Nonprofit CEO: Want to Raise the Big Bucks? Bring Out Your Experts

Not long ago, Cynthia Gibson wrote here about the imperative of creating a “culture of philanthropy” if organizations are to maximize their fundraising. The idea is that everyone—including the executive director, staff, and board members—should play a role in fundraising for an organization and building engagement with donors in a meaningful way.

Related - Culture is Changing: Fundraising Needs to Change With It

One nonprofit that’s embraced this approach with great success is theNational Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and so we thought it’d be interesting to talk to its long-time executive director, Sarah Brown.

As Brown sees it, the full participation of staff—not just development staff—in fundraising is essential, and she stressed that it’s particularly crucial that organizations deploy their program experts to connect to funders. A reason for that, says Brown, is that “foundations themselves are increasingly deeply professional and deeply knowledgeable about the issues.”

The folks in foundations aren’t looking to be chatted up by a development director or even by an executive director if they’re not the right expert in the organization. “In our experience, the content experts at the foundation want to talk to the content experts working in the potential grantee,” says Brown.

Brown’s point may seem obvious, but the reality is that whip-smart program staff are often left out of funding visits and pitch meetings. Executive directors and development officers, anxious about carefully choreographing interactions with funders, may feel it’s too risky to pull in staff who might not be so polished or exactly on message.  

Brown sees things differently. “If you are talking to a foundation interested in research, I know about research, but there are some very smart people who know even more about research than I do. So I want them to be in the room if not the lead.”

Browns adds that sometimes it’s a board member who might best play this role. “We have a board that has deep expertise in many aspects of our work,” she says.

A key benefit of getting an expert-to-expert dialogue going is that it engages funders more deeply in an organization’s work, valuing them as partners not mere check-writers. “One of the things I learned over many, many years is to respect the expertise of the philanthropist,” Brown says. “I think one of the mistakes some potential grantees make is they formulate all of their ideas and then they want someone to finance them rather than to be in partnership with funders to figure it out.”

That kind of transactional approach isn’t just less effective in bringing in money; it’s less likely to produce the best ideas and program work. Says Brown: “Many of these funders grant to people in our same sector. They know a lot of stuff. They say, are you aware of what this group is doing? Why don’t you get in touch with so and so. And I consider that a great gift.”

Along these same lines, Brown stresses the importance of keeping in close touch with funders and nurturing strong relationships, as opposed to only getting in touch to ask for more money. This point, too, may seem pretty obvious, but in practice it often requires that program staff are trusted to nurture ongoing horizontal relationships with their counterparts in foundations. Not every executive director or development department will be comfortable with that kind of independent relationship, but they should be.

One benefit of this version of a “culture of philanthropy” is that an organization can get by with a smaller development staff, and the National Campaign has historically not bulked up in this area.

Brown has been at the campaign since it was founded in 1996, and so she has a great vantage point on how philanthropy has changed over time. And she stresses more than once that the biggest change she’s seen has been the growing sophistication and professionalism of funders. That’s a positive trend in her view, strengthening the entire nonprofit sector, but it’s also raised the bar for grantees. Brown says:

There is much more emphasis on how will you show results. How will you measure the impact of what we are funding? That was always there in part, but it is much more data driven and a much more intellectually rigorous process now. That has been a newer development.

Of course, that shift only underscores why you want your top wonks in meetings with funders.

And just who are the funders behind the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy? The Hewlett Foundation is by far the most important, giving the group $25 million in just the past five years. Others funders have included the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (See a full list here.)

The campaign’s aim is to achieve a reduction of 20 percent in the proportion of unplanned pregnancies among U.S. women under 30 by 2020, and to cut the teenage pregnancy rate by 20 percent. Before helping establish the campaign, Sarah Brown was a leading researcher on maternal and child health for the Institute for Medicine. Maybe it's no wonder that she's gung-ho about empowering experts to make funding pitches, since she's one herself.