Professionalization Does Not Mean the Lack of a Personal Connection

Recently I have been working with a client who has slowly come to realize the lack of efficacy of his continuing to raise funds for the organization he founded on the basis of his personal relationships with donors. Over more than forty years, his organization has grown to where its annual budget has reached eight figures. To raise funds, he has traveled to cities throughout Europe and North America and has met with potential donors who have responded generously to his passion, personal commitment, and charisma. This effort is no longer sufficient.

As the organization has grown exponentially he has felt immense pressure and the burden of meeting the annual budgetary and capital needs of the institution he established. In the past, financial support was more forthcoming both from the government and from individual donors and foundations. Recently, however, the government has cut back on its subsidies of health, education, and welfare services, and the adverse economic effects of the recession of 2008 are still being felt by donors and loyal supporters of the institution.

In the past, to raise funds from the overseas Jewish community, the director would arrange appointments over the telephone and would have the assistance of a secretary based in the United States. He would fly into the cities where his donors lived, and in addition to soliciting specific individuals he would ask them to introduce him to others whom they thought would be supportive of the organization. Over time he found that many of his donors were either overcommitted or were experiencing difficult financial times either because of the economy or for more personal reasons, such as going through a divorce. He found that these pressures had a negative impact on his ability to secure financial support and meet his institution’s fiscal requirements.

Slowly he came to realize that he needed to move from an individualized, personal approach to financial resource development to a more institutionally based and integrated, professionally structured plan and process. The change in approach necessitated a different mindset and institutional culture within his organization, requiring him to reformat the financial resource development effort so that it would not be on his or his family’s shoulders alone. It also required a delegation of responsibilities for resource development to other professionals and committed volunteers.

It has not been easy for the organization to change direction in midstream. The founder has had to seriously rethink his role and the relationship he wants to have with the organization’s staff, volunteer leaders, and donors. As a result of carrying everything on his shoulders he had lost trust that other people could be committed to the sustainability of the organization. He was afraid that, if he let go of the reins for a minute, the nonprofit would collapse under the pressure of its financial needs.

Changing the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year reality of meeting the organization’s financial needs required a two-pronged process: conceptualizing the resource development function and simultaneously searching for the right professional who would be able to capitalize on the founder’s passion and commitment. The first step was engaging the founder in creating a job description for the director of financial resource development. Through discussion of the role and the purpose of this new position, the founder was able to come to terms with letting go, first on an emotional level and then on a cognitive level.

Emotionally he had to be ready to test whether anyone else could be as effective as he had been in raising the needed funds and to be able to provide the psychological space for someone to work as his employee as well as partner. A plan had to be developed to maintain contact with current donors and to identify and involve new donors who would be needed to strengthen the organization in the long run. After several intensive discussions and consultations, the founder agreed to begin a process of comparing the description of what he needed with the pool of candidates who were looking for development positions.

This has not been an easy process, and his ambivalence as he speaks with potential directors of development has been palpable: it reflects a combination of doubt and fear and wanting to find someone who can do what is needed to be done to ensure the future of the organization. Sometimes his attitude has been expressed in conversations with me and sometimes with other staff and with the candidates who are being interviewed.

The personal connection between donors and the organization has always been its hallmark and one that the founder hopes can continue after a professional director of development is hired. Ideally this resource development professional will work to strengthen the connection between the organization and the donors, while the founder continues to play an important role in representing the essence of the agency. Through this process he will begin to understand that the goal is the sustainability of the organization and that the resource development professional’s role is to institutionalize the personal connection, thereby demonstrating that it should not be the sole responsibility of one person.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.