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How to manage up in your fundraising job

27 February 2017

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 February 27, 2017
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Kishshana Palmer

MT: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I’m so happy to introduce Kishshana Palmer. Kishshana, hey. Thanks so much for being here. What’s your fundraising journey?

KP: My name is Kishshana Palmer, and I am a fundraising matchmaker and a nonprofit coaching trainer. So I want you all to think of me as your fixer. I’m really passionate about helping nonprofits and the professionals that lead them grow. Really think about growing their organizations, growing their boards, growing fundraising, and growing your team. So my journey started out a little over 15 years ago as a practitioner.

So like many folks who we help, I was a lone fundraiser in an organization trying to figure it out. I found myself in this field not really knowing exactly what it is I wanted to do or even how I got there. I just caught the bug on really figuring out how to help people find ways to stay connected to the communities where they lived or worked and to really marshal financial resources to be able to do that. So I’ve been a generalist and a practitioner. Over the last 15 years I have been a chief development officer, a VP of development in external affairs, and really have straddled between frontline fundraising, back of the house operations, and human capital and management for fundraisers and for communications professionals. So I’ve had quite the ride.

MT: And in between all that, you got your MBA and your CFRE and a few other things, right? Some other things as well.

KP: Oh, these darn degrees and certifications. Yes, so I have a business background. I went to Bentley University for undergrad and for my MBA. My focus was really on international business and marketing.

Once I was about five years or so into fundraising, I said, well, you know, I guess I need to start really digging in and studying. So I got my CFRE. I have since become a Board Source Certified Governance Trainer and in a few weeks I’m going to go ahead and become an AFP Master Trainer. So I really love what I do, and more importantly is I really love helping others really dig into this fascinating and fabulous career in philanthropy and in development and fundraising and figure out how to be their best selves in the work that we have to do.

MT: I love that you said best selves because I feel like people don’t understand that just because you’re not good at every single area of fundraising, it doesn’t make you a bad fundraiser. But also if you’re not getting supported enough, you might not be able to succeed in a role no matter how good you are at fundraising.

KP: Absolutely.

MT: So I’m glad that you’re talking about best self because you actually talked about that a couple of times at our Career Conference in 2015 and 2016. You talked about strengths. We’ll talk about a little bit more of that today and at the Fundraising Career Conference 2017.  

Speaking of being supported, have you ever had a boss who didn’t understand fundraising? If so, what was that like for you?

KP: Yeah. So I have had more than one manager over the years who thought they had a handle on fundraising but just really didn’t. What I mean by that is they either thought fundraising was highly transactional. Kishshana, go out there and get the money. Get the gifts. Like money would just magically happen when I left the building. Or they thought that fundraising was sort of a singular profit in that they were the only ones who could actually go out and close big donors or invite others to invest in the organization in a really transformational way.

Or they just didn’t really understand the purpose. I remember having a CEO who said “God, why do we even have to talk about fundraising? Why don’t we just write grants so that we don’t have to ever talk to a soul?” It was pretty hard for me because writing grants and grant writing is a critical component of the overall development process if your organization really partners with foundations and federal agencies. That’s the mechanism of communication through the grant writing process.

But it’s not the only thing. In fact, really being able to sit down and have a conversation with individuals, I have found, and the studies will back me up. It’s actually the best way over time to be able to shore up resources for your organization and ensure that your organization continues to thrive over time. Yet, it’s the thing we run away from because lots of us have not confronted our own relationship with money. So I’ve found that in those situations, having a boss who did not understand fundraising, part of my role was about helping them to find their own path to what was exciting about fundraising.

Part of my role was about education and really helping them to see how their own peers were sort of wrapping their arms around fundraising. Part of that was small wins, being able to enroll them in opportunities to be able to experience firsthand and have a front seat to the joy of asking and the joy of getting folks to say, yes. I am so on board with what you want to do. As a way to sort of stack the deck in helping them to begin to understand fundraising, and at the very least, make it a lot easier for me as a fundraiser to do my job.

MT: Wow, I’ve never heard anybody say before that managing up means helping your boss understand their relationship with money. Could you say more about that?

KP: Absolutely. One of the things that I found, and I remember, I took a course at the Kennedy School last year called exponential fundraising. One of the a-ha moments I had during that year was many of us, before we start talking about impact through fundraising, don’t actually dig into our own relationship with money. What part did money play in how you were raised?

Was it the thing that you didn’t talk about any at all growing up?

Was money hard for you? Did it just appear?

Like my daughter thinks money just magically appears and mommy just magically gets things done. I have to kind of sit her down with the nuts and the bolts of our household budget to make it real. When I was working for an organization full time, mommy’s getting a paycheck. She could start to understand that money is a tool, but it is still a thing. Often times, we do not dig back far enough in our childhood. That’s the place where we have our most formative value lessons being shaped for us. To really think about how money has really impacted our lives and how we see ourselves with and in and around money.

So I find if you’re not able to dig into that, or you don’t have that level of self awareness. Because I mean, let’s face it. Who is asking us, what is your relationship with money, Kishshana? No one is asking that question. Come on. No one is asking that question.

KP: If we don’t take the time to sort of dig in to know where we’re starting from before we go out and invite others to join us, then I think that puts us at a great disadvantage in order to understand how to really shape conversations. So that is what I mean by that, in terms of really understanding their relationship with money and why they may be super excited, super hesitant, super selfish, super sharing around how we would build our relationships.

MT: That’s so interesting to me because I just interviewed Marc Pitman about this concept of transactional analysis, a parent child relationship, basically, between the fundraiser and the boss or vice versa, where the boss sort of looks to the fundraiser like the parent and says, just bring in the money, like you said.

Then there’s the other side, the supplication of the fundraiser. Give me money. I don’t care where it comes from in some ways. So it really hurts both the fundraiser and the boss when they both don’t understand their concepts around money is what I’m hearing.

KP: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Marc was right on with that. That’s a good conversation to have. I don’t feel like it’s a conversation that we’re having enough of. Think about it. You’re about to host this amazing online fundraising career conference in April 2017 that I have so enjoyed being a speaker at and have really been able to be teach with some of the most awesome, the most high level professionals who have joined us for the fundraising career conference. We talk about things like finding a job and negotiating your salary and taking on more responsibility and dealing with difficult donors.

How to really be impactful in your major gift fundraising. All the things that have to do with what at the end of the day? Money in some way, shape, or form. So if we are charged with helping to elevate the financial resources of an organization, but we don’t charge ourselves with understanding that relationship and the relationship of others who we are coming into conversation with, then it sort of always puts in this defensive posture about getting folks to understand us as opposed to inviting folks to join us. So I think that that’s not something that we talk a lot about. It’s very sort of woo based. It’s like, go to the retreat to be in the woods. Heavy meditation. And yet, it’s very critical to the nuts and bolts of how we do our work, I believe anyway.

MT: I agree, and I wish more program staff also understood this. I wish people didn’t also see a fundraiser as a wizard where gold coins fall from the sky when they walk by. I had a job where people kind of looked at me that way. Like oh, should we bow to you? Should we try to make it really nice for you so that you’ll keep giving us this magical money? I never took it upon myself to have that conversation with them, like let’s talk about your concepts about money or why you think that I get it and you don’t. You know what I mean?

Because we’re all in charge of it in one way or another. We’re all ambassadors for this organization and that’s creating a culture of philanthropy, as you and I know.

But what are some of the consequences when a boss doesn’t understand fundraising?

KP: I mean, let’s talk about the number of vacancies that exist in some really great organizations in their fundraising departments. If there is a relationship that cannot be nurtured in a healthy way and the fundraising relationship with your boss, whether it’s major gifts officer reporting to a director of development, a director of development reporting to an ED or CEO, or a chief development officer reporting to whomever else. Whatever.

If your boss does not understand fundraising, then even as an activity, then they don’t understand development as a concept, a construct or a process, which means all of the moves that you have to make. Because fundraising successfully to me is much more like chess than it is like checkers, right? So if they really don’t have a fundamental understanding, or even a gut understanding of what it means to really raise funds, then they are going to question you at every turn about the different decisions that you have to make in order to be able to get someone to a joyful yes.

So that leaves a development professional dissatisfied, feeling taken advantage of, potentially angry, burnt out, potentially not having the resources they need in terms of systems. In terms of things like prospecting, in terms of the organizational credit card to be able to take out donors or partners. Whatever. To be able to do their jobs well. Ultimately that creates a fissure in that relationship such that folks either just don’t really want to do it, or they tap out of that organization, or worse, they tap out of that profession completely. We’ve seen some of that as well.

So it’s not a situation that’s tenable. So therefore, I don’t believe that situation can just rest. So to me, the biggest consequence when your boss doesn’t understand fundraising is that you’re not going to raise funds. Or maybe you do, but it comes at such an opportunity cost. It comes at the cost of the people who are actually raising the money. It potentially comes at the cost of your donors and your donor families who can see that you guys aren’t doing the things you need to do.

It comes in the cost of turnover in staff. All the things you think about. It’s not healthy and I don’t think I’ve seen the upside to having positive consequences when your boss doesn’t understand fundraising.

MT: Wow. I’ve seen bosses be hired who didn’t understand fundraising. Then they’re like, why do we keep having turnover? Why are we losing money every year? Like, well, maybe board members, you shouldn’t be hiring another board member who’s your friend because maybe you can’t actually – you know what I mean? Manage a friend properly in this situation.

KP: Or even just like one of the things that I’ve talked to clients now a lot about, particularly around human capital and hiring fundraising professionals is when you’re thinking about bringing somebody on board and doing a successful onboarding process. How do you succeed in your first 90 or 100 days. We’ve talked about that a lot, Maz.

Have you set aside the resources necessary to get them up to speed in their actual job? Not just what they need to know about the organization but what they need to do to be successful. And so if you have an executive director or CEO who has not necessarily been a philanthropic fundraiser. Maybe they come the sales world or the for profit in something else world. So they bring a certain level of skill sets for running an organization but maybe not as a fundraiser.

Are we providing them with the resources they need from day one to be able to start to have that understanding? Are we making space for that end compensation so that folks hit the ground running? But also that they have the runway to be able to kind of learn what they need to know. I would argue that for most organizations, the answer is no.

MT: I agree. I’m not trying to blame any executive directors. They have such a huge, complicated job with so many moving pieces that it’s hard to find time to learn about fundraising. I can see why a lot of them just want to pass it off. Like yay, I don’t have to think about this anymore.

But when you do that, you do have burnout on the part of your fundraiser. Especially if they really want to do a good job. They’re going to try hard to make it work, even if you’re not interested in learning or you feel like you don’t have time to learn. Then if there’s burnout, you have to look at who’s holding the flamethrower

To learn more from Kishshana Palmer you can read part two of this interview tomorrow! March 1st! or come to the Fundraising Career Conference!

Fundraising Career Conference 2016


Join us for the 3rd annual Fundraising Career Conference April 17th, 19th and 21st 2017. Since 2015 over 900 people have attended this online conference, resulting in more successful job interviews, 42% salary increases, new jobs, better workplace environments, and more! This year we’re going deep, with sessions on how to build trust with your boss (and not get fired), how to be a better mentor and manager, creativity and play at work, and more! Learn more


2 responses on “How to manage up in your fundraising job

  1. Maybe I’m missing something but I cannot find a location for your fundraising career conference

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