In the Trenches: Managing Up to Solve Fundraising Problems

In their efforts to manage up, development professionals sometimes encounter fundraising problems with volunteer board members who have seniority over them, says a long-time fundraiser who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue at her university. After a study showed the institution could raise tens of millions of dollars in its upcoming capital campaign, the fundraiser approached the trustee chairing the board’s development committee at a meeting with other officials.


The trustee, she says, erupted and “really dressed me down” in front of others. While attacking her, he loudly dismissed the idea that the university could raise as much as the study said. The fundraiser talked to the university’s president about the incident, but he decided to keep the trustee on as the development committee chair. It took two more conversations, she says, to stress that the issue “is not about being humiliated in public. We need the right person so we can get this done.” Finally the trustee was reassigned to another committee, and the university went on to surpass its campaign goal.


To manage up in solving problems, fundraisers and others sometimes have to go around their superiors. That was the case with Tony DeCristofaro, who years ago managed a national scandal involving his boss at United Way of America who was later imprisoned for embezzling donated funds. An executive with seniority over DeCristofaro told him not to send any news stories about the scandal to local United Ways who were clamoring for the information. The thinking was that giving them the stories would only inflame the controversy and hurt fundraising, recalls DeCristofaro.


But local United Ways, he says, were part of the organization and deserved to know what was happening. He asked some of the locals to call his boss and ask to see the news. It worked. “The boss relented and said ‘Thanks for telling Person X to call me,’ but it got the message across,” DeCristofaro says. Oftentimes, lawyers advise not talking about legal matters, but that doesn’t work in the court of public opinion, he says. “There’s a legal strategy, but you need a corresponding public relations strategy too.”


In other cases, a fundraiser’s immediate boss complicates fundraising, says another senior development professional who requested anonymity to talk about a tricky situation. In a previous job, the fundraiser worked with a couple who wanted to make a substantial gift to the institution without fanfare. The problem was the university’s president, who wanted to intercede with the donors as he normally would with such a large gift. The fundraiser knew that would only irritate the couple.


“I had to take a very strong stand with the president over the course of a week or two, getting this not to happen,” the fundraiser recalls. “I had to make the point in a way that would not offend him.” Eventually, after multiple conversations, he says, his boss realized how jumping in with the donors could jeopardize the gift. “It was not to threaten” the president, he says. “It was being patient in explaining the donors’ perspective.” 


Sometimes, no matter how hard a fundraiser tries, efforts to manage up are futile, and leaders do things that are reprehensible and, in some cases, even illegal, says Lou Nanni, the lead fundraiser at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame. Nanni says he learned that lesson by working at a private high school in Chile during a time of political unrest when he saw leaders severely punishing students for simply expressing their views.


In such cases, the best course of action “is to make sure you hold onto your integrity and do the best job you can. Commit to excellence,” he says. “Try to find people you can confide in. Do your best, and understand you can’t control everything.” 

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