How nonprofit organizations can better support fundraisers: An interview with Kishshana Palmer

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Mazarine Treyz: Welcome. Today’s conversation with Kishshana Palmer is going to be about, basically, how do you keep your good people and what do you lose when they don’t stay? Kishshana, do you want to share with people what you help organizations do, and why you’re such an expert on this topic?

Kishshana Palmer: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. My name is Kishshana Palmer. I help career professionals and entrepreneurs to grow their skills, to grow their teams, and to grow their revenue. That could be fundraising revenue or sales revenue. I do this through coaching, through custom retreats and through speaking at conferences, webinars.

I really have a soft spot for professional fundraisers. I am a recovering fundraiser, having led external affairs teams for well over 16 years at some really amazing social sector organizations. So I’m super excited to be here with you all. I’ve been in the trenches, you see, and learned some things. So my experience in talent management and leading some really amazing high performing teams and working with some fantastic boards and sometimes not fantastic boards had led me to our conversation today.

MT: What do we lose when we lose a good fundraiser in our organization?

KP: Yeah. I think that one of the things we lose immediately is the lifeblood of what it takes to grow our donor partners. Oftentimes, fundraisers, we know all the bits. If you’re a good fundraiser, whether you’re internal and you’re looking at the data, or you’re external and you’re looking at the people. You know all the grizzly bits. You know all the inside, all the trading secrets. Our ability to really get close with folks, to get folks to be endeared to us, to trust us very quickly so that we can co-create together and impact that mission together. That’s our skill.

So when we leave, all of that goodness goes with us. Even if you’re only halfway a good fundraiser. The goodness still goes, because our skill is in building relationships, really. In transforming the relationships that we’re building and that we’re creating.

MT: Yes, and the data backs you up on this in the research, whether it’s the Underdeveloped Report, or the Donor Centered Leadership. We see that the numbers actually are really staggering when somebody leaves. The data says it costs you $50,000 basically to lose a fundraiser straight away. Then if that position turns over for three years running, you’re losing exponentially more money and it’s not just in donor relationships. Though obviously we should care about that the most.

But it’s also in internal memory, as Kishshana said. Then if you have turnover for three years running, which is typical for a lot of us, you lose basically $200,000. That’s Donor Centered Leadership book from Cygnus Research. Over 30 years of research that shows this. This is the new person coming on, onboarding, all of that stuff. So it’s a hidden cost that really bites us.

KP: One of the things that I see when organizations go out to hire is that they say, oh, we don’t really have a lot of money to hire. Money is a tool. Right? That’s why we go out and fundraise for our organization, so the people who raise the money for us should be able to have good access to some good tools, right?

But how do you position this opportunity in your organization on your team as a fundraiser so that money is one of the tools, but culture is another? And the benefits are another. Maybe there are some other things. You know, ability to work remotely. Ability to have paid time off. The things that actually make life work. I think that when fundraisers leave, sometimes they’re leaving people. But sometimes they’re leaving the foolishness. They’re like, first of all, I don’t care how much you pay me - if I have to check my email at 3 AM in the morning, don’t get weekends off, don’t get the comp time that I’m supposed to get when I’ve worked yet another event and for another weekend and I’m showing up at program team events but they don’t have to come to ours, and, and, and, and. And this board member gets on my nerves and you micromanage me. I’m out.

Not only are you leaving money on the table in terms of your inability to have new gifts come into the organization or to grow the donor family that you have, you’re also leaving money on the table by way of other fundraisers, other professionals in and out of our industry who might have really wanted to work at your organization. But then they see your turnover, and they see you’ve had four people in the last six years. They say no thanks!

You’re driving people off, friends. So the reason I didn’t start with money when you asked me that question is because that feels like the easy thing. There’s good data to back it up if you don’t believe it.

The thing we don’t talk about is that we are not focusing enough on our people. We’re focused on everything else. Donors are important. Yes, they are. Loving on them? Absolutely. But we can’t love on donors if we’re stressed all the way the hell out. We can’t. You’re not taking care of yourself if your well is empty. You can’t pour that water into something else. So I think that that is not something we talk about enough when we talk about making sure that we have good people and we keep our unicorns.

MT: Okay, you’ve got your unicorn. This fundraiser is just on fire, coordinating teams of volunteers or interns and really working the system of the strengths. What do you do now? Because you can’t pay them $100,000 a year and you want to keep them. What do you do?

KP: We don’t give enough credence to nonfinancial assets within an organization. What are some other types of things that would make life better for that fundraiser, therefore it would make that fundraiser want to work harder? Many of us are intrinsically motivated, but everybody needs a good push. So what are the assets that you have as an organization that are the good push? Is it good health insurance? Is it a good leave system? Is it flexibility in time? You know, is it autonomy around task? Is it really well done social things for the organization?

Like, how do you create those non-financial benefits that may have some marginal costs for the organization, but in actuality don’t have huge costs overall? Or the money you’d spend on those benefits is well offset by folks staying and the organization not losing $50,000 instantly and so forth and so on. Right? Like you spend a couple thousand here. You save several hundred thousand here. That’s worth it. So are we able to have those types of conversations? Are our teams in HR and in operation and in finance savvy enough and flexible enough to start to have those conversations for our fundraisers and for our organizations period?

Oftentimes we kind of get into our work tunnel. I do my job. I move this here to here. I do this here to here and there’s no flex in the terms of the way we think. But if you’re having an attrition challenge in your fundraising team, what are the conversations that we’re having with other teams and other lines of the nonprofit or the business that influence our ability to have our people stay? Can we have those conversations? Are those the types of things that come up at senior team meetings? What are we talking about?

Those are some of the things I would immediately be thinking about. One of the big things I did on my team, just to give an example. I ran my teams. My teams were pretty big, 12 to 15 people across the country. Mostly remote. So you have to do some very different things when your team is remote and I was very clear about mental and physical health. I love Pilates. That’s my luxury. I had a staff member who was a runner, another one who was into Pilates and yoga, another one who played basketball.

One of them just liked to go for walks and hikes. I made sure that was on their calendar. I played no games. In fact, you would be getting crap from me if I saw you were blowing off your yoga class. Why? Because we travel across the country. We work on overnight flights. We sometimes have to run 14 hour events. We sometimes can’t take PTO for three months at a time because of the amount of events and visits and site visits and things that have to happen.

So the least you can do for yourself is take care of yourself in that day to day time, and that meant the world to me. Because I was so insistent on it, the way that it translated to my team was, Kishshana really cares about us and our mental health. She’s not playing with us. And they got their little reprieve. What did that cost me? So we can’t have calls today from 2:00 to 3:00. Great. We can have them at 3:15. It’s going to be okay. Every now and again we knew we had to do something with a donor or we had a board meeting to prep for and it was my team’s responsibility to plan accordingly so they could get their stuff in.

That just was really important to me. That’s not financial, right? That’s actually giving them their life back. But it was a small gesture. So what are the ways that you all, as managers, and as leaders in your organization, are making sure that your team members and particularly your fundraisers are saying to themselves, she has my back? He has my back? It looks different to different people. Right? So that’s why we can’t be very prescriptive. I can be more general and give examples. But what does that mean for your folks? I think that’s really important to, well, ask those questions. But push yourself to answer.

MT: So here’s a person that I talked to a couple years ago. He was getting paid basically what I was getting paid ten years ago for a development manager role. He went and asked for a raise and he went and asked for a job title change and his boss said no to both. He wanted to be called development director. So he quit.

Would it have been okay for his boss to just change his title? That doesn’t cost anything. But would that have like bitten them later? If your person wants a title change, is that a good thing? Can you do that?

KP: I mean, let’s think about what the title change does. When you hear development associate, for most donors, they wonder, where’s your boss? Part of being able to get in the door and get somebody to the point where you can cultivate them and say yes is to empower them to do so. The reality is, titles matter. If you’re really being honest, as a manager, you should really be setting up your team member for when they move on. If you know that they cannot move up within your organization, then there should be some real transparent conversations about what it’s going to take for them to stay.

If money is not the thing, what else can we talk about? What would they need in order to be prepared to leave and leave well? Because you want them to leave systems in place. You want them to leave codified processes. You want them to be able to want to participate in bringing on a new person, to recommend. Maybe part of their role as DOD now is that they’ve got to start to seek out folks who would step into that role at a later date and make sure the network and the candidate pool is bigger.

MT: What you’re reminding me of, Kishshana, is what Peter Drury (He’s the development director at a Seattle hospital foundation) talked about at last year’s career conference which is, I make sure that I sit down with my person at my office.

He says, from day one, I make sure that my people know that even though it’s their first day or their first week or their first month, I want them to leave and succeed when they leave. I know this isn’t a forever job for them. So I’m going to have that conversation with them. What can we do to help you rise here? Then what can we do to help you in your career goals, whatever those are? Let’s talk about that. It’s like having that transparency, instead of just being like, oh, you’re going to stay here forever. It’s like you care about me as a person, not just a source of money.

KP: Right. That’s the thing. All the articles I see right now, that are coming out, are talking about "love on your donors." You’re not doing enough. You’re not being more careful. You’re not being more thoughtful. You’re not, you’re not, you’re not. There is a lot of merit to many of the writers because it’s true. We do get caught up in just trying to get the stuff done and we don’t do the detail that we know we need to do. But we also don’t put that same kind of care and feeding into our fundraisers.

This article was excerpted from an interview on the Wild Woman Fundraising Blog.

Want to learn more from Kishshana Palmer? Come to the Fundraising Career Conference April 2, 4 and 6, 2018!

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