Philanthropic Culture: A Powerful Catalyst for a Robust Talent Pipeline
by Andrea B. Wasserman
Many Jewish nonprofits are in the midst of arduous, and often fruitless, searches for talented development professionals to resolve budgetary challenges and expand organizational impact. I believe, as a community, we must expand our thinking and enact a multifaceted approach that focuses our energies on treating the root causes, which are often the consequence of unrealistic expectations of development professionals along with weak philanthropic cultures, which make it difficult to attract and cultivate top-tier talent.
An important step is to address the development professional pipeline shortage before it reaches crisis proportions. In her insightful article entitled “Building a Talent Pipeline,” Kathleen Yazbak, partner at the Bridgespan Group, urges nonprofit leadership to “be strategic about talent.” With the proliferation of strategic planning and implementation processes along with the emergence of sophisticated evaluation tools to measure impact, why not apply the same acumen and resources to talent pipeline generation through planning focused on a comprehensive “people strategy”?
An affirmative answer to this rhetorical question seems inescapable, especially as the philanthropic landscape becomes more complex, competition for funding becomes more acute and the ever-expanding gap between demand for high-caliber talent and supply is unremitting. However, the elaboration and implementation of a robust people strategy cannot be achieved when we are operating with an anemic prospect pool.
This intriguing conundrum invites an apt quote:
“If you have choices, choose the best. If you have no choice, do the best.”
The obvious solution is to hire the charismatic, strategic, and effective professional of 15+ years of experience whose heart and soul is bound in your mission. If your search yields this individual and your budget permits, terrific! Sign and seal the deal, but do not stop there. You must then diligently work with this person to prime your organization and Board to position the development operation for success.
Unfortunately, this scenario has become the exception rather than the rule. More often, despite great frustration, intensified pressure on executive leadership, and significant cost, many organizations remain steadfast in their search for top-tier candidates, clinging to the hope that their investment will yield viable options so they may “choose the best.”
Is this resolute pursuit of high-caliber development professionals from a diminishing talent pool obscuring the dire need for creativity and discipline to tackle the root causes of our pipeline challenge? Might a better approach be to first identify the myriad reasons why many dynamic professionals reject development as a viable long-term career, and then commit ourselves to “doing our best” to revamp these vital yet oftentimes unwelcoming jobs into irresistible vocations that offer top-tier pros ample opportunity for growth and success?
To move beyond our present predicament, we must liberate ourselves from fixed notions and expectations regarding the profile of the “ultimate” professional match to undertake our organization’s fundraising challenges. A great place to acknowledge this misalignment is to rethink the elaborate job descriptions for senior-level development talent circulating throughout our system. Having reviewed dozens of these aspirational proposals, I’ve come to view many of them as unrealistic propositions for even the most talented professionals, not to mention unnecessary barriers for entry for unexpected candidates, who, with expert coaching, training and a supportive professional network, would catapult our development operations to the next level.
With a more inviting approach, we must simultaneously engage in effective strategies to capture the attention of and encourage suitable candidates to emerge. Interestingly, this common HR practice bears a striking resemblance to the early stages of a strategic major gifts effort. Let’s review the cross-disciplinary lessons embedded in these activities. One of the most challenging yet essential aspects of a strong development practice is effectively sourcing for major donor prospects and then figuring out how to capture their heart and soul so as to inspire significant investment. Conventional wisdom in donor pipeline development also tells us that the best major gift prospects are already constituents, oftentimes low-end donors, requiring deeper cultivation to fulfill their leadership and giving potential.
Applying these principles to the development talent pipeline challenge, I believe that both within and on the periphery of our organizations, we have connections to promising colleagues who care deeply about our work, but need further cultivation to encourage their interest and comprehensive skills training to build confidence in development practice. These individuals are more likely to embrace a trajectory in fundraising when the art and science of development work is repositioned as an exciting vocation executed within organizations that foster strong cultures of philanthropy.
As described in the seminal report, Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, a joint project of CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Hass, Jr. Fund, a culture of philanthropy is achieved when “most people in the organization (across positions) act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building. Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving. Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization. Organizational systems are established to support donors. The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.”
What if our revamped job descriptions led with assurances of a team-oriented, collaborative approach to tackling our institutions’ fundraising challenge? I contend that this would be a much more alluring invitation and professional challenge which would be far more likely to attract talented and dynamic Jewish communal professionals (and those outside of the community) to eagerly accept.
In fact, this was the emerging philanthropic culture that captured my interest in BBYO’s development challenges and led me to dedicate the past four years to working in concert with BBYO’s Executive Director on revamping the fundraising strategy, infrastructure and communications plan while simultaneously building a robust pipeline of dynamic professionals. As a result, BBYO’s development department has expanded from 3 1/2 professionals to a team of ten full-time members and three additional employees with significant time allocated to development.
This winning team is comprised of both seasoned development professionals along with emerging talent – all of whom received regular training, one-on-one coaching and opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. We recruited from inside as well as outside the organization. All six internal candidates gained development experience through enhanced portfolios (added to their primary programmatic responsibilities) before they were recruited to join the development team. Of the four current members of the development team who were recruited from outside the organization, all have been promoted to roles of greater responsibility to meet the expanding needs of a maturing department. As the development team assumed a more visible role in the organization, non-development employees frequently reached out for career advice on making a transition. In fact, several top performers who enhanced their program portfolios with development responsibilities, have been recruited by other Jewish organizations for fundraising positions, including a highly talented member of the senior management team who choose to pursue development as a stepping-stone to executive leadership. To better meet the demand for fundraising skills training among its entire professional team, BBYO has instituted a development track at its annual staff conferences for colleagues to either hone or begin to build their practice.
I’ve listed several keys that have strengthened BBYO’s philanthropic culture, a catalyst for an enhanced development talent pipeline:
1. The Executive Director consistently promotes an authentic organizational vision that inextricably links programmatic excellence and impact to a robust development effort. To this end, he strategically uses his position to foster a dynamic culture of philanthropy in which everyone is inspired and required to play a crucial part.
With a visibly and vocally committed senior leader, development professionals are more likely to feel enveloped by a culture that supports their effort to attain ambitious financial goals. This will lead to greater job satisfaction and success, which will engender higher rates of retention as well as aid recruitment of talented professionals seeking career advancement.
2. Senior and middle management team members play a vital role in elevating the development profession by conveying to their direct reports the importance of acquiring strong development skills to advance in the nonprofit sector. To this end, many managers also opt for greater involved in major donor development through stewardship practices on key organizational initiatives.
Having senior managers enthusiastically engaged in the development effort increases opportunities for positive role modeling and mentorship for both seasoned and emerging talent. In addition, as these aspiring executive leaders assume top positions, they will bring a greater commitment to advancing development through an organization-wide approach that fosters an enlivened culture of philanthropy.
3. Performance evaluation tools and professional development opportunities are utilized to engage the entire organization in development. By doing so, all members of the professional team receive a consistent message as to the essential role they must play in fulfilling the organization’s fundraising potential.
This practice offers ample opportunity to pique the interest of professionals who may be toying with the idea of career advancement through development, while giving them an accessible and safe arena from which to learn and try out new skills.
4. Instituting a comprehensive training program introduces a broad mix of professionals to the richness, dynamism and relevance of the field of development. In addition, these trainings demonstrate how essential skills may be transferred from one professional area to another, thereby offering additional opportunity to plant seeds for viable career advancement.
Development professionals along with the many individuals supporting these efforts are set up for greater success and have access to significant professional development opportunities.
To truly effect positive change in the face of the pipeline challenge, we must commit to tackling the root causes through transforming organizational cultures that have not yet embraced philanthropy as a core value and shared responsibility. And though I offer recommendations that have the power to ameliorate this multidimensional challenge, this is only a starting point.
However, beginnings are exciting. Especially when we envision the possibility of a sea change, where today’s daunting task of growing a talent pipeline comprised of adept development professionals will be transformed into a dynamic process fueled by confidence in the continuation of a well-resourced and vibrant Jewish future.
Andrea B. Wasserman is the Founder and President Social Profit Ventures, a boutique organizational development firm that forges partnerships with executives and their leadership teams to design and execute successful fundraising strategies and foster the emergence of cultures of philanthropy. Prior to launching Social Profit Ventures, Andrea served as Chief Development Officer at BBYO, the leading pluralistic Jewish youth movement that inspires teens to develop the leadership skills and networks required to fortify their local and global communities.