Hey have you ever had a boss who didn’t understand your job? Who told you, “I trust you” or “Just do it”?

Me too. So, let’s talk managing up.

Also If you want to learn how to manage up, join us on May 7th for our webinar on Managing up!  (NOTE this is now rescheduled to July 11th!)

Join us and tell us about YOUR experience?


Have you ever known a boss or a person in management who just seemed to be there by luck, not by skill or management ability? Is this a situation you’ve seen? A nonprofit leader who didn’t know about nonprofits, but wasn’t aware of how much they didn’t know? Have you ever heard of the term managing up? Where does this term, managing up, come from?

Do you know about the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  • tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  • fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  • recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve. (from the wikipedia page.)

This relates to Peter’s Corollary.

“Peter’s Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”. “Managing upward” is the concept of a subordinate finding ways to subtly “manage” superiors in order to limit the damage that they end up doing.”


How can you manage up? Teach them what to measure

Well, let’s assume your boss is a prime example of the kruger-dunning effect, and they don’t know what they don’t know, or worse, they assume that they know more about your job than you do, when in reality, they know nothing.

So, if this is the case, how do you get the message across?

First, set boundaries and expectations in your interview, straight out. And if it’s too late for that, then in your next meeting. Say, “Here is how you should measure what I’m doing.”

1. Measure fundraising not just in dollars raised, but in number of people touched.
2. Measure how well you’re doing your job by rebranding and polling community members about what they think of your nonprofit.
3. Measure how many grants out the door, not just which grants you won.
4. Measure the engagement of old and new volunteers and board members. Have you been having more meetings? What new initiatives are you planning?

If you can succeed in turning the conversation from “Where is the money” to “How can we get everyone to take responsibility for fundraising” then you will have succeeded in getting more help and managing up.


Starting out with better boss communication:

If your boss does not understand fundraising, give them a 2 minute explanation of how fundraising works. Show them that they’ll get the best bang for their buck from major gifts, and individuals, and the least from foundations, corporations, and events. There are graphs from Giving USA and Philanthropy Reports that go into detail about where most of the money comes from for nonprofits. There’s also a fun short video above which mentions that 75% of nonprofit money comes from individuals.

Giving USA Contribution Source: Where Donations Come From

Who Gives?

When you educate them about fundraising, you want to show them that you are managing expectations about which of your activities will bring in the most money, and which will bring in the least. So if they ask you where your million dollar grant is, tell them that we’d be better off looking for a person to give us a million dollars, rather than a foundation.

Managing up is tricky, because you never want to give the impression that that’s what you’re doing. You’ve got to think about what management strategies work best for you, and which ones your boss is trying to employ.

Trying strategic questions, such as:

  • What would make you feel like we were moving forward in our program right now?
  • How often do you like to communicate?
  • Do you prefer telephone, email, or face to face?
  • How can I make your job easier?
  • What are some of the pressures or issues you’ve got right now?
  • Is there something I could be doing better?

Top tip: Always be the first to say you’re sorry, even if you don’t think you should be the one saying it. Sometimes it’s easier to get things done if the tension is alleviated that way. It doesn’t mean that you are accepting blame for something, it just means you have the emotional intelligence to move forward and try to get your team motivated to do their best for your nonprofit.

Kishshana Palmer

Kishshana Palmer knows a LOT about managing up. So I asked her about it.

MT: 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.

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.

This is similar to 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.

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. I don’t feel like it’s a conversation that we’re having enough of. Think about it. 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.

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.

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.

So what can you do if your boss doesn’t have a lot of fundraising experience? You talked a little bit about concepts of money. But what else?

KP: Another thing you can do when your boss doesn’t really know a lot about fundraising is to help them learn. There are so many resources both free, low cost, and then some are a bit more intense, to really help them to understand what they need to do. Make it easy for them. So as a fundraising professional, do you have a clearly articulated but simple fundraising plan?

Is there a clear place for your CEO or ED to plug in, or your manager depending on where you are, at what level in the organization? Does everybody have a role? Or is it just sort of murky?

So have you set up your operational processes, the ways in which you move the paper and the people and the things to make it easier for your boss to start to understand what you do and also to help them to get more fundraising experience? So if you are cultivating new donors, does your boss understand where in that cultivation cycle they belong? Do they know it upfront?

Have you armed them with enough information about a prospect or a donor so they feel comfortable being able to go in and shake that hand and tell the story? Have you been able to bring them up to speed or enroll them in what actually is resonating with your donor family, and can you continue to keep them abreast of that once things are changing?

Can you make sure that you’re carving out time and insisting on carving out time to meet with your manager so that you’re able to kind of continually kind of drive that home in a really good way? Both by telling the stories, coming to them with big nugget challenges that you want them to sort of dig in with you and be a thought partner on so that they can sort of ruminate with you on how to be able to solve problems around things that might be happening where fundraising is the symptom but is not necessarily the actual problem. So they can put their ED hats on.

So are you taking the time to create opportunities for them to plug in? And in order for you to be able to do that, have you made it so that your job is clearly thought out? Before folks jump down my throat, because I know folks are like, Kishshana, I don’t have time for that. Because I am running. I am running. No, you’re not running. You are running yourself ragged.

One of the things I learned being in the trenches, folks, is you can either plan your time or you can let your time plan you. Are you creating space and opportunity and have you taken the time to really set yourself up so that you have the plans that make sense? You have sort of the tactical implementation. You have who is an owner, a manager. Who is the collaborator? How different folks sort of plug in. Then, having that, are you able to use those tools to be able to help guide your manager who may not have a lot of fundraising experience or understand what you do, to a place and space where they will.

Come with me to this AFP meeting, for example. There’s going to be lots of EDs I want you to meet there. Creating opportunities for them to be in commune with their peers so that they can start to feel more comfortable in that part of their job, because it’s not their only job.

How do you get your boss to start to understand what to do and what you do?

It’s like you can actually show them, for example, the pie chart. I was thinking of this as you were talking, Kishshana, from Fired Up Fundraising for example, where Gail Perry has this chart and it just shows. Here’s the donor cultivation cycle.

A great, huge slice of that pie is talking to them, making them feel good about supporting you, following up with them. Then a teeny, tiny little slice of it is the ask, which everyone is so afraid of. Then the rest of it is like following up and thanking them again. Appreciating them, asking them if they know anybody else who wants to support you? So that’s something I think our bosses don’t realize, that they have to be pressing the flesh in a directed way in a concerted effort kind of way. Not a random way.

So I love that you emphasize our responsibility to educate them. I think people should really listen to you because you’ve had some very fancy titles. VP of External Affairs and Development, and other titles like that. That’s for a national organization. People need to know, hey, there’s a reason why you got to that place and that point is because you did smart things like this. Right?

KP: Absolutely, and I took risks, okay? So I will not pretend that it was all roses, folks. I have fallen on my sword a couple of times. So part of the challenge in carrying the weight in being a frontline fundraiser, particularly if you also manage a team, is that you are both responsible for your own goals as an individual contributor. But you’re responsible for educating your team, making sure they get to their goals, for managing up. Particularly at the VP and Chief Development Officer level, you’re managing your CEO.

You’re interfacing with the board on a regular and frequent basis. So if you’re a mid level manager, you may say, Kishshana, look. I’m a manager of events or I’m a development manager. What are you talking about? You’re going to get there. In order to get there, you have to be able to continually have your eye on the bigger picture and really understand that often times, doing the right thing – and right, to some folks, might feel relative. But sticking to best practices. Understanding what works. Staying current in what is happening in the philanthropic space, in the social goods sector. Being able to try new things.

Understanding that some things will fail. So you’ve got to fail fast, and that sometimes it’s not going to work out. Are the very things that allowed me to move up pretty quickly within my field and get to both positions of leadership. It wasn’t just being a darn good fundraiser, because to your point, and Gail does lay it out in her charts. Asking is the easy part to me. All that stuff in the beginning is the stuff that I used to hate, and that was the hard stuff. Doing the proper research. Having the conversation. Getting the folks to the meeting. Getting them back.

Really making sure we understand how to help folks build excitement, deepen their engagement expand their involvement to get them to a place where they want to do something transformational. So really being able to master those things early for me, then allowed me the space to be able to practice all the time.

I knew really, really early on that I was not a specialist. So I am not a major gift guru, although I have raised lots of money through major gifts. But I have also raised lots of money through other things, through special events and through annual funds and through planned giving. So I have learned very early on that what really got my juices flowing was being in all of it. I’m just nosy. I want to be in everything. So I really got good at that and I think that really allowed me to be able to take some risks that put me in better position to move up in my career

How can a boss learn to honor our strengths in fundraising?

KP:  First of all, I just want to say, it may not be popular, but everybody is not meant to be a boss. There are lots of folks who are in a management role who just really needed to stay as an individual contributor. But often times, people are rewarded for results without thinking about the fact that do they actually have the skills to help other people get those results? So I’ll say that.

That being said, the philosophy of working from a place of managing your strengths and not your weaknesses is actually a philosophical place to start. I think that it takes knowing where your manager actually is and what they actually think about talent to know whether you are actually going to thrive underneath that particular individual. So I did not thrive under managers who did not believe that actually you should operate from a place where you are really pushing the envelope on your strengths every day and that they’re going to push you and stretch opportunities to really flex in those places.

I had more than one manager who really wanted me to just kind of really work on the things that I sucked at. I know I’m amazing. Humbly stated, of course. But I am not good at everything, okay? I can ruin a thing or two, and I had more than one manager who wanted me to just keep getting better at the things I would consistently ruin. So first I used to burn toast completely. Now the toast is just regular old burnt. It’s not all the way burnt. I’m not lighting up the house.

Part of understanding your manager style is I think part and parcel of a foundational piece of being able to manage up. So it doesn’t mean that you’re going to change who they are. But it does mean that you, as the team member, working underneath someone, should really understand what makes them tick if you can, because there are some people that are very hard to read. Then what you can do to protect your own authenticity and your own success within an organization.

For example, I’m not a micromanager but I worked for quite a few. Necessary for their role, I think, in some ways or forms. But I don’t thrive underneath that. But I know in order to be able to have any hope of being successful and really rocking out in the areas that I’m great at at work, micromanagers need lots of information all the time. So if I slack on providing information and an overabundance of it, all of a sudden I found myself in a swirl of types of conversations I didn’t want to have pulling me off my game of really delivering on my goals.

So part of understanding how to work with someone if they’re not really feeling the whole strength finder and that philosophy is understanding what they do feel and what they do understand. Everything is not for everybody. So do you have enough there in your role to be able to be successful despite how your manager may operate? Or are you only going to ever go as far as you are because that person is there? I mean, those are some of the things I think as professionals we have to ask ourselves.

It doesn’t mean jump ship early. It just means you’ve got to constantly be in conversation with yourself and then also trying to build as healthy as you can of a relationship with your manager.

MT: So what I’m hearing is that it’s important to know yourself to get ahead in your fundraising roles and check in with yourself as things are happening. Say, huh, how do I feel about this? What do I think about this? Is this part of my values? Is it not? Also, am I even good at this? Can I get better at this or should I not even try to get better at this?

So for example, one of the things in the strengths finder for example, is that I don’t have this, but it’s woo. Right? That’s one of the strengths you can have. What does woo mean? Woo means you’re good at meeting people, shaking their hand, getting them to like you and moving onto the next person. It doesn’t mean you’re building relationships, necessarily, but it’s good for a frontline fundraiser to have as they press the flesh and move around.

So knowing that about yourself allows you to go out to these meetings with your boss and just do it, knowing that. But if they want you to stay inside and write grants, that’s not taking advantage of that strength for you. Maybe you have a grant strength. Maybe you don’t. So how do you deal with that?

KP: That’s in conversation. So I would hope – and every organization doesn’t have this. I say this with a little hesitation. But I would hope that if you’re having check ins and regular conversations about how things are going, what your goals are, how those tasks are helping you meet your goal, etc. with your manager, you’re able to sort of bring these things up.

Hey, Kishshana, one of the things that I was really excited about was last month when we had that major donor come to the office and I got to greet them and talk with them for a few minutes about their gift. I was really excited and they were really into it. I know that I write grants and that’s my job and I kick butt in doing that, but I would love to be able to have more opportunities to be able to get out and do that because that energized me. I got back in the office and I think I wrote three grants that day.

So are there opportunities that we can think of together that I’ll be able to do that in the future? Because I just felt so energized in that small moment. It really helped me do the other parts of my job a lot better. So as opposed to saying, I am unhappy that I’m not able to do this, this, and this, and I need to do this. I want to do this. No. Frame it in a way that really helps you say, I appreciate where I am even if where I am isn’t where I want to be forever.

Here’s an opportunity I saw that kind of gave me a glimpse into something that could help stretch me. Can we think together on a way to help create more of those experiences? Then see how that conversation goes.

MT: Oh, I love that. A lot of us were feeling overwhelmed on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s just easier, we feel, to complain about it rather than to actually be proactive and positive like what you’re saying, and say, hey, I like that. I wonder how I can do more of that. Maybe I should ask my boss how I can do more of that. Wow. So that’s kind of what you’ll be talking about, actually, at the conference, is about managing up. I know people – I’ve heard them say this phrase for years, like managing up.

So what can people do to start managing up? Are there some phrases they can use or things they should know? What do you think?

KP: Well, here’s what I’ll say. You have to steward your career the way you steward donors. So managing up in my mind starts with managing yourself. If your stuff is messy, and you’re not quite right, please don’t try to go manage other people. Across, down, whatever. Start with yourself, really understanding your role, how your role fits into the fabric of your team. How your team fits into the fabric of the organization. What is the perception of your role?

Not of you as a person. People can like you and think you are terrible as an employee. They really want to have drinks with you after work so let’s say that. But how does that all wrap into the fabric of the organization? Then do the same thing for your manager. How do you perceive them in their role? How might you manage they perceive themselves in that role? How does that wrap up into the team, wrap up into the fabric of the organization?

Take a little bit to do that because I think that often times we see things only from our own perspective and we don’t step into the shoes of our manager to understand what pressures they may be going through that keep them from being able to really be receptive to feedback that you might have. Then I would say that it starts a conversation.

How are things going? If you could have your druthers, what would be different? What does success look like for us as a team based on our goals, and are we getting there? Being able to have these sort of broader based conversations with your manager and then say, here are some of the things that I’ve been working at that I think will help us with that. Do you think these things make sense?

Then how do you see yourself in that? This is you talking to your manager. So that you can get some talking. Now, some of you are going to say to me, Kishshana. I can’t even get five minutes with my manager. Look folks, talk fast. So if your manager is the kind of person that responds better to the written word than they do to having conversation, get it in some bullets. I’d love to talk to you Kishshana about two ideas I had, boom, boom.

Here’s a link to something I want you to read. I’d love to be able to cover this in our one on one on Thursday. So really starting to be proactive in helping your manager be successful. That will in turn help you be successful. It should, in turn, help you be successful.

MT: I’ll just say that, for those of us who still want to have a good relationship with our manager, this is extremely good advice. For some of us who our manager will never meet with, and it’s just an endemic problem across our organization. You can’t have a meeting and they don’t respond to your emails or whatever. Find another job.

KP: Absolutely. I agree with that completely. I’ve managed six teams over the last 15 years of some really great professionals at all stages of their career, managed intergenerational teams. So that’s with the generational dynamic that comes in.

I have been managed. I’ll share some of the ways in which some of my team members have been really great at managing up. I’ll also talk about some of the things that I think are best practices I’ve seen for my own peers on how to manage up to their CEO, ED, etc., and some times where we just fall flat on our face. So like some things to avoid, and hopefully that will give folks enough information to kind of say, okay. Let’s take an assessment of where I am and what’s the next step I need to take to improve the relationship if the relationship needs improving? To step away from the relationship if you need to do that, or to make space for a relationship to be improved if you are the manager.

MT: I can’t wait. Thank you so much, Kishshana, for this interview today. If people want to work with you, how do they get in touch with you?

For more information, and some of the other services I offer, I would encourage you all to head over to www.kishshanaco.com where you can find out more about the work I do.

Thank you so much again, Kishshana. This has been a joy. If you want to learn more from Kishshana about how to manage up in your fundraising career, check out our webinar July 11th!

Now that you’ve handled your boss- How to make your fundraising team a success?

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