Breaking Barriers, a Fundraiser Rises to the Top of Her Game

Consultant June Bradham of Change Develop Move helped start a drive to raise $6 million to convert this vacant school into space for Charleston, S.C. nonprofits. Her daughter and business partner Tucker Branham directs the fundraising effort. photo: H. Allen Irish

Consultant June Bradham of Change Develop Move helped start a drive to raise $6 million to convert this vacant school into space for Charleston, S.C. nonprofits. Her daughter and business partner Tucker Branham directs the fundraising effort. photo: H. Allen Irish

At the first fundraising conference June Bradham ever attended, she encountered a group of male fundraisers—many wearing embellished name tags that broadcast their seniority in the profession. She listened as they traded war stories from their lengthy careers.

Being new to the profession, Bradham thought she could learn something about raising money from these seasoned professionals, most of whom were consultants on the association’s board. So when they started making plans to go out for a trustees-only dinner, she asked if she could tag along.

They refused.

Undeterred, Bradham kept asking until, finally, one of the men gave in. That’s how Bradham made her way into fundraising nearly 40 years ago.

Once a male-dominated profession, fundraising now includes women at the highest levels, and Bradham’s development career exemplifies the leading edge of that trend.

Falling into Fundraising

Like many fundraisers, Bradham fell into the profession by happenstance rather than deliberately pursuing it. Her first job in the nonprofit world was managing volunteers for Hilton Head Hospital in South Carolina. The woman who hired Bradham, Paula Harper Bethea, says she instantly knew Bradham was right for the position.

“I knew within the first 15 minutes that I wanted to hire her,” recalls Bethea, who is now the University of South Carolina’s chief advancement officer. “There was a wonderful balance of understanding reality but wanting to bring creativity to the job.”

It wasn’t too long after Bradham was hired that the hospital created a new fundraising arm, the Hilton Head Health Foundation, and started seeking an executive director to run it. Seeing how capably Bradham approached her work with volunteers, Bethea thought she could do just as well with donors and recommended her for the new position. 

At the time Bradham knew nothing about fundraising, Bethea says, “but she said she would figure it out. She has a can-do attitude, and that’s how she got into fundraising.” After Bradham attended that first fundraising conference, says Bethea, “she came home knowing what she needed to do, and she did it. ‘No’ is not in her vocabulary. She’s adept at getting to where she needs to be.”

Bradham spent nine years at the hospital foundation. Among other accomplishments, she designed the annual giving program, began seeking bequests and other planned gifts, and led and completed the hospital’s first capital campaign to raise $9 million.

Then, in an unusual move for a woman at the time, Bradham moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1987 to start Corporate DevelopMint, a fundraising consulting company, first as co-founder and then as sole owner. After 30 years of work in 15 states and three countries, she re-branded the company last year under a new name: Change Develop Move, a smaller consulting firm she runs with her daughter, co-principal Tucker Branham, another fundraiser now completing her doctoral degree in organizational leadership.

“June Bradham has a good story in her professional track record,” says Bob Carter, a longtime fundraising consultant who leads a firm bearing his surname. “She broke through gender barriers. I have enormous respect for her practice and the company she built.”

But Bradham’s contributions to fundraising go well beyond starting and running a consulting firm—and her accomplishments offer lessons to people who aspire to reach the top of the development profession or another nonprofit leadership role. Her achievements include developing herself as a writer, pioneering new research approaches, building networks, and more.

Finding Her Voice

In addition to numerous articles, Bradham published a well-regarded book, The Truth About What Nonprofit Boards Want: The Nine Little Things That Matter Most in 2009. “Every single book and article I read was about what the board should do when I thought it should be about what the board wants,” she says. “I don’t think it’s wrong to cater to what board members want.”

Writing a book, however, didn’t come easy. “Finding my voice instead of writing like I was doing a research paper was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” Bradham says. “It was harder than learning to windsurf.”

To produce her book, Bradham relied on interviews with more than 100 board members across three continents who she describes as “elite” trustees. Then she congealed what she learned into nine chapters, each one countering a myth about board service with the truth according to Bradham.

For example, one myth is that people are attracted to serve on nonprofit boards by the cause, not the company of other board members. The reality, Bradham writes, is “current board makeup is the No. 1 reason a top-flight candidate will agree to consider board service—or will not.”

Another myth related to fundraising is that board members will write big checks just by virtue of serving on a board. Instead, Bradham writes, “it is the meaningful experience with the organization and its CEO and fellow board members that stirs their passion and is the precursor to joyfully given gifts.” The book features several board members who explain in their own words what they want to experience before making a big gift.

Another useful tidbit Bradham offers in her book: Most board members are emphatically opposed to being subjected to anything called “training” by the nonprofits they serve. “Never call it ‘training,’” she writes. “These elite board members love learning—learning about the industry trends of their organizations, about best practices and benchmarking, and yes, even fundraising, if it is very specific to their situation... But call it ‘training,’ and you’ve lost them before the coffee’s even been served.”  

The Power of Research

Unlike some fundraisers whose careers involve working for multiple causes, Bradham has focused most of her energy on hospitals and medical centers. To help those institutions, her consulting firm produced groundbreaking research to prove the characteristics that determine fundraising success. Starting with an initial group of 140 hospitals, Bradham and her colleagues spent two years painstakingly gathering and analyzing data.

“The research project was incredibly complicated,” says Jon McGann, a former psychologist who joined Bradham’s firm and worked on the data. But, he adds, it enabled Bradham and her colleagues to help hospitals and medical centers make transformational changes to their fundraising.

Fifty percent of fundraising success at hospitals and medical centers, the researchers learned, is directly attributable to how wealthy the surrounding community is. That finding was “the biggest a-ha,” Bradham says, “the fact that 50 percent of your success you can’t do anything about.”

But other things leading to fundraising success can be modified, the research found. The four factors most associated with high fundraising returns were the amount given by the hospital system’s governing board; donations by the board of its fundraising foundation, if it has one; a chief executive who speaks in public positively and often about the organization and how it helps the community; and a high number of face-to-face visits with potential donors.

Having this information, Bradham says, “enabled me to talk with authority about how to achieve fundraising success. It was one of the most useful things we did.”

The research led to other insights. “The governing board of the hospital system, along with the trustees on its foundation board, should give 30 percent of what the institution raises, minus government and foundation grants,” Bradham says. “If you have this, you will be successful.” On the other hand, she adds, “if your board is made of subject experts rather than donors, you will fail.”

After releasing the initial findings, Bradham worked to further enhance the data by offering it to Blackbaud, the Charleston fundraising software company. Blackbaud hired a data scientist and one of her first tasks was to help Bradham expand her data, applying it to all 4,000 hospital systems nationwide. The resulting dataset, the Blackbaud Healthcare Philanthropic Index, was released for the first time last year. Now, hospital officials can compare their organizations to others of similar size and community wealth.

In addition to her consulting work with Change Develop Move, Bradham now works with Blackbaud a few days each month in the company’s Healthcare Solutions division. She makes presentations to Blackbaud clients, helping them apply the philanthropic index to gain insights and formulate plans to improve contributions. And last year, Bradham organized a new Executive Summit for executives from 18 of the largest healthcare systems nationwide to talk about trends related to centralization or partial centralization of fundraising operations, particularly in cases involving a hospital merger. The meeting is being repeated this year.

Sharing Lessons

In addition to bringing together those hospital executives, Bradham also created an earlier CEO forum for top administrators of hospital systems. They could bring fundraisers and other key officials to that meeting, but unless the chief executive attended, his or her organization was barred from the meeting, Bradham says. All too often, she says, fundraising is left to people who report to the chief executive when that leader should be actively engaged in securing contributions.    

In another case, after being asked by a hospital foundation to talk to its board about raising money, Bradham and her colleagues met at breakfast to brainstorm about what they would share with foundation officials later that day.

Bradham, recalls McGann, her psychologist colleague, “talked a lot about the importance of alignment between the CEO and the board, particularly the chair. She had it all in her mind. I’d have never thought of this concept.” 

That first educational offering “went extremely well,” he recalls. “June said, ‘We ought to write this down, it is good,’” says McGann. And that was how Bradham and her company created a new educational product called MintAsk to teach hospital trustees and key administrators how to make “discovery calls” to identify potential donors and other aspects of raising money. “We probably did these sessions 40 times over the subsequent years,” McGann says.

Bradham, he adds, “was always working to think what we could do that’s the next innovation. ”

The Consulting Life

A fundraising consultant for decades, Bradham has learned that there are times when winning isn’t possible. In those situations, she says, it is best to sever ties with the client. That’s what she finally did with one healthcare system she’d worked with for a decade. She ended that relationship after it hired a new chief executive, a woman who refused to accept anyone’s input or feedback after presenting them with fundraising demands.

“She was totally hands-off with fundraising, and she expected staff to raise money without any support from her,” Bradham recalls. “She kept saying, ‘I need the money. Go get it.’ I finally had to say, I’m not the right person to work with you.”

But for the most part, Bradham sticks with her clients, designing her approach to meet their particular needs and returning to some client organizations to work off the clock when unexpected situations arise.

“There are times when you go through a campaign, and by the time you finish, you are not in the best place with your consultant,” says Paula Harper Bethea at the University of South Carolina. “June finishes these campaigns and makes lifelong friends doing it. Another one of her secret weapons is being asked back repeatedly. She sticks with her clients. When you set yourself apart that way, it makes all the difference.” 

“She tailored the approach to each client rather than having a cookie-cutter approach so often used by other consultants,” says Brian O’Rourke, Clemson University’s vice president of development. In his previous job at a Greenville, South Carolina, hospital, O’Rourke hired Bradham as a consultant, and later worked for three years at her fundraising consulting firm.

“June was one of the most creative development professionals I have ever been around, always thinking outside the box,” O’Rourke says.

For development officers who want to become fundraising consultants, Bradham has some advice based on her experience recruiting highly experienced staff fundraisers to join her consulting business.

“Being a consultant is harder than you think,” Bradham says. “Highly experienced people have a lot of support, stuff like marketing staff. As a consultant, you are working primarily on your own.” It took the highly experienced staff fundraisers she hired about 18 months to become comfortable with consulting work, says Bradham.

Fundraisers who want to start their own consulting business can underestimate how long it takes to start getting clients, Bradham says. “It is not unusual to start the conversation with a potential client, and it will take months before a consulting contract is signed. You need to be financially secure for six months or more.” That’s why, when they’re starting out, new consultants are better off working for an established firm that can give them work and provide senior practitioners they can learn from, she says.

Advice and Guidance

Bradham is serving as a mentor on a project to start a new chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals that will serve Bluffton and Hilton Head, South Carolina, according to Paulette Maehara, a former president at the association’s national headquarters. And over the years, Maehara says, she has sent many development professionals to Bradham for advice on their fundraising careers.

“She is always willing to mentor and spend time with up-and-coming fundraisers,” Maehara says. “I referred many people to her, and they always came back pleased. This is a hallmark in terms of what she has contributed to the profession.”

One person Bradham mentored is Rachel Hutchisson, Blackbaud’s vice president for corporate citizenship and philanthropy. Bradham, she says, “decided she wanted to invest in me and my career. One thing she did is recommend me for a board as she was leaving it. Having her endorse me was a great thing, and now I try to do this for other people.”

Bringing People Together

Just as important to Bradham as mentoring is her role in bringing people together for brainstorming and networking purposes, Hutchisson says. “A convener is totally who she is.”

When Blackbaud’s chief executive joined the company six years ago, for example, Hutchisson says Bradham hosted a party “and introduced him to the community at her house. It would have taken him a year to get introduced to all these people who wanted to meet him. This is very typical of June.”

It’s just one of many gatherings Bradham has hosted over the years, many for professional women she thinks are interesting and others described as healthcare forums. “She is the consummate networker, a great host,” says Hutchisson. “I’ve learned a lot just by watching her convene people and get them talking to each other. Everyone is thrilled to be there.”

To pull off this type of gathering, however, is a lot more work than just having a party. “You have to get personal,” Bradham says. That means coming up with a theme or idea to shape the conversation and then “letting those you are convening help you shape the message,” she says. “Get on the phone or meet face to face, because it won’t work by just sending out an invite.”

She adds: “If you don’t have the time to devote to that aspect of convening people, then don’t even try.”

To see a full list of June Bradham’s career accomplishments and board affiliations, visit her LinkedIn page.