This scenario plays out frequently at many nonprofit organizations: top-performing professionals gets promoted to lead a team but has never been trained to lead or manage. This is often a disaster—results suffer, people head for the door, and the new manager flames out (and may even get fired).
There are a few key reasons why some frontline professionals struggle as leaders and others do not.
One is that even after they put on their manager hats, they are unable to disconnect from their functional area, and the organization enables this addiction.
Individuals, on the other hand, who adeptly make the transition from frontliner to leader/manager consciously shift from “me” to “we”. They quickly realize that success depends on elevating from being an individual contributor to being a manager who gets things done through other people. That’s a big shift in “being” that many people fail to make.
This transition from sole-contributor to manager/leader is a challenge faced by many departments in small, medium, and large nonprofit organizations. And, it is in the fundraising operation where a misstep can be particularly harmful. Fundraising is the lifeblood of many nonprofits. It’s where the cash that comes on a daily, weekly, and quarterly basis often determines whether or not the organization survives and thrives.
The solution to this challenge is not as simple as many talent managers are suggesting these days, namely that a great frontline fundraiser should never manage a team or lead the organization. In many cases, it’s difficult for a leader to gain the respect of staff and board members if that person has NOT been a successful fundraiser. And, at the same time, nonprofit boards should not fall into the trap of saying: “This person is a great fundraiser. We’re certain s/he can manage the team.” It’s not that simple.
So, what is a Board, Executive Director, University President or Chief Development Officer leading a large fundraising team to do?
First, I would suggest an assessment of a new leader’s desire and capacity to learn and grow. New managers are often stretched in many new directions. They need to hire, review, and sometimes fire staff members. They develop fundraising forecasts and department budgets. They make decisions about IT resources. They’re responsible for accurately recording and acknowledging gifts. And, they take on additional other organizational responsibilities that entail multiple administrative tasks, including HR forms and coordinating with other departments. There is a steep learning curve for every new manager/leader, and the work can be overwhelming unless the individual is hungry for learning and growth.
Second, it’s helpful for new managers to acknowledge they are shedding one professional identity (frontliner) for another (manager/leader) in order to take on the new role where their focus is on their teams AND themselves. In the case of fundraisers, as individual contributors they typically aim their attention at their donors and projects at the nonprofit that the donors support. At this stage of development, they focus mostly on honing their fundraising skills, meeting their metrics, and doing their job well. It can take up to 10 years of deliberate practice for a fundraiser to become an expert at his or her craft. In becoming managers, they (like other professionals) must pivot toward communicating clearly and consistently with staff, while coaching and mentoring them to build the skills necessary for them to be successful. During this crucial time of professional and personal development, many nonprofit organizations support first-time managers by having them work with an executive coach.
Third, by shifting perspective, a manager’s time is freed up to focus on other duties, like developing staff to whom they can delegate more responsibility.
New managers must learn how to hire and nurture talent. One common mistake that they make is relying too heavily on interviews that screen candidates exclusively for competence, as opposed to competence AND character. They typically ask themselves what skills made them a successful fundraiser, and forget the other qualities that made them successful overall.
Also, once someone is hired, it is incumbent upon the manager/leader to provide regular and candid feedback. Many new managers fall into a common trap of beginning to pay attention to someone on their staff only a few days before the performance review. By then it becomes mainly a compensation discussion about whether the person did or did not meet his or her goals. While the compensation conversation is an important one, substantial human resource research now tells us that ongoing coaching and feedback throughout the year have a bigger and better impact on performance. Sharing constructive feedback is more of an art than science, and it is something that all leaders can improve in over time through appropriate training and practice.
Recognizing that some nonprofit professionals may want a little extra help as they become first time-managers/leaders, Janice Cunning and I created an affordable self-paced online course. Among other topics, the program covers:
-Building trust and dealing with conflict on your team (including giving feedback)
-Understanding your motives, values, and strengths
-Improving your relationship awareness (including better communications)
-Creating your purpose and vision
-Defining an objective, setting goals, establishing a strategy, and measuring results
An overview of course content can be found here: https://fundraisingleadership.org/nonprofit-manager-course/.
In conclusion, working with high-performing fundraisers requires that managers and leaders become talent developers. Many of their best people are ambitious, and if they feel they are not advancing, they will move on to work with an organization and a leader who will support their ambitions.
David Langiulli is an executive coach and trainer who helps nonprofit professionals and their teams flourish, thrive, and get results.