How and under what circumstances is truly great fundraising able to flourish?

Fundraising expert Alan Clayton and his team researched this question and came up with some surprising answers.

The research, conducted as an academic study by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang, was commissioned and interpreted by Clayton and his researchers. Sargeant and Shang are director and research director (respectively) at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, University of Plymouth in the UK.

First, “great fundraising” was not defined by absolute dollars raised. “Great fundraising” is that which delivers growth that is transformational for the organization and its programs so that the organization can multiply its impact on society, Clayton said.

Second, Clayton found that exceptional fundraisers manage their teams and achieve desired change through a combination of will and personal humility. Also, they devote considerable attention to critical building blocks of success: building exceptional teams, structures and culture.

Beyond Expertise

Those interviewed for the study stressed the importance of having the right team in place. They looked for early success from team members, which led to an improvement in confidence and morale, which became self-sustaining. While technical expertise on the part of team members was important, so too was conscientiousness, a willingness to support others, and a propensity to engage in appropriate risk-taking.

Cooperation, not Competition

Most of the organizations Clayton studied built their structure by function, such as fundraising, finance, marketing, and program management, for example. This type of structure has advantages, such as pooling expertise, but in some cases departments can become competitors for organizational power and resources.

To maximize the success of intra- team or inter-team coordination and cooperation, the fundraising leaders interviewed “managed upward,” working with their peers at the director level to rework the organization’s reward systems to encourage cooperative efforts rather than competition. They also actively sought out opportunities for enhancing coordination and cooperation by working jointly on projects and seeding expertise as necessary in various institutional initiatives.

Learning Culture

Organizational learning is a complex process that refers to the development of new knowledge that has the potential to change behavior. Organizations that have developed a strong learning culture are typically good at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, as well as at modifying behavior to reflect new knowledge and insight, Clayton found.

The development of an organizational learning culture was deemed critical to the development of exceptional fundraising.

In all cases, the leaders Clayton and his team interviewed made it clear that the organizational culture when they took up their appointment was far removed from the ideal articulated above. In most cases a fundamental cultural shift needed to occur at the level of the organization (i.e. not just at the level of the fundraising team).

Frequently the CEO or fundraising director and their peers had to challenge and change basic assumptions and norms about how the organization operated. In a number of cases, for example, the organization had been failing to meet its fundraising targets for several years and it was now assumed that the target would not be met and that it was acceptable not to meet it. Such assumptions were unacceptable.

High-Quality Thinking

“In our view, however, what seemed to us to elevate good fundraising to outstanding fundraising was the quality of the thinking each leader was able to generate,” Clayton said. “Neither the ideas nor the considerable experience of our directors alone could have given rise to the fundraising success they created. The real difference these leaders were able to make occurred as a consequence of the way in which they understood and coped with the complexities of everyday decision making.”

The report “Great Fundraising,” is available for download by request.

Alan Clayton

Clayton, chairman of Alan Clayton Associates, will be the opening keynote speaker at the 2017 Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference Aug. 2-4 in National Harbor, Md. (near Washington, DC). The issue of great fundraising will be the focus of his address.

Former journalist Lori Woehrle, now managing partner of Leapfrog Group, is a fundraising communications consultant to nonprofits.

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Lori Woehrle
Managing Partner
Leapfrog Group