Welcome to Fundraising Hell: When Relations With Colleagues Turn Toxic

She was the director of the annual fund at a small Midwestern college. He was director of planned gifts.

What should have have been a productive professional relationship soured into a bitter, on-the-job rivalry that eventually prompted the annual fund director to resign. 

The annual fund director—who asked that her name be withheld in order to speak freely about a tough professional issue—says that the planned giving director refused to collaborate with his colleagues and had no fundraising training. 

But that didn’t stop him from pushing for a big raise. “He told our boss he had another offer, which was untrue,” she says. “He lied to get more money. That was the beginning of the end for me.”

Fundraisers like the annual fund director, who’s now vice president of development at another academic institution, can turn to a wealth of books, conferences, and other resources about maintaining good communications with donors and volunteers.

Far less common is candid information on dysfunctional communications between development officers and their colleagues on staff or on the board. Toxic internal politics can wreak havoc on an organization’s fundraising and the careers of development professionals, yet there is very little public discussion about ways to avoid such dilemmas—and how to solve them when they arise.

In interviews with seasoned executive recruiters who represent senior development officers and more than a dozen highly experienced fundraisers with decades of experience in the field, only one person said he’d never experienced or observed negative internal politics in his long fundraising career. Toxic organizational dynamics, all the others said, had threatened to derail fundraising careers or, in some cases, led to depressed donations and disillusionment among donors.

In fact, internal dysfunction is more common than many people realize, says Jay Berger, the co-founder of Morris & Berger, a California recruiting firm. Berger has spent years placing seasoned senior fundraisers and other top charity officials nationwide.

“Almost every time we take on a new search, we learn things the search committee never told us,” Berger says. “Almost always, the organization is not as functional as we thought. High-functioning organizations where people are all on the same page and like working together we see maybe 10 percent of the time.”

Internal politics are often worse in small organizations and in larger nonprofits like hospitals and universities where contributions are dwarfed by other revenues such as tuition, fees for service, and insurance reimbursements, experts say.

“Politics in fundraising are higher when the stakes are low, meaning that the organization doesn’t rely solely on contributed income,” says Jim Thompson, a Rochester, New York, fundraising consultant who spent years as a chief development officer. “Often, one person just doesn’t like another one. There is lost opportunity and you generally see a degradation of giving.”

Following are common types of internal dysfunction that can harm fundraising careers and cause donations to plummet, along with solutions suggested by battle-tested development officers.

Fighting Over Donors. One senior fundraiser recalls losing a $2.5 million gift because a donor at his university became disillusioned with the infighting between the athletics department and another academic unit the donor wanted to support with part of his gift.

“Athletics didn’t want any money to go to academics, and the donor was really turned off,” the fundraiser recalls. “The relationship with the donor soured.” 

Fundraisers, he adds, “are in the business of prompting generosity. If someone isn’t generous internally, donors and volunteers feel it.”

Ron Schiller, a veteran fundraiser turned executive recruiter, helped triple donations at three of the four institutions where he raised money by bringing together different factions competing over gifts.

“That was my job every day,” he says.  “We didn’t triple donations by tripling the number of donors. We got there by existing donors giving more.”

The key, Schiller says, is educating people in the organization that their job is to get the largest possible share of each donor’s philanthropy and telling them what the donor says about his or her keenest charitable interests.

“I got everyone to take a deep breath and say that our goal is to increase philanthropy from each donor, and after all, the money is coming to the same institution,” he says. “We undermine giving by competing with each other. When donors perceive that all people in the organization are trying to serve them, everyone wins and the institution gets more.”

Limiting Access to Donors. Related to competition over donors are cases in which fundraisers limit their colleagues’ contact with one or more contributors. This common problem, experts say, usually has its roots in how fundraising performance is measured.

If a development officer thinks that he or she will lose credit for landing a large gift when others have a relationship with the donor, the fundraiser’s natural inclination is to try and be the primary (or only) contact between the contributor and the institution.

“You can have a strategy meeting and eight fundraisers come in and say this is my prospect,” says Jeff Comfort, a long-time university fundraiser. “If I told the donor ‘you are Susie’s prospect,’“ he says, “the donor would disagree.”

“Donors do not want to be owned,” agrees Rod Kirsch, the soon-to-be-retired senior vice president for development at Pennsylvania State University. “They’re not fond of fences being built around them.”

The solution: using performance measures that reward fundraisers for cooperating rather than competing with their colleagues.

Curt Simic, president emeritus of the Indiana University Foundation, and Kent Dove, his now-retired colleague there, used such an evaluation system when they ran the foundation.

At Indiana, there was one primary person on the development staff in charge of keeping track of each donor or family’s contacts with the university and other people who served as a team of individuals with whom those contributors regularly interacted, recalls Eileen Savage, a fundraiser at the Getty Museum who previously worked with Simic and Dove in Indiana. 

The team, she says, was rewarded for meaningful activities shared with donors, not dollar goals. At Indiana University, Dove taught her a key fundraising lesson, she says. “If you do the right thing, the money will follow.”

Leaders Who Don’t Understand Fundraising. Another common problem, even in large, sophisticated charities, are chief executives and board members who think they can wash their hands of fundraising simply by hiring one or more development officers, Simicand other experts say.

The people at nonprofit organizations like hospitals and medical centers who hire new development officers have medical or business experience, but they usually lack fundraising expertise, says Comfort, who currently is vice president of principal gifts at the Oregon State University Foundation.

Simic says he recently spent time consulting with a fundraiser and her superiors at a nonprofit musical organization that had been falling short of its financial goals for years.

“The fundraiser was just told to raise X amount,” Simic says. “She finds herself in a very tense situation with the CEO and board chair.” 

To solve the problem, Simic had a series of frank discussions with the organization’s CEO, board chair, and others inside the organization. While the music group’s board had a fundraising committee, he adds, “it had done very little.”

In his remarks, Simic says, “I talked about the fact that you need a process, not just a number. It was all about what they had to do to help the fundraiser.” Officials managing the fundraiser, he says, “did not have a good understanding of their role. I told the board chair and CEO they have to be working with prospects they identified. Now they know they have to bring in three prospects per year.”

While many nonprofit leaders are extraordinary, some not only fail to understand fundraising but prompt a “talent drain,” driving people away with their overly controlling, negative management style, says Dyan Sublett, president of the Martin Luther King Community Health Foundation in Los Angeles. A veteran of numerous charitable organizations, Sublett says she had two controlling, angry bosses in her lengthy career.

With one of them, the board granted the leader a year-long sabbatical, Sublett says. “During that period, in the absence of the president, our fundraising results increased by 50 percent.”

Problems in Hiring Fundraisers. In filling senior-level fundraising positions, “you will often find volunteers who create pressure for you to hire a particular person, or a large donor may be championing a candidate who’s not right,” says Kirsch at Penn State.

To offset that problem, Kirsch adopted a systematic hiring process that requires up to 30 people to meet with the highest-level candidates. “What I try to do is run a fair process, and sometimes you need to go back to a donor and tell him the candidate didn’t make the cut and here’s why,” he says. “You can short circuit the process if you are not careful. Any time you short circuit the process, you will not end up with the best person.”  

Another type of personnel problem occurs with star fundraising candidates who have trailing spouses, Kirsch says. “You grapple with finding a spot for this person, there is some forcing of the issue,” he says. “Maybe the spouse isn’t qualified to the level you want, or you have to pay them more than you want,” he says. “There are sensitivities around managing that person. If the trailing spouse needs corrective action, do you have the freedom to take action? In most cases, these hires work out well, but there is a lot of sensitivity around that.”

A third type of hiring problem occurs when a unit within a large organization hires its own fundraiser who subsequently does not cooperate with work by the main development office. “The fundraiser says ‘you don’t pay me, so you can’t tell me what to do.’ They will do end runs and go after donors who may be bombarded by many people from the institution, and that can be problematic,” says Simic. 

He points to Kirsch as an example of how to prevent such rogue fundraising. At Penn State, “Rod Kirsch has the advantage of having a say with the dean of the school hiring a fundraiser to jointly hire, evaluate and fire,” Simic says.

Adds Kirsch: “I actually have veto power over hiring decisions.”

Rival Boards at the Same Institution.  A recent dispute between a Pennsylvania university’s board and another group of trustees associated with its fundraising arm made national news, thereby confusing and concerning donors while also endangering the institution’s fundraising.

At Mansfield University, officials forced staff members at the Mansfield University Foundation out of their campus offices after less than a week’s notice. The university—which faces a more than $5 million deficit this year on its $45 million budget on top of another $7.8 million deficit in 2015—moved to cut ties with the foundation after it allegedly refused to to release all of its donor names and records to university leaders. Led by the president, they wanted to approach those supporters for additional gifts.

But the foundation, which had promised many donors anonymity, said that its pledge to protect donors’ identity would be violated by turning over all its records. It has hired an attorney and is considering legal action to protect its rights as a charitable organization separate from the university.

As Indiana University Foundation’s president emeritus, Curt Simic says he has encountered that problem more than once in his long career. “You get tension between these two boards,  and it really hampers fundraising because it takes so much energy,” he says. “You have to follow the donor’s intent when the president wants to use foundation assets as he or she sees fit.”

When you accept a gift, he adds, “the university has in effect a covenant with the donor to use the money exactly as they designated. It is rare but occasionally an executive has a great need that is not funded, and he or she would like to bend the agreement with the donor to a different interpretation. If that happens, the risk of losing the donor’s trust does not bode well for future support, either by that donor or others who learn the person’s intent was not honored.”

One thing that worked for Simic is asking the organization’s leaders how they would react if the news came out that they had violated donors’ requests.

“It comes down to how much they want the public to know and how willing they are to let each board do its job,” he says. 

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