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The urgency of symbiosis

The organization chart shows a vertical line: Development director reports to executive director. But in reality, organizational life is much more complicated than that one-way, one-dimensional figure would suggest. The relationship is symbiotic.

Symbiosis means mutual support. Bees and flowering plants are symbiotic.

Luminous microorganisms get from the deep-sea anglerfish nutrients and protection, and in return they help the anglerfish attract its prey. Humans rely on intestinal bacteria to help digestion, and the bacteria appreciate the warm, damp, safe habitat.

Paul Jolly Paul Jolly

Here are the ways symbiosis plays out in the relationship between executive and fund raiser:

Ways that the director of development can support the executive director

  • Ghostwrite Draft emails and letters to donors for the executive director to review and refine
  • Filter Contact new donors to assess whether the relationship merits the attention of the executive director
  • Represent Maintain contact with donors who do not merit the attention of the executive director, and with top donors between conversations with the executive director
  • Accompany Go with the executive director on visits to donors. Take notes, keep the conversation on track, ensure follow up steps are clearly understood
  • Sleuth Solve murky situations (donors who have lapsed for unknown reasons, prospects who have suddenly dropped out of the cultivation dance)
  • Nudge Remind the executive director of what she says she will do, and probe (gently) when the executive director is putting off a task, to find out the cause of procrastination
  • Comfort Help put rejection in context
  • Plan Be smart about exit – stay as long as it is fruitful and fun, leave before you get burned out, and make sure the next fundraiser can carry the baton

Ways that the executive director can support the development director

  • Include Provide a role in the income projection process – no fundraiser should have goals thrust on them without consultation
  • Introduce Ensure that development director has access to board members and important donors
  • Referee Insist that program people provide the development director with plans and reports that will engage donors
  • Empower Create a culture of philanthropy where every member of the staff recognizes the organization’s reliance on philanthropy, and his individual role in being hospitable to generosity
  • Confront If you have insecurities about asking for gifts, be honest and invite the development director to brainstorm with you about how to transform them

This kind of teamwork is tragically uncommon. CompassPoint conducted a survey this year called Underdeveloped that lays out in brutal statistics-laden prose how far most organizations deviate from the symbiotic ideal.

  • The median length of the last vacancy in the development position is 6 months.
  • Half of all executive directors felt that they hired their most recent director of development from a pool that lacked an adequate number of “candidates with the right mix of skills and experience.”
  • A majority of development directors reported “only little or moderate influence on the engagement of other staff or on annual budgeting”.

Here are a few tips for moving toward a healthy partnership:

Declutter Many organizations hire development directors with the assurance that they know that the big impact comes from relationships with powerful individuals. But surprise! In the first weeks on the job, the truth comes out: the calendar is cluttered with “special” events of dubious value. As a team, executive director and fundraiser need to trim the clutter to make time for the amorphous, really important, work of expanding the circle of advocates.

Demystify Perhaps because money is so powerful and so taboo, we often imbue fundraising, especially major gifts fundraising, with an intoxicating –and crippling -- mystique. Here is a thought experiment: imagine that your grandmother helped pay your college tuition. You thanked her when you saw her at family reunions, sent her tidbits of wisdom from your favorite professors, and alerted her if you were thinking about changing your major. If you can imagine that family scenario, you can be an ace fundraiser.

Be honest Most executive directors at small organizations I have talked to have said, in moments of candor, “I am expected to master ten different skills, and I am clueless about half of them.” If you have some trepidation about your abilities, put them on the table. Look for coaching, workshops, peer guidance, or literature that can help you feel confident.

Share the excitement Both executive director and fundraiser are entrusted with an awesome responsibility to build an organization to serve the community. Don’t keep it to yourself. The more you can dialog with powerful people about your mission, the more support you will have in the long run. Ask for advice often, and do it with authentic curiosity.

Be strategic Your organization is probably not currently equipped to be as successful in fundraising as it could be. You may have a hairy mess for a database. You may have board members who were promised that they would never be bothered with fundraising. Your community may believe that tax dollars pay for the services you provide. Identify the impediments, make a plan for tackling them, and pursue it patiently.

Diversify and keep moving A crushing disappointment hurts a lot less if you have a juicy prospect list. After you get a “no,” figure out if it was really a “yes, maybe” in disguise. If you get real, bona fide, no-two-ways-about-it “no”, figure out if the cultivation and solicitation could have been done differently – no blame, please – and whether you want to do modify your plan for the next prospect. Then pick up the phone and keep moving.

Celebrate accomplishments The early victories in fundraising are not big checks. They are things like a prospect returning a phone call after the fifth message. Or a board member volunteering to host a house party. Or a donor agreeing to sit down with you to discuss where the organization is going. Or a foundation officer offering to make introductions. Celebrate. Share credit as widely as possible. Let everyone involved know that you are gaining momentum.

Everyone knows that an executive director cannot succeed without a good fundraiser. And visa versa. That relationship is the subject of heartbreaking disappointment at far too many organizations. If yours is one of them, maybe today is the day to start on a different path. It’s not a real verb, but I urge you to do it anyway: Symbiote!

The preceding is a guest post by Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. ( Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice