Fundraiser vs. Frontline: How to mend the rift

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At its best, the relationship between frontline staff and fundraisers/communications staff is a beautiful thing, offering the best of both worlds. As Anne Melanson, president, Bloom Nonprofit Consulting Group, says, “Fundraising and communications people have a finger on the pulse of what donors want, while frontline staff have a good sense of what beneficiaries need. When they work in partnership they bring both sides of this important equation together in a way that can help accomplish their mission well.”

Paul Marvell of the Institute for Fundraising in the UK writes, “Fundraising can often be the glue that binds together an organization; all volunteers and staff working together to a common goal. What could be better than being part of that link between the donor and the beneficiary?” And yet, it probably isn’t news to anyone in the nonprofit sector that it doesn’t always work that way.

In one case, an anonymous contributor told us that the frontline staff at her organization called the fundraisers and communications staff “the suits on the fifth floor,” while another said that staff were suspicious he wasn’t really working when he was actually out meeting with donors. A fundraiser told the other side of the sad story: “I ask staff to sit down and tell stories, and they say it isn’t their job. They ask why I’m taking up their time, what is it I want from them. They are cautious about what I will do with their clients. Most of them don’t have a good sense of what makes a good story.” In fact, one anonymous contributor said, “Having worked at seven or eight charities, it’s clear to me that there is a problem between program staff and communication staff/fundraisers. I’ve never seen the relationship work well.”

When we heard these stories, we wanted to help nonprofits figure out how to go from this startling disconnect to better relationships between fundraisers and frontline staff.

Straight talk

Let’s start with some straight talk. Melanson argues, “No one cares about your organization. As a rule, most donors give to charities because they want to impact those you help.” She adds, “Charities are the intermediary between a donor and its beneficiaries. By and large, fundraising and communications staff are one step farther removed from the beneficiary. This means that sometimes we as fundraisers and communications people get in the way of donors and the people they want to help.”

Fundraisers and communications staff can potentially also get in the way of the actual work of program staff. Nonprofit fundraising consultant Mary Cahalane advises, “Fundraisers have to be respectful of the work of program staff, and to remember they aren’t just there to feed us stories. We have to be respectful of their time, hard work, and schedules, and be willing to take time to help make them comfortable with helping in our work.”

At the same time, fundraisers play an increasingly important role in organizations, one that frontline staff don’t always see. Melanson says, “Sometimes frontline staff don’t understand the role donors play in facilitating the work they do. This is a notoriously busy sector, especially for frontline people who may often just be trying to put out fires. They also may not realize the mindfulness that donors bring to their philanthropy and their interest in hearing stories and gathering statistics about their cause. Or they may be so convinced of the cause themselves that they don’t see the need to do the work of storytelling and communication with donors.”

In fact, the relationship is actually a symbiotic one, where each depends on the other for best results. Program staff are able to do their work thanks to the funds raised, while fundraisers and communications staff know that those on the front lines are the most credible sources of information and stories about the real challenges and opportunities faced by an organization — the information they need in order to build a solid case for philanthropy.

But even within that symbiotic relationship there are clear roles. “Getting up in the morning and finding stories and communicating your organization’s impact is the responsibility of the fundraising and communication people, not program staff,” says Melanson. However, she adds, program staff “are the best sources for raw data, statistics, anecdotes, heartwarming stories and challenges.”

So how do organizations begin to address the disconnect?

Culture of philanthropy starts at the top

Establishing a culture of philanthropy starts at the top, according to a wide variety of practitioners and experts in the field. Cahalane says, “The bottom line is these are organizational, management issues. Is there a culture of philanthropy in the organization? Does everyone from the top down understand that fundraising isn’t dirty, a necessary evil or a sleazy thing, but a way of welcoming people into our mission?”

Vanessa Chase Lockshin, president, The Storytelling Nonprofit, works with boards and management on this very topic. “Philanthropy allows an organization to do work, and is a vital part of how an organization can exist and grow. It’s not about moneygrubbing – but an opportunity and vehicle for people to do good in world and positively contribute to good in the world.”

One anonymous fundraiser said, “I wish the people who are decision makers in nonprofits would do something about this tension. Without direction from the top, people will not take the time to listen to one another about what the different teams do.”

Other management issues can create division — such as pay discrepancies between different teams or closed, non-collaborative work environments, observes Chase Lockshin. Another fundraiser notes, “If frontline staff are on strike or if managers are under chronic stress for years, they aren’t going to have space to think collaboratively about philanthropy.” Cahalane suggests, “Usually it’s a question of resource competition. If the person at top favours or prioritizes one department over another in terms of budget, that can create tensions.”

Establishing clear policies around philanthropy can be an effective means for boards and management to better facilitate good working relationships between program and fundraising staff. Melanson says, “It behooves an organization’s leadership to think about how you facilitate success for your staff and how you protect those you serve by having well-crafted policies that address issues like what kind of information your organization is willing to elicit about those you serve, how you will honour that information both in public communication and in closed circles.” Melanson suggests writing down and having all parties understand what is and isn’t allowable in terms of risk management, especially when working with vulnerable populations who could potentially be put at greater risk. She notes this is especially true when there is high turnover among staff.

Trust, control and turnover

This leads us to what’s often behind this relationship breakdown. “It’s a trust between fundraisers and frontline staff, and this comes from building relationships,” says Colin Hennigar, vice president, major gifts, Sick Kids Foundation, whose organization has a particularly good relationship between fundraisers and frontline staff. “This kind of trust takes time so that staff know you understand what happens and how things work. I tell fundraisers to be patient.”

This can be challenging when turnover among fundraisers is notoriously fast. “When program staff work on sensitive issues where confidentiality and safety are at risk, they rightly feel the need to protect the people they serve,” says Chase Lockshin, who encourages fundraisers to foster dialogue, address concerns, and reassure program staff that they will ethically and safely protect clients and will abide by shared values. Melanson emphasizes awareness of potential “blowback” for vulnerable clients from sharing their stories, but adds that there are various methods — using silhouettes rather than photos, not naming names, ensuring informed consent — of protecting beneficiaries.

Melanson also advises that rules of engagement have to be clearly defined. “You can tell a story about someone in an application for funds from a foundation but that doesn’t mean you can always put that story on your website. You can also tell a good and authentic story from a program staff perspective rather than from that of the child or vulnerable person they serve.”

“Once you’ve shown you won’t make clients look bad or try to make donors feel sorry for them or make them the poster child for your organization, program staff will be more willing to share stories with you,” says an anonymous nonprofit staffer.

Here are five things organizations can do to better foster this relationship

1. Educate front line staff about philanthropy. Hennigar says, “We did training with our physician and nursing leads about how philanthropy works – that it’s not one ask and you get money. Just as they don’t expect me to know how to do surgery, I don’t expect them to understand everything about philanthropy, but we can both learn the basics.” Hennigar adds that the Sick Kids Foundation has helped frontline staff understand what they should do in common situations, such as if a family wants to give back. They’ve also offered ideas for how to identify a particularly good story. Additionally, the Foundation has worked on educating about the impact of philanthropy – telling staff the story of the donor behind a machine, for instance.

Melanson explains why it’s important for fundraisers and communications staff to show the impact of the stories they share: “If you ask staff for anecdotes without demonstrating to them how the information, time and effort they have previously made is making a difference to them, you are only adding to their list of things to do.”

2. Dismantle silos. Cahalane says, “More than once in my career, I’ve found program people who turned out to be the best fundraisers simply because they were such evangelists for the cause. They may not have case statements or elevator speeches, but they are so knowledgeable and passionate about the organization. We need to get past the idea that fundraisers are only the fancy people in jackets.”

Marvell agrees. “It is much better to hear about the work you are helping to fund from someone actually involved in delivering that work. Normally a volunteer or staff member working on the frontline can articulate what they do and the difference they make far more passionately and personally than others less involved.” Hennigar says, “Frontline staff are happy to talk about their work and vision. If they are unable to join a tour, they are often sorry and usually suggest someone else who can.”

3. Build relationships. Fundraisers and frontline staff alike know the value in building external relationships, but sometimes forget to build such relationships internally. Melanson says the same strategies can apply. “If the community didn’t know what we were doing, we would do a lunch-and-learn session. But this can be done internally, where both sides talk about what they do, their daily challenges and opportunities, how they do what they do, what they care about, what they would do if money came in, etc.”

One anonymous fundraiser noted, “I realized that building relationships within our organization was something I needed to consciously do rather than letting it happen. I purposely go to sites to meet staff and managers, so that if I bring a funder there, we already have a relationship.” She adds, “I’m not as far along in my fundraising plan as I’d like to be, because it Is only achievable with buy-in, and that relies on building relationships and it takes time to do that.” Cahalane reminds fundraisers to acknowledge the often heroic but unseen and essential work of frontline staff.

4. Develop communication channels. “People often have stories but don’t have an easy way to share them,” Chase Lockshin says. “We can make that easier.” Melanson agrees. “No one wants another meeting in their day. There ought to be regular formal or informal ongoing communications channel that is wide open, doors swinging both ways, so everyone knows what’s happening about sources of revenue and initiatives being funded.” Chase Lockshin often encourages fundraisers and communications people to be proactive in making the process of communication with program staff easier:

  1. Talking face to face rather than over email
  2. Creating organizational storytelling guidelines in collaboration with program staff in order to establish approach, boundaries, and other aspects to how storytelling will be done when it comes to beneficiaries
  3. Asking to sit in on program meetings to hear what is going on
  4. Building in story-sharing to staff meetings so that all staff are used to sharing stories. (She notes, “Even fundraisers can do this, sharing stories about donors, and practicing what they preach about storytelling.”)
  5. Creating online forums for story-sharing, such as a Google form or a survey
  6. Developing a channel on the organization’s intranet to share stories or story leads or ideas
  7. Following up with dialogue after staff share stories.

5. Celebrate good times (Come on!). It can be challenging to celebrate together at times – as one anonymous fundraiser said, “We are working our way out of a deficit so I can’t always show something tangible that came about as a result of fundraising, but I think it’s important to share metrics around success.” Regardless of the fiscal realities, though, Chase Lockshin says, “I encourage fundraisers and communications staff to close the loop and to show the results of frontline staff sharing a great story — to say, ‘Here’s how we used the story and the great outcomes from it.’ It helps everyone to feel they have positively contributed to the success of the organization.”

Cahalane says, “Share good news and make sure program staff are credited every bit as much as fundraisers. When we meet our goal – hurray for all of us. We take responsibility together, and we celebrate together.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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