Your Philanthropy Career: How to Manage Up for Fundraising Success

  Dmitry Guzhanin/shutterstock

 Dmitry Guzhanin/shutterstock

As a university fundraiser, Kathy Lachenauer once reported to a dean with whom she went on visits to potential donors. The first few visits, she says, “were not working at all.”

The dean was very uncomfortable with fundraising, says Lachenauer, now executive director of The Fine Foundation in Pittsburgh. “Every time he asked for money, he would apologize,” she recalls. Fortunately, she adds, the dean recognized he had a problem.

He tried, but struggled, to follow Lachenauer’s advice: Ask for a certain amount of money and then silently count to 10 without talking. So Lachenauer, with the dean’s permission, found a new strategy: kicking him under the table in meetings when he broke the 10-second rule, a tactic she used on multiple occasions.

Managing up—the ability to influence the people to whom fundraisers report—is a big factor “that differentiates people who are able to advance in their careers and those who are not,” says Gregory Leet, vice president for advancement at the Jackson Laboratory, headquartered in Bar Harbor, Maine, and seeking genomic cures for disease.

Certain basics of managing up—adapting to how one’s boss prefers to give and receive information, not wasting his or her time, offering solutions when reporting problems—apply to any profession. But “knowing how to manage up is particularly essential in fundraising,” says Robbee Kosak, president of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation in Livermore, California. Because fundraisers are unable to apply top-down control over their superiors, she says that their contribution to an organization’s bottom line depends on something that’s both more difficult and more delicate: wielding influence with chief executives, board members, and other movers and shakers, many with scant fundraising experience.   

Kosak, a seasoned fundraiser working to increase contributions that will supplement the Hertz Foundation’s grants to top scientists, has thought a lot about managing up. She uses five principles (see below) to help her colleagues at all levels manage up, thereby reinforcing one another’s work to expand the foundation and raise more money. (Donations have increased every year since she took the job in 2015, reaching $3.8 million this year.)

Still, even with such guidelines, there are misconceptions about what managing up actually means, according to Kosak and other nonprofit leaders.

“Many people, particularly younger professionals, misunderstand,” Kosak says. “They think managing up is self-promotion, or that it is an isolated, egocentric way of conducting one’s own business. It is not self-promotional or ‘look at me’ behavior. It is all about doing your best to make sure your boss and your organization are successful.”

To manage up, she adds, “you cannot do this alone. You have to engage peers and others in meeting the goals.” To illustrate her point, Kosak cites one of her favorite quotes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Another misperception is that fundraisers and other officials, by doing a good job of managing up, can control their chief executive, board members and other superiors. But managing up is sometimes difficult or even impossible, says Audrey Kintzi, vice president for development at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. It also requires constant diplomacy.

“Managing up falls apart if you make people feel stupid,” she says. “You cannot take the stance of imparting wisdom or having information they don’t have in a way that is embarrassing to them.”

A third misconception about managing up in fundraising: People erroneously assume that the most precious resource is donors’ money, says Scott Showalter, an experienced fundraiser who became chief executive of the Oregon Symphony in Portland four years ago. For fundraisers who are managing up, he explains, the more valuable resource “is time and using it in the most efficient way. How are you setting everyone up, executives and donors, for success? It’s a universal challenge.”

Other nonprofit leaders agree. To manage up, people have to realize that “leaders are very, very busy people. They don’t have time to figure it all out,” says Deborah Daley, the former vice president of marketing and communication at the American Red Cross. “That’s why it is very important to think before you communicate with leaders because their time is so stretched.”  

In fundraising, the demands of managing up intensify as people advance professionally, says Tim Child, a fundraiser and senior consultant at the Aspen Leadership Group, an executive recruiting company specializing in development positions. “Moving into the vice president role is taking on a lot more, and the complexity of managing up is way more challenging,” he says. Unlike a major gift officer who usually reports to one or, in some cases, two people, he says, a vice president of development is managing up with his or her chief executive and that person’s close colleagues, in addition to trustees and numerous others who make, or are capable of giving, the largest donations.

Child says he had multiple problems managing up in his own fundraising career, including working for one boss who asked people to give feedback in meetings but privately instructed his subordinates not to oppose his ideas. “You cannot manage up with someone who feels that any pushback is a threat to their authority,” he says.

In another fundraising job in higher education, Child recalls a heated telephone conversation with a brilliant but overly demanding dean he reported to that ended badly. Rather than leave things on that note, Child immediately left his office, walked to the dean’s house a few blocks from campus, and knocked on the door. “He was happy I took the trouble to go there,” he says of the dean, who answered the door. “He respected me more, and we came out of it with a much better relationship. To deal with this and not let it fester was the right thing to do.”

The 20 fundraisers and other charity leaders interviewed for this article described other problems with managing up, particularly in tough situations, and the solutions they found. They also offered the following advice for fundraisers on how to mange up successfully:

Promote authenticity. When fundraisers coach and engage senior colleagues and board members, they should avoid imposing a style of solicitation that comes across as canned or rehearsed to potential donors, says Derek Bellin, associate vice chancellor of advancement at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Instead, he says, fundraisers should allow the individual personalities of colleagues and trustees to shine through in fundraising engagements; otherwise, they will not come across as genuine in their interactions with donors and others.

“Some people will use ironic humor, others will be better using data. If you are funny, be funny. If you are comfortable with data, use that,” Bellin says. “Every time we try to coach someone in a certain way, they can lose authenticity—and that seeds doubt in the mind of the donor, rather than inspiration or action.”

Seek feedback. A big part of managing up for fundraisers is learning how to successfully mesh their working style with that of the leaders they serve. To make sure that happens, fundraisers should ask the people they report to how they’re doing on the job and what improvements can be made, says Brian Lee, vice president of development at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“You need the ability to accept and actively seek out constructive feedback,” Lee says. “That’s part of managing up.” While many people react defensively or negatively to being told about something they should do differently, he says, the most successful fundraisers actively seek out feedback about their performance, listen and reflect on it, and are never defensive. This professional approach, he adds, is “a predictor of success” among fundraising professionals.

Engage third parties. When Daley, the former Red Cross vice president, worked with Elizabeth Dole, who headed the organization in the 1990s, “she surrounded herself with brilliant people of all types,” says Daley. “So I had to figure out how to work with these people close to her. You had to work with them.”

In other cases, Daley, now a communications officer at Mercy High School in Omaha, Nebraska, has had to engage third-party leaders to convince her bosses to take a particular course of action. “You have to go to a third party sometimes to get their buy-in, especially for potentially volatile issues,” she says. “Leaders want that assurance.”

Keep absent leaders in the loop. Donna Frithsen, vice president of operations for institutional advancement at Drexel University, once worked for a college president who traveled so much that she didn’t see him for two weeks at a time. She developed the habit of sending him emails with “miscellaneous update” in the subject line.

The emails, she says, contained “news you can use” information to keep fundraising momentum going, with items such as a positive interaction between university staff and a donor she knew the president would soon be meeting. “He could then say, ‘I know you had a good visit with Penny,’” Frithsen says. “Or if someone on staff had a run in with a donor or volunteer, you don’t want the president to be blindsided.”

Later on, she says, her boss said the updates were among the most helpful emails in his inbox.  

Frithsen used the email update approach again when her boss was on an extended trip to Asia and she was in a new job planning how to launch Drexel’s next capital campaign. “He was three time zones away, and I was in a new role,” she says. “I needed to get his okay on certain things, and we were going outside norms in some cases. We’d get back a one-line response such as ‘keep going.’ We just needed to know we were headed in the right direction.”

Manage up with trustees. Like many organizations, the New World Symphony in Miami Beach has identified a certain number of top donors and potential supporters capable of making the largest gifts so staff members can keep them actively engaged. “We sit down and go through the list and talk about the last touch point with each person,” says Maureen O’Brien, the symphony’s senior vice president for development. “Now we’re extending this approach to the board.”

Last year, the symphony’s 36 trustees worked with development staff, and as a result, each trustee agreed to manage a portfolio with some people on the list of key supporters. Now, Ms. O’Brien and her colleagues make quarterly contacts with board members to talk about ways that trustee and the symphony can keep in touch with the supporters in the board member’s portfolio. “We have moved some of these people along the pipeline in ways they would not have done otherwise,” O’Brien says. The new approach, she notes, has added new symphony contacts for every supporter on the list.

“It is so much stronger when donors have relations with several people,” she says. “It’s like family, and it continues to deepen and grow their investment.”

When managing trustees, nothing works better than having key fundraising information come from one or more colleagues on the board, says Jeff Comfort, vice president of gift planning at Oregon State University in Corvallis. To promote bequests, charitable gift annuities, and other planned gifts among trustees, Comfort organizes board presentations in which a trustee talks about why he or she made a planned gift and how rewarding the experience has been.

Then Comfort makes a brief presentation about different types of planned gifts, using donor stories, and turns the presentation back over to the trustee. He or she tells fellow board members they will soon receive a letter about planned giving including Comfort’s contact information. “Invariably I’ll have one, two, or three board members contact me,” says Comfort. He says he has held the presentations about 40 times in his long career.

Invest time and resources in managing up. Over the last year at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, fundraisers have been working hard to get deans and other leaders like the athletic director and the head of student affairs engaged in raising money, says Doug Nelson, associate vice president for development. He and the development officer assigned to each leader meet with that person every quarter to talk about the institution’s fundraising priorities. Meanwhile, the development officers assigned to the senior staff members are urged to meet with them one-on-one every week.

At the beginning of the academic year, Nelson says, the development staff also held a large meeting for all the leaders, along with the provost and the university’s president. Each leader, with prior help from his or her development officer, gave a short presentation based on a written plan stating what they wanted to raise money for in the coming year. All the written plans were added to a large notebook.

In addition, the development staff held two half-day trainings to help their leaders raise money by teaching them, among other things, the importance of listening to donors rather than using a scripted solicitation.

While the process has been time-consuming, the senior staff members “have really raised their sights of what they can accomplish through philanthropy,” Nelson says. “This has gone over really well, and they are much more engaged than they were a year ago. We will do this again.”

Five Principles for Managing Up

Robbee Kosak, president of California’s Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, came up with the following guidelines to help her colleagues, particularly early- to middle-career professionals, in their efforts to manage up. Managing up, Kosak says, is a key to the foundation’s success in raising money to expand grants and other services to the nation’s top scientists.

  1. Know your boss’s goals and his or her definition of success.
  2. Know how your boss’s goals fit with the organization’s goals.
  3. Know precisely how your role supports the boss’s goals and the organization’s goals. If you don’t know precisely what your piece of the goals looks like, you need more digging and clarifying.
  4. Deliver on your part of their success.
  5. Don’t be distracted by those things outside of your control or outside your influence.

In the Trenches: Managing Up to Solve Problems

In their efforts to manage up, development professionals sometimes encounter fundraising problems with volunteer board members who have seniority over them, says a longtime fundraiser who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue at her university. After a study showed the institution could raise tens of millions of dollars in its upcoming capital campaign, the fundraiser approached the trustee chairing the board’s development committee at a meeting with other officials.

The trustee, she says, erupted and “really dressed me down” in front of others. While attacking her, he loudly dismissed the idea that the university could raise as much as the study said. The fundraiser talked to the university’s president about the incident, but he decided to keep the trustee on as the development committee chair. It took two more conversations, she says, to stress that the issue “is not about being humiliated in public. We need the right person so we can get this done.” Finally, the trustee was reassigned to another committee, and the university went on to surpass its campaign goal.

To manage up in solving problems, fundraisers and others sometimes have to go around their superiors. That was the case with Tony DeCristofaro, who, years ago, managed a national scandal involving his boss at United Way of America, who was later imprisoned for embezzling donated funds. An executive with seniority over DeCristofaro told him not to send any news stories about the scandal to local United Ways that were clamoring for the information. The thinking was that giving them the stories would only inflame the controversy and hurt fundraising, recalls DeCristofaro.

But local United Ways, he says, were part of the organization and deserved to know what was happening. He asked some of the locals to call his boss and ask to see the news. It worked. “The boss relented and said ‘Thanks for telling Person X to call me,’ but it got the message across,” DeCristofaro says. Oftentimes, lawyers advise not talking about legal matters, but that doesn’t work in the court of public opinion, he says. “There’s a legal strategy, but you need a corresponding public relations strategy, too.”

In other cases, a fundraiser’s immediate boss complicates fundraising, says another senior development professional who requested anonymity to talk about a tricky situation. In a previous job, the fundraiser worked with a couple who wanted to make a substantial gift to the institution without fanfare. The problem was the university’s president, who wanted to intercede with the donors as he normally would with such a large gift. The fundraiser knew that would only irritate the couple.

“I had to take a very strong stand with the president over the course of a week or two, getting this not to happen,” the fundraiser recalls. “I had to make the point in a way that would not offend him.” Eventually, after multiple conversations, he says, his boss realized that jumping in with the donors could jeopardize the gift. “It was not to threaten” the president, he says. “It was being patient in explaining the donors’ perspective.” 

Sometimes, no matter how hard a fundraiser tries, efforts to manage up are futile, and leaders do things that are reprehensible, and in some cases, even illegal, says Lou Nanni, the lead fundraiser at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame. Nanni says he learned that lesson by working at a private high school in Chile during a time of political unrest when he saw leaders severely punishing students for simply expressing their views.

In such cases, the best course of action “is to make sure you hold on to your integrity and do the best job you can. Commit to excellence,” he says. “Try to find people you can confide in. Do your best, and understand you can’t control everything.”   


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Editor's NoteThis article is the third in a monthly series, Your Philanthropy Career, by veteran philanthropy journalist Holly Hall on navigating a successful career in the nonprofit sector. The series is a partnership between Inside Philanthropy and the Aspen Leadership Group, which focuses exclusively on search and talent management in the field of philanthropy. Recognized leaders in the field recruit and provide counsel to other leaders and emerging leaders, building enduring, productive relationships and supporting exceptional careers. Learn more at www.aspenleadershipgroup.com and www.philanthropycareer.net.

Holly Hall has been covering fundraising and related issues for nearly three decades. She holds a master’s degree in philanthropy and development from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and has been a featured speaker at numerous fundraising events and conferences. Her journalistic experience includes working as a writer for Psychology Today magazine and writing for other national publications such as the Washington Post. She also worked for more than three years in communications for the American Red Cross, where she created and edited The Humanitarian, an award-winning quarterly magazine for Red Cross constituents.