Leaders are an amazing group. They regularly tackle issues no one else is willing to. And, in the midst of being pulled apart by multiple interest groups, they figure out which priorities to focus on.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart!

Add to that the tensions created in a fundraising context. In a business, customer service drives your revenue. In a nonprofit, serving your clients is why your organization exists. But it doesn't increase funding. You have to go to a whole different set of people called "donors" and ask them to give to your cause.

Although this is exactly how nonprofits have always worked, this still seems to take most nonprofit leaders by surprise.

All of these tensions would be hard enough to cope with. But the reality is, the expectations of leaders are in a profound period a time of change. This is exciting and will lead to healthier organizations. But it makes leading even harder right now.

7 Tensions Every Leader Needs to Navigate

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review does a great job of identifying 7 tensions leaders need to navigate. The tensions are

  • Leadership Tension 1: The Expert vs. the Learner

  • Leadership Tension 2: The Constant vs. the Adaptor

  • Leadership Tension 3: The Tactician vs. the Visionary

  • Leadership Tension 4: The Teller vs. the Listener

  • Leadership Tension 5: The Power Holder vs. the Power Sharer

  • Leadership Tension 6: The Intuitionist vs. the Analyst

  • Leadership Tension 7: The Perfectionist vs. the Accelerator

The authors describe each tension with how leaders are traditionally expected to be contrasted with the new emerging expectations of leaders. The explanations of all seven are well worth reading. You can find the article at: https://hbr.org/2020/02/every-leader-needs-to-navigate-these-7-tensions

One that I think is particularly important for leaders of nonprofits is the first: The Expert vs. The Learner.

Expert vs. Learning as a Nonprofit Leader

In our career, the more expert we become about something, the more responsibility we are given. So it's natural that nonprofit leaders want to "master" fundraising.

The problem is

  1. Leaders think their "preferences" are the correct measure of fundraising expertise.
  2. Being an expert as modeled by this type of nonprofit leader becomes "static." It doesn't allow for experimentation. And it leaves no room for failure.

Fundraising is a Professional Field, Not Your Personal Preference

If you were going to open a McDonald's franchise, you'd study all the ways to make it successful. If you were to open a law office, you would learn how to attract and retain customers. You would do this with any endeavor.

Except nonprofits. And nonprofit fundraising.

Leaders don't seem to do this with fundraising. Instead, they study the services the nonprofit provides, thinking that if they get that right the money somehow "just come in."

That blind spot leads them to erroneously judge fundraising based on their personal preferences rather than the studies that have been done in the field. Nonprofit CEOs often say things like, "That letter isn't good. It needs to sound more business-like. And get rid of the P.S. That isn't professional." But the ongoing research clearly shows that a chatty, less formal, person-to-person letter with a P.S. raises more money than letters that are boring and business like. (A huge problem with "business like" letters is that the letter is centered around the nonprofit and how great the nonprofit is at doing its work. Truly successful fundraising is centered on the donor and how great the donor is when giving to the work.)

So the solution here is that nonprofit leaders need to learn from true fundraising experts, not lead based on personal preference. (Can you imagine going into heart surgery and telling the surgeon how you'd prefer she'd use a different scalpel?)

Innovation Involves Failing

Even if you do find the top fundraising experts and you're making your face-to-face, fundraising letters, and special event asks correctly, you still need to test. If you're constantly telling your fundraising staff to "find new donors," you need to give them time and money to learn how "new donors" respond. That may involve testing social media ads. That may pursuing some major donor prospects that ultimately don't give a penny. That may throwing an event that doesn't raise money in its first year.

Being a learner as a nonprofit leader means encouraging your team to learn too. Not "betting the farm" that a new approach is going to work. Not something that will risk all your funding. But they should be testing a different direct mail approach. At best, it works better than your existing direct mail. At worst, it confirms what you're doing is really the best for your organization.

The solution here is to define small tests or controlled projects that allow testing true innovation without causing catastrophic failure.

Leadership is Living in Tension

Leadership is living in a complex web of tension. And for nonprofit leaders needing to fundraise, a large part of that tension is the tension of leaning on expertise in a way that encourages learning.

The good news is, when you do fundraising correctly, it's not the manipulation and deceit you are afraid of. Fundraising is genuine communication with the people who are growing passionate about the impact your nonprofit is making. You'll find you're not "going to the well too often" but that you're adding value to the lives of those who support you.

You'll even find that fundraising becomes enjoyable.

But you have to live through the tension first.


For a quick, somewhat humorous, video on the stress of being a nonprofit leader, go to: https://youtu.be/55FDko2gVC0

And for how board members can help with fundraising (to ease some tension), check out 21 Ways for Board Members to Help With Their Nonprofit's Fundraising at https://fundraisingcoach.com/board-fundraising/

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