One of the most important decisions a Chief Advancement or Development Officer for a large team can make is picking the right people, particularly in leadership roles, for their shop. As the supply of professionals in our industry continues to play catch up to demand, it becomes critical that you keep and retain your leaders and their teams.
I have found, though, that a very critical second step after hiring the right leaders is often overlooked: organizing your team(s) in a fashion conducive to proper workflow and communication. For-profit industries have addressed this challenge with varying approaches, including in-house restructuring as well as turning to management consulting firms for guidance. While this may conjure up images of stereotypical consultants on movies such as “Office Space” and “Up in The Air,” there is a core truth to learn here: for-profit companies have used management and organizational best practices to build successful teams. For reasons I have yet to pinpoint, the fundraising industry has not traditionally taken this approach. Rather, once a new vice president, associate vice president or director takes the helm, they are often left to their own devices to enact organizational changes. Some can do it but most struggle. The results can range from being positively transformational to disastrously inefficient. Where you land is determined by the experience, or lack thereof, of the manager who is either new to the role or does not have the tools to examine his/her own team critically.
There are, of course, plenty of resources to optimizing organizational workflow and communication. For example, the aforementioned management consulting firms can be a great resource. That said, they are costly, and there are few firms with a deep understanding of the philanthropic system. More informal approaches include reading some of the excellent books on restructuring, organizational principles and management to-dos. Of course, relying on this alone can be tantamount to reading a pilot’s manual and then immediately taking your Cessna for a spin, particularly if you are a new department head.
Having conducted several SWOT analyses, efficiency studies and workflow calculations for medium to large fundraising teams, I have found some solutions. It is not a groundbreaking panacea, but it has been gratifying to see the change that a purposeful process can bring to a fundraising department. So if you find yourself in a new leadership role, or you need to shake things up in your current team because old habits are not cutting it anymore, you might try the following three step approach:
Talk to your people
Time and again I am amazed at the chasm that can sometimes exist between manager and employees. I have always put a lot of stock in the idea that your rank-and-file employees often have the answers to your problems. If you are a new manager, having these conversations should be natural. If you are an existing manager in need of rethinking things, you will need to find the courage, humility, and diplomacy to receive feedback and criticism on the operation of your team.
Meet with every member of the team and ask them to tell you what is working and what is broken, from their point of view. And then ask them for three wishes: if they were you for a week and had resources, what would they stop/start/continue? It’s not a mind blowing concept. You have heard this before. But ask yourself, when was the last time you asked the team as a whole? Aggregate the responses, and I promise you’ll be surprised at how much you will learn.
An important note if you are NOT new to the job: the above approach will only work if you and your team get along and have trust. If your team does not trust you (or you do not trust them), the problem might be staring at you in the mirror. If you think that is too harsh, read one of my favorite books on leadership: Extreme Ownership by Jacko Willink and Leif Babin, two US Navy Seal Commanders.
Dream big, but first strip it bare
After you have collected the input and sorted it into “buckets,” pick a brainstorming weekend for yourself, where you will spend two full days ideating an organizational structure based on future needs. Bring with you any strategic plan, fundraising results, giving predictions or campaign targets that are currently in play. And then, ask yourself the critical question to start your planning: Three years from now, what is your team doing/producing/raising that tells you that you are operating in exactly the way you expect to be at that stage? Dream of what that might look like. Strip away your current organizational structure and instead, build the structure that will be bringing in those results. That’s your North Star on an organizational perspective. There is much more that goes into that success, but right now, we’re just trying to solve for workforce and workflow, so concentrate accordingly. If you get stuck, refer to the aggregated notes from your team. Again, I promise you you’ll be amazed at how many of the answers are right there.
Come back to reality and make a plan
Almost always, your dream state will be beyond what your resources can bear. So unless you want to have an awkward conversation with your boss, where she invariably will say, “No, you may not have 37 additional fundraisers,” it’s time to get real. Based on the realities of your resources, what can you change/enact/add in Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3? And here’s the tough one: What existing resources can you redirect or eliminate to get you to your future state? It’s going to be tough, and in this exercise, some eggs will be broken. For this, remind yourself of your raison d’etre, which for us in philanthropy, is thankfully easy: do what is right for your organization to succeed, for its success delivers on the mission to change the world for the better.
It’s easy for me to prescribe the above in a vacuum, it is much harder for anyone to do in reality. But if there is one takeaway for you here, I hope it is this: We too in the philanthropic sector have a responsibility to build organizational structures that will deliver excellent results, so get creative in your approach and deliberate in the process. If a development team were a plane, our organization’s mission is where we will be flying to. The degree to which your flight crew can work efficiently, communicate and utilize resources during the flight will determine if you will ever get to your destination.
Tahsin I. Alam is Associate Vice President for Talent Management and Organizational Development at the Rutgers University Foundation. When not trying to solve talent problems, he scouts up and coming artists for his purpose built art exhibit hall at his home, travels to Asia and Europe with his wife and occasionally makes time to sleep.