will counsel the development director to praise the executive director with donors and make sure the development director doesn’t work to oust the executive director and take over that role.
  • Finally, the consultant will encourage the board to keep working with the executive director to inspire and motivate the ED’s involvement in fundraising. More training, more consulting, more encouragement – all will help the executive director learn to take on part of this process.

If enough emphasis is put on how many other things an executive director has to do rather than what the executive director is not doing, and if you get a good consultant who can “absorb some of the negative energy” while remaining positive, a new fundraising dynamic is possible. Ultimately, everyone involved in your organization will reach their goal– a thriving and sustainable nonprofit.

Alex Comfort, CFRE

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