Category Archives: fundraising

10 Characteristics of Great Fundraising Operations Team Members

The competition for talent in advancement services and development operations is steep. There is no standard educational path to these positions. No one goes to college to run data and gift management for a university. The skills needed also go well beyond the soft skills that typically sell in interviews.

So , what are the characteristics you should look for in a fundraising operations staff member? Here are the ten that I have found most useful over the last 20 years:

Ten Characteristics of a Great Fundraising Operations Team Member

  1. Communication, interpretation and translation skills. This is the most basic skill. Clearly discussing needs and resources important to team members is an essential skill. The ability to listen, understand and translate discussions with end users is critical.
  2. Technical aptitude. Someone who understands relational databases or programming code in general can likely learn your organization’s details. Without such aptitude, the team member will struggle. This does not mean you should look for programmers but instead someone who could likely become one.
  3. Numeric aptitude. The ability to understand numbers is very important. For example, while few of your team members will ever write a $1 million check, they need to know that such a commitment is worth a thousand $1,000 checks. Or they need to understand that a $.20 cost to raise a dollar means a net return of 400 percent. They need to realize that a team that processes 250 gifts a day will not be able to handle your Giving Tuesday volume for weeks. They need to comprehend this order of magnitude to help realize the potential of fundraising.
  4.  Appreciation for Fundraising. You need staff members who care about the mission, no matter their role in the organization. If you hear an operations team member talk about fundraising as “begging,” for example, that person needs training or a new job.
  5. Multitasking priorities. You need staff who can handle more than one project at a time. Operations should use business processes and protocols to handle priorities with accuracy and speed. And, there will be plenty of times where multiple priorities must be handled by COB. You want a colleague who remains cool and collected while closing out tasks.
  6. Discipline. The detail-oriented nature of many operations activities requires consistent application of rules and protocols. Team members need to be focused and dedicated to completing each task accurately.
  7. Creativity. Creativity in operations is often undervalued. Business processes should answer many questions and diminish the daily need for creative solutions, but the ability to solve exceptional cases will require creative thinking.
  8. Action-oriented. Another way to describe this trait is “ends-oriented.” You need team members who complete their work as a means to an end, which is greater activity and outcomes for fundraising. This is the combination of initiative and efficacy.
  9. Collegiality. Operations and frontline departments too frequently create an “us versus them” environment. You need staff members in operations and throughout the organization to believe fundraising is a team effort and who value all of their colleagues, no matter the role.
  10. Service-oriented. My survey data on department titles shows that “services” is an essential part of how teams are defined. From every employee, you should expect that they exude this characteristic.

Tips on Hiring Promising Candidates

One final, cumulative trait for candidates is that they can serve as an interpreter and liaison between all of the adjacent departments at your organization. Operations folks will talk with gift officers, accountants, IT developments, and others each day..Some of the work is functional and some is technical. A close colleague of mine, Roby Key, called these people “funci-techs”. You need folks who can hold (or at least sit in) a meeting with finance, IT, prospect management, and maybe the campaign committee in the same day. To understand if you have the right fit, ask questions like:

  • “Describe a scenario where you had to communicate a complex idea to different audiences.”
  • “Tell me about your training preferences and how you convince your trainees to apply what they’ve learned”
  • “How do you think fundraising compares to other operations positions, such as banking, manufacturing, or sales management?”

Ideally, with the right characteristics and the right hiring steps, your team will soon have just the right team member—part function, part technical—to help your team align its tech and processes with its programs and people.

What have you found to be the most effective traits of, and ways to hire, operations talent? Post your thoughts in the comments. And, good luck with hiring!

Analogous Advancement Systems


Advancement Systems are like Neighborhoods

Our Industry’s options for core advancement systems (i.e., CRM/database and other core data processing


and storage functions) have ebbed and flowed in the last 20 years. A look at the market now yields over a hundred possibilities, but the concentration of use of selected vendors and products continues. This is particularly true within higher education and healthcare (where most of principal and major giving is happening these days).

So what does this mean for the industry and for you? It depends on where your organization is on the advancement systems transition timeline. Did you just convert? Are you looking? Is transitioning years away? Each of these scenarios come with their own set of needs and realities for organizations that may preclude switching systems. If you’re in the market, this analogy is for you.

I think about this stuff every waking hour and have created my fair share of analogies to describe situations. For instance, I sometimes say that many shops are making the move from Friday night stock car races to Sunday NASCAR, yet their budgets and “pit crews” aren’t growing apace. One analogy that has been particularly useful to clients and colleagues is my”neighborhood” comparison.

I’ve hesitated to share this analogy because, to be honest, feelings are about to be hurt. Vendors and users will vehemently disagree with me. Nuances and flaws in the analogy will be identified. Of course, this is why system selection counsel and rigor during that process is vitally important. In my 20 years in the business, I have used, helped clients select and implement, and recommended, whatever system is best in each circumstance.

So, without further ado, let’s compare buying a new advancement system to buying a new house. To simplify house hunting, let’s say you have three choices: a McMansion, a Renovation, and a Design-and-Build.

  1. The McMansion seems lovely. It’s in a great neighborhood with a Whole Foods down the road and the schools are solid. However, you can’t have a fence or paint your house certain colors – there are limitations, you see. The place is a little generic, but it has most of what you’d ever need. It will require some compromises, but it will be ready on time and at budget.
  2. The Renovation puts you in a neighborhood that is gentrifying with a home that has “good bones” and great promise. You would prefer if more folks lived nearby and that the house next door wasn’t just vacated by a long-time resident, but the craftsmanship works. The risks here may be asbestos on the inside but are equally likely to be problems on the outside.
  3. The Design-and-Build sounds awesome. Pick your own spot on a lake, with deer prancing in the field below! Engage an architect, and a contractor, and an Italian glaze specialist! You have all of the choices and none of the structure, which means this will be a neat opportunity with a number of risks along the way.

Some of you realized your limited choices and decided not to move from your current location but opted to purchase a “vacation home” instead. I’d compare this to implementing significant advancement technology to fill a gap. This might be something like EverTrue, Reeher, Quadwrangle, or (the dreaded, but common) shadow database(s). The utility here is to take a very complex decision about sometimes very expensive choices and apply some tricks and tips to make sense of it all.

All of us need to realize that the market we shop in for solutions is limited. To get the best deal for your institution, you should share as much as you can about your research and needs. You should hold these “builders” to task over the outstanding punch list. And, the vendors in our space need to be consistent, keep clients’ needs in mind, and worry less about market share than alignment of systems with advancement programs. In short, we need to manage expectations about what we buy as vendors do a better job in building and developing what they sell.

So, which vendor/product do you think fits which purchase? Put your ideas for 1/2/3 in the comments and I will share my thoughts on which product is which in a bit. And if you have other analogies, please share them!

5 Thoughts about the (not-so) Fine Print in CRM Selection

Does your organization need to consider a new Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system? Is CRM Selection on the table? Have you explored the market? Secured responses to an RFP? Conducted demonstrations? Starter or even completed conversion to the shiny new CRM?…. only to find you didn’t get what you needed? Or, you got to the 20 yard-line? Or, you now need to buy another application or two to get whole? Welcome to the club.

Too often in these processes, organizations drink the “sales kool-aid” from vendors, get “wowed” during demonstrations, and are left with an 80% solution, locked in due to fine print during a CRM selection process. Two of my clients are dealing with this issue right now, as in, today...a dozen or so face it each year. My company Zuri winds up parachuting in to way too many problem implementations due in part to these fine print situations.

What’s the solution? How do you protect your organization during the selection process while helping to ensure success long-term? Here are five key considerations:

  1. Bluntness and Discipline. Don’t mince words with your vendors. Record and remind them of what they promised. Stick to your guns, the script, and the schedule. This also means you need to watch out for scope creep so you aren’t the cause of delays, bottlenecks, or wishful thinking.
  2. Zealous Advocacy. Remember that you are your organization’s best line of defense to avoid being sold on sub-par solutions. Ask for the moon. Expect great results. Don’t accept that first or second “no” from a vendor. But, follow the plan that is in place and persuade your colleagues to get on-board.
  3. Red-Lining. Never sign a contract before a careful review. If there are terms that are unclear,  get your red pen out and mark up the document. Watch for broad or simplistic language like “will be completed in a standard fashion”.  Nope! Instead, mark those up to read “…in a fashion accepted by [insert your organization’s name]”.
  4. Skip/Script the Sales Pitch. Bright, shiny sales pitches often get us into this mess. Don’t allow the vendor to show you the sizzle and ignore the steak. Instead, script the vendor’s demonstrations to prove that gift processing, prospecting, direct response, stewardship, and analytics work actually work in the proposed solution.
  5. Heed the Advice of Others. Finally, make sure you listen to what references (or lack thereof) are telling you. A vendor that states “we only share references during the contracting phase” probably have a lot to hide and hope you’re too far down the path with them to pull out. So, make those calls and then circle back to vendors to resolve the gaps in the pitch versus the performance.

That last thought is a little self-serving. This sort of CRM Selection counsel is what we do everyday. I’d submit we’re pretty good at it. So, if Zuri can help, drop me a line (and hold me to these same points!). Good luck.

Advancement technology satisfaction survey

Zuri Group and EverTrue recently conducted a thorough survey of advancement users’ satisfaction with their systems. The central finding was that users are unimpressed with their resources. Dissatisfaction with databases, reporting tools, analytics resources, and other important fundraising tools was often 40% or more. And, the typical response for nearly all of the questions was “it’s ok”, which means that “Meh” is the average sentiment among our users. You can check out the report here: The Advancement Technology Landscape 2017 – EverTrue and Zuri Group

Here’s a sample of the report that highlights the challenges faced by our advancement technology environments:

Advancement technology satisfaction
Reporting, a central solution for advancement programs, is failing to meet demands.

The trend for the survey suggests that “common” issues (like gift processing) received better satisfaction scores whereas more innovative and new areas, such as social data management (which only a few companies, like EverTrue, really address) and analytics, received lower satisfaction scores. Some of this may simply be the typically slow technology adoption our industry experiences. However, it is important to move beyond the “we don’t have the money/time” argument and start to examine the roots of these issues and how your institution can begin to improve satisfaction.  Our users clearly want more and better solutions.


There are some solutions and some ongoing obstacles to improving the advancement technology landscape. To solve the issue, non-technical tactics like building trust and negotiating expectations are more important than you might think. Delivering on the fundamentals–accurate, complete and timely data–and adopting a PR-style, metrics-driven strategic information management approach will gain some favorable survey points. However, the lack of funding for, and innovative technical solutions to, fundraising applications remain pretty substantial problems. Thus, expectation management will be a critical component of your effectiveness.

What is your team experiencing? How have you improved user satisfaction at your institution? Share your best tips and tricks to help tackle this ongoing challenge.


The New Fundraising Calendar: NOW!

Consumer experiences shape much of our constituents’ fundraising lens. For example, I’ve written extensively about the #iPhoneProblem. This “problem” doesn’t mean iPhones are bad; to the contrary, they are so good our nonprofit tools simply can’t keep pace with users’ expectations (see our recent technology satisfaction survey for details: This spreads to issues like use and reliance on mobile functions, which are creeping up the charts for donor giving preferences, for example. All of this consumer experience impact increasingly affects how we plan, schedule, and execute our fundraising strategies.

One need look no further than “Giving Tuesday” (i.e., philanthropy’s response to “Black Friday” and “Small Business Saturday” gimmicks) to see how our strategies and calendaring are being shaped. Giving Day efforts by universities (which I appreciate, for the record) feel a little like GroupOn specials. The provenance of GoFundMe pages is becoming harder to discern….am I giving to my alma mater or some guy at my alma mater? Overall, urgency and immediacy are prime objectives in this new approach. “Act now, before it’s too late!”

An interesting article in the Atlantic ( assesses the impact of constant marketing to prospective students. For fundraising, the trend is similar. The days of a year-long direct response calendar are numbered. 24/7/365 strategies like peer-to-peer efforts are starting to look as if they can outstrip time-honored phonathon efforts. For example, one university’s recent Giving Day resulted in 1,800 new donors among the 12,000+ donors to that effort, totals that far surpassed the more tedious phonathon efforts to date.

So, what does this mean for nonprofits? For starters, rather than that year-end pitch to all of your constituents, more and more immediate solicitations (ideally conducted by peers, such as alumni reunion classmates) are to be expected.

As this GivingUSA chart suggests, giving is remarkably stable and generally finite and therefore nonprofits must try their best to get as much of the pie as possible. Now! That year-end big mailing? Do it sooner. That email communication plan? Start it today. That reunion fundraising effort? Get it moving. Don’t have a good peer-to-peer tool? Get one, fast!

Some of this is hyperbolic, of course, yet the message should be clear. If your fundraising schedule calls for raising most of your money with calendar and fiscal year-end pushes, by the time you reach many of your prospective donors, they will have already given….just not to your organization.

Facebook is making some game-changing tools available

If you haven’t checked out, do it. Now. This is Facebook’s effFacebook's Nonprofit Support Pageort to streamline a bunch of useful resources. Some of this is new but much is tried-and-true. How to reach your constituents. How to make it easy to give a gift. How to activate supporters.

Well, what are you still reading this for. Check out the site. And, let me know what you think. It may not change how some of us fundraise, but it will change fundraising for the better.

007+Q=Awesome Advancement Services

Have you seen Spectre, the newest 007 edition? It’s great fun. As with recent Bond films, Advancement Services and 007technology and data play an increasingly important role in achieving success. Sound familiar? I had an “ah-ha” moment during the film that the great and vital coupling of 007 and Q  (Bond’s resident tech-leveraging geek) is like the best advancement services shops. It might help your team to think the same. Here’s why:

  1. Partnership. The movies show a team that works together for a common cause. Each team member has a role and, if they perform it well, the other is clearly buoyed.
  2. Anticipation. Q is working hard in advance of requests from 007. In our profession, we should be, too. Instead, I see too many of us waiting for specs from folks who frankly may not know (how to ask for) what they want until they see “it”. So, with Q, he has “it” produced so 007 can assess and use what makes his job easier.
  3. Acceptance. Bond will be Bond. He steals a car, oh well. He escapes a government-mandated lock-down…well, what did you expect, he has to go save the world. Does Q stop supporting his colleague? Nope. He realizes that 007’s skill set is such that following the rules may not fly at times. The same goes for our best fundraising colleagues. Instead of chastising, Q enables in order to get the most out of a top performing employee. We should do the same with better service (such as via admin support), better self-service, and more understanding of the rigors of international spy…er, fundraising work.
  4. Quality. At the end of the day, Q produces amazing products that serve 007’s needs, which keeps 007 coming back for more. That sort of quality-based symbiotic is what we all need in our shops. Brand, look-and-feel, ease of access, accuracy–all of these play a role in our colleagues’ perception of the quality we produce.

Am I missing a few key details? Yes. At one point in the film, Q mentions a prototype cost the Queen 3 billion pounds. Most of us don’t have that budget lying around, do we? Our work is sometimes more mundane than saving the planet from evil, so the urgency and intensity of our roles will be different. And, we all know that not everyone in the British intelligence agency gets as much attention as Bond, which is similar to what happens in our own teams. But, as with any good film, we shouldn’t let reality get in the way of a good plot.

Those potential obstacles (and probably dozens of other objections) notwithstanding, think for a minute about your advancement services shop as Q partnering with 007, anticipating needs and accepting “shortcomings” while delivering the level of quality that keeps the user coming back for more. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Get to it, Q.

Focus on Funding Fundraising

During the St. Louis Planned Giving Council meetings, we spent some time discussing the challenges (and, as some call it, strangle hold) that cost-per-dollar-raised measures place on great fundraising. The “overhead myth” approach aligns nicely with the notion that we are under-investing in our fundraising efforts. We emphasize efficiency over effectiveness and often miss out altogether on the notion of impact and net gains.

We can start to change this. Of course, some donors would like us to do more with less. However, donors that are focused on the long-term impact of their giving understand the value of investing in broad gains, much of which requires patience.

Have a look at this Prezi on the topic: Funding Fundraising Ideas from Chris Cannon.  And, let me know what messages, metrics, and strategies are helping your team invest more and more strategically.


Reversing the Alumni Giving Slide: Hope is Not a Strategy

Fewer than 1-in-10 alumni give back! What are you doing about this? And, how long will it take you?

A slide like this is requires a qualitative paradigm shift, not a quantitative shift
Alumni Participation for 40 years: A slide like this is requires a qualitative paradigm shift, not a quantitative shift

Many in our industry have been pointing to the declining alumni participation rates. This isn’t new; since the 1980’s, the rate has dipped 10%! The alarm that these rates should generate, however, has been muted. The malaise toward this decline is likely due to the increasing average gifts education institutions are concurrently experiencing. Even for engaged or elite institutions, this downward trend is, well, alarming. The CNN Money article highlighting this decline points to multiple degrees across multiple institutions as a cause, as well as overall indebtedness experienced by recent alumni. If this were the case, I wouldn’t be so worried for our long-term health. But, I am. And, you should be, too. Here’s why:

  1. Now or never. If you don’t reach your grads from the last 10 years (often called GOLD—Graduates of the Last Decade), they tend not to be reclaimed. Life and other philanthropic interests just get in the way.
  2. Competition is fierce. As the hyper-successful ALS ice bucket challenge is proving (and Kickstarter, fundme, and other “give-right-now” opportunities reinforce) there are only so many disposable income dollars. Giving is typically 2% of GDP each year; it doesn’t rise or fall much, and, in 2013, Warren Buffett was about 1% all giving in the U.S.! If you wait to engage donors on your timetable, other nonprofits may slide in ahead of you.
  3. Education is changing. The days of “the best four years of your life” as a case for support are changing. Campus-based higher education will not be replaced, but many alums did not and will not really imprint with their alma mater.

Many institutions are trying mightily to change the trend. The costs can be great and the return can be fleeting. A few benefit from tightly knit alumni bases with a culture of philanthropy But if yours doesn’t, you need to act. Given the three reasons for alarm, your annual giving effort must change, potentially radically.

Direct mail? Sure, but no longer on your calendar…move mailings to gain preemptive gifts from those who will be poached by other causes. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Your competition isn’t just the crush of holiday mailings which may drown your year-end mailing; the real competition started yesterday, doesn’t care what your mail house schedule is or how long it takes to get an appeal letter approved, and–by today–may have siphoned hundreds of your donors’ disposable income away through crowdfunding, self-funding sites, slick Facebook apps, and other tools that higher ed has been slower to adopt.

Phonathon? Yep, except work harder to get cell phones and build a texting-based strategy.

Social media? Of course, but don’t expect “ice bucket” results. Instead, start with data and analysis, identify and engage well-networked alumni and ask them to tweet, like, and post on your behalf.

Peer-to-Peer? Many in higher ed have great success with “class agent” models. These need more sophisticated tools to support more wired alumni groups. Excel files emailed on an occasional basis are not going to do it for most alums who want to help.

Email? Yep. But, as with cell phone and direct mail, data quality and targeting must be improved.

If you don’t have the budget or the base to tackle the issue, there is a less palatable option—change your focus. We all know US News & World Report is a beast that must be fed. However, only sizable percentage gains will likely affect your institution’s positioning. With your data, annual giving avenues, and donor behaviors, is a 20% gain at all feasible? How much will that pull up your ranking? Most will find that this is a stretch goal, at best. So, dive headlong into retention and upgrades as parallel measures of success. Bring up average gifts…literally by generating larger averages and tactically in board presentations and as metrics.

The future of education may be so different than anticipated that any predictions will be way off. However, this doesn’t mean that preparation and reinvention should be postponed. In fact, because we don’t know what’s coming, we must immediately tackle the sliding participation of our young alumni while working diligently to retain or reclaim more seasoned alumni.

Hope is not a strategy so get going in changing your approach to changing alumni behaviors.