Agents of Change

Agents of Change

At Rally this year, I finally got to present the Development Committee Makeover workshop I’ve been wanting to do for some years. I had billed it as an advanced workshop and the room was filled with Development staff and experienced board members.

The point of the workshop was to show, using before and after scripts, how Development Committees could address their work in a much more productive way by limiting their discussion to how board members were interacting with donors. In other words,

  • talk about specific donors, and
  • talk about what board members do instead of what staff does.

Overall the workshop was great – and the actors I recruited were terrific. Still there were several things I could have done that would have made it better. For example, here’s one question I got that I could have handled much better:

How do you get your Development Committee to work like this when doing so would represent a huge change in board culture?

Great question, and one probably worthy of another whole workshop. Here’s the answer – and again, I wish I had handled it better in the moment:

  • Start with your Strategic Plan – After the Mission Statement, your Strategic Plan is ground zero for making cultural change. You either have the organization you need to accomplish your strategic objectives or you don’t. And if you don’t, something needs to give.When board members approve the Strategic Plan, they also approve by implication the enabling programs, budget, and fundraising obligations that come with it. So this is where you start when you need to make changes.
  • Change needs a Champion – To be successful, the argument for change needs to be borne by a member of the board. Members of staff are not normally able to hold board members accountable. There are exceptions, of course, but they are almost always associated with exceptional staff leaders. Under most circumstances, a member of the board must lead.Staff members will find greater success working through a single board champion, or a small group of board champions, than trying to impose the change themselves. This is extremely frustrating, but it’s true.
  • Communicate a clear vision – Change needs a well-painted destination, a future state that convincingly connects the new activities with desired results. And it cannot be delivered in a one-and-done manner, but rather must be continually restated by the Champion such that at each step of the way, participants see that the activity and the pathway are both necessary and connected.
  • Create momentum – In most cases THAT you start is not as important as WHERE you start. That you are moving is the most important thing. I had the most trouble with this one at first. I was schooled in capital campaigns that you always started with the top of the pyramid. That may be true for campaigns, but it’s not necessarily true for other aspects of major gift fundraising. Instead I now advocate starting with whomever individual board members are most comfortable.Sometimes this is called “little wins.” When Board members begin to see that their relationships with donors can deepen and watch as donors become more and more engaged, they will begin to feel ownership of the process themselves. And coming together and swapping stories about their experience becomes more and more fun.
  • Support new responsibilities with new systems – The systems you have in place right now either were created or evolved to support the current status quo. If you want to change the status quo, you will need to change the systems that support it. Some examples include:
    1. Notes from the meetings read more as recordings of individual commitments than as “minutes” (what will be done and by whom between now and next meeting?),
    2. Regular communications about major gifts that are made to the organization (do board members know the donors?),
    3. Times and places for board members and donors to meet each other,
    4. Knowing beforehand WHO is coming to a particular event, and arranging for them to be introduced to organizational leaders, and
    5. Regularly screening membership lists for major gift potential.

Planning to get your Development Committee to be more productive leading and managing board members building relationships with donors is a lofty goal and will result in many big “wins” for your organization. But you won’t get there overnight. Get started in 2017, build the program in 2018, and plan to hit a new stride in 2019.

Happy Holidays!



Photo by courtesy of

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Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for December. What are YOU thinking about?


Fall Appeal 2nd Drop

If my Year-end appeal has two drops, I am getting the second drop ready for mailing today or tomorrow. (See also Fall Appeal Planning)


Good News

From solicitations to newsletters, to updates and thank you letters, the importance of communicating warmth, openness, and a sense of momentum is magnified in December. People want to know that their gifts made a difference and were noticed. I’ve talked on this blog about communicating Good News. When I do, I try to remember that the donor is part of the “we” that got it done.


Planning for Year-End

This is NOT the time for fundraisers to take a vacation. This year, both Christmas and New Year’s Day are Sundays. That means that I am working that week to:

  • Be there to answer the phone when donors call to make a last-minute gift of stock.
  • Send out follow-up emails to people who have not yet responded to the Fall Appeal.
  • Write personal thank you letters.
  • Call my board members to tell them how much I appreciate them serving on the board.
  • Get my filing done.
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