Effective Leadership, Successful Fundraising

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By Bill Stanczykiewicz, Ed.D.

Fundraisers are managers utilizing a fundraising plan as a management document to achieve goals and meet metrics. However, even though fundraisers rarely hold a nonprofit’s top staff position, fundraisers are also leaders. Knowing the difference between fundraising management and fundraising leadership is essential for fundraising success.

While management is focused on today’s details, leadership is focused on tomorrow’s possibilities. Those possibilities are rooted not in the fundraising plan’s goals and metrics (i.e., management) but the vision and the impact of the nonprofit’s mission.

The fundraising manager concentrates on how funds are being raised, by whom, and by when. The fundraising leader, in contrast, inspires everyone in the nonprofit by focusing on why the funds are being raised and what could be next if fundraising could increase to meet an expanding vision.

That vision is informed by constantly looking outside of the nonprofit and into the future. The fundraiser can study a range of trends including (but not limited to) the economy and the culture, laws and policies, and anything else in the external environment that could influence future fundraising, positively or negatively.

Paraphrasing former Apple executive John Sculley, the future belongs to those who are first to see future possibilities. The fundraising leader’s compelling vision, delivered with inspiration, galvanizes the entire organization around successful fundraising.

Leadership opportunities are available with all colleagues. For example, the leader’s direct influence with the fundraising team is clear since the fundraising staff reports to the leader. However, the fundraising leader also can lead up to the CEO and the board of directors, using the soft power derived from information and expertise to influence the fundraising activities of those who are higher up on the org chart.

When teaching effective leadership in our Certificate in Fund Raising Leadership program, The Fund Raising School relies on the definition provided by James MacGregor Burns in his seminal book, Leadership. According to Burns, leadership is “relational, collective, and purposeful. Leadership shares with power the central function of achieving purpose.”

Leadership is relational, with the leader not perched above everyone else. Leadership is also collective, with the leader encouraging team members to work together, contributing their skills and abilities and their recommendations and concerns to strengthen the overall team effort.

You have developed significant fundraising skills, and now you have been promoted to lead the fundraising team. Especially for the new leader or the fundraising executive aspiring for a leadership position, in this course, you will learn how to develop and cast vision for your fundraising operation, recruit and retain talent, continually innovate, lead through consensus, address setbacks, and hold colleagues accountable for results.

The team’s collective effort is aimed at achieving purpose. For the nonprofit organization, this purpose is to make the world a better place by fulfilling the organization’s unique mission.

Leading with the mission in mind is the essence of transformational leadership, promoting the organization’s success over each team member’s success. Focusing on the “why” of the mission also increases the possibilities for ethical fundraising since behaving unethically would damage the individual and the nonprofit.

The fundamentals of transformational leadership also reveal why fundraisers are well-matched for leadership and, in fact, already are leaders. For example, successful fundraisers are already focused not on themselves but on helping donors experience the joy of giving in ways that strengthen the nonprofit’s impact. This is a transformational approach in which fundraisers lead toward organizational success, not personal achievement.

As Dr. Lilya Wagner described in her book on transformational leadership and fundraising, “This is important for the fundraiser because our work is less about us than about everyone else, from donors to colleagues to community.”

Fundraising is a management function, and yet fundraisers also have unique leadership opportunities.

Check out the Effective Leadership, Successful Fundraising course »

Bill Stanczykiewicz, Ed.D., serves as assistant dean for external relations at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, where he also directs The Fund Raising School.

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