Managing up at your fundraising job: An interview with Kishshana Palmer

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I’m so happy to introduce Kishshana Palmer. Thanks so much for being here.

Kishshana Palmer: Hey, Maz.

MT: Have you ever had a boss who didn’t understand fundraising? If so, what was that like for you?

KP: I have had more than one manager over the years who thought they had a handle on fundraising but just really didn’t. What I mean by that is they either thought fundraising was highly transactional (Kishshana, go out there and get the money. Get the gifts. Like money would just magically happen when I left the building) or they thought that fundraising was sort of a singular profit in that they were the only ones who could actually go out and close big donors or invite others to invest in the organization in a really transformational way.

Or they just didn’t really understand the purpose. I remember having a CEO who said "God, why do we even have to talk about fundraising? Why don’t we just write grants so that we don’t have to ever talk to a soul?" It was pretty hard for me because writing grants and grant writing is a critical component of the overall development process if your organization really partners with foundations and federal agencies. That’s the mechanism of communication through the grant writing process.

But it’s not the only thing. In fact, really being able to sit down and have a conversation with individuals, I have found, and the studies will back me up, is actually the best way over time to be able to shore up resources for your organization and ensure that your organization continues to thrive over time. Yet, it’s the thing we run away from because lots of us have not confronted our own relationship with money. So I’ve found that in those situations, having a boss who did not understand fundraising, part of my role was about helping them to find their own path to what was exciting about fundraising.

Part of my role was about education and really helping them to see how their own peers were sort of wrapping their arms around fundraising. Part of that was small wins, being able to enrol them in opportunities to be able to experience firsthand and have a front seat to the joy of asking and the joy of getting folks to say, yes, I am so on board with what you want to do.

MT: Wow, I’ve never heard anybody say before that managing up means helping your boss understand their relationship with money. Could you say more about that?

KP: Absolutely. I took a course at the Kennedy School last year called exponential fundraising. One of the a-ha moments I had during that year was many of us, before we start talking about impact through fundraising, don’t actually dig into our own relationship with money. What part did money play in how you were raised? Was it the thing that you didn’t talk about any at all growing up? Was money hard for you? Did it just appear?

Like my daughter thinks money just magically appears and mommy just magically gets things done. I have to kind of sit her down with the nuts and the bolts of our household budget to make it real. When I was working for an organization full time, mommy’s getting a paycheck. She could start to understand that money is a tool, but it is still a thing. Often times, we do not dig back far enough in our childhood, the place where we have our most formative value lessons being shaped for us, to really think about how money has really impacted our lives and how we see ourselves with and in and around money.

If we don’t take the time to sort of dig in to know where we’re starting from before we go out and invite others to join us, then I think that puts us at a great disadvantage in order to understand how to really shape conversations. So that is what I mean by that, in terms of really understanding their relationship with money and why they may be super excited, super hesitant, super selfish, super sharing around how we would build our relationships.

MT: That’s so interesting to me because I was talking with Marc Pitman earlier this month. We had an interview about this concept of transactional analysis, a parent/child relationship, between the fundraiser and the boss or vice versa, where the boss sort of looks to the fundraiser like the parent and says, just bring in the money.

Then there’s the other side, the supplication of the fundraiser. Give me money. I don’t care where it comes from in some ways. So it really hurts both the fundraiser and the boss when they both don’t understand their concepts around money is what I’m hearing.

KP: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Marc was right on with that. That’s a good conversation to have. I don’t feel like it’s a conversation that we’re having often enough. Think about it. You’re about to host this amazing online fundraising career conference in April 2017 that I have so enjoyed being a speaker at and have really been able to be teach with some of the most awesome, the most high level professionals who have joined us for the fundraising career conference. We talk about things like finding a job and negotiating your salary and taking on more responsibility and dealing with difficult donors. How to really be impactful in your major gift fundraising. All the things that have to do with what at the end of the day? Money in some way, shape, or form.

So if we are charged with helping to elevate the financial resources of an organization, but we don’t charge ourselves with understanding that relationship and the relationship of others who we are coming into conversation with, then it sort of always puts in this defensive posture about getting folks to understand us as opposed to inviting folks to join us. So I think that that’s not something that we talk a lot about.

MT: What are some of the consequences when a boss doesn’t understand fundraising?

KP: Let’s talk about the number of vacancies that exist in some really great organizations in their fundraising departments. Whether it’s a major gifts officer reporting to a director of development, a director of development reporting to an ED or CEO, or a chief development officer reporting to whomever else, if your boss does not understand fundraising, even as an activity, then they don’t understand development as a concept, a construct or a process - which includes all of the moves that you have to make. Because fundraising successfully to me is much more like chess than it is like checkers, right? So if they really don’t have a fundamental understanding, or even a gut understanding of what it means to really raise funds, then they are going to question you at every turn about the different decisions that you have to make in order to be able to get someone to a joyful yes.

So that leaves a development professional dissatisfied, feeling taken advantage of, potentially angry, burnt out, potentially not having the resources they need in terms of systems. In terms of things like prospecting, in terms of the organizational credit card to be able to take out donors or partners. Whatever. To be able to do their jobs well. Ultimately that creates a fissure in that relationship such that folks either just don’t really want to do it, or they tap out of that organization, or worse, they tap out of that profession completely. We’ve seen some of that as well.

So it’s not a situation that’s tenable. Therefore, I don’t believe that situation can just rest. To me, the biggest consequence when your boss doesn’t understand fundraising is that you’re not going to raise funds. Or maybe you do, but it comes at such an opportunity cost. It comes at the cost of the people who are actually raising the money. It potentially comes at the cost of your donors and your donor families who can see that you guys aren’t doing the things you need to do. It comes in the cost of turnover in staff. All the things you think about. It’s not healthy and I don’t think I’ve seen the upside when your boss doesn’t understand fundraising.

MT: I’ve seen bosses be hired who didn’t understand fundraising. Then they’re like, why do we keep having turnover? Why are we losing money every year?

KP: Or even just like one of the things that I’ve talked to clients now a lot about, is when you’re thinking about bringing somebody on board and doing a successful onboarding process. How do you succeed in your first 90 or 100 days?

Have you set aside the resources necessary to get them up to speed in their actual job? Not just what they need to know about the organization but what they need to do to be successful. And so if you have an executive director or CEO who has not necessarily been a philanthropic fundraiser, they bring a certain level of skill sets for running an organization but maybe not as a fundraiser. Are we providing them with the resources they need from day one to be able to start to have that understanding? I would argue that for most organizations, the answer is no.

MT: I agree. I’m not trying to blame any executive directors. They have such a huge, complicated job with so many moving pieces that it’s hard to find time to learn about fundraising. What can you do if your boss doesn’t have a lot of fundraising experience? You talked a little bit about concepts of money. But what else?

KP: I think another thing you can do when your boss doesn’t really know a lot about fundraising is to help them learn. There are so many resources, both free and low cost, as well as some that are a bit more intensive, to really help them to understand what they need to do. Make it easy for them.

As a fundraising professional, do you have a clearly articulated but simple fundraising plan? Is there a clear place for your CEO or ED to plug in, or your manager depending on where you are, at what level in the organization? Does everybody have a role? Or is it just sort of murky? Have you set up your operational processes, the ways in which you move the paper and the people and the things to make it easier for your boss to start to understand what you do and also to help them to get more fundraising experience? If you are cultivating new donors, does your boss understand where in that cultivation cycle they belong? Do they know it upfront?

Have you armed them with enough information about a prospect or a donor so they feel comfortable being able to go in and shake that hand and tell the story? Have you been able to bring them up to speed or enrol them in what actually is resonating with your donor family, and can you continue to keep them abreast of that once things are changing?

Can you make sure that you’re carving out time and insisting on carving out time to meet with your manager so that you’re able to continually drive that home in a really good way? Both by telling the stories and by coming to them with big nugget challenges that you want them to dig into with you and be a thought partner on, so that they can help to solve situations where fundraising is the symptom but is not necessarily the actual problem. So they can put their ED hats on.

Come with me to this AFP meeting, for example. There’s going to be lots of EDs I want you to meet there. Creating opportunities for them to be in commune with their peers so that they can start to feel more comfortable in that part of their job, because it’s not their only job.

MT: How can a boss learn to honour our strengths in fundraising?

KP: Oh, you’re going to ask me all the tough questions, Maz. First of all, I just want to say, it may not be popular, but everybody is not meant to be a boss. There are lots of folks who are in a management role who just really needed to stay as an individual contributor. But often times, people are rewarded for results without thinking about do they actually have the skills to help other people get those results? So I’ll say that.

That being said, the philosophy of working from a place of managing your strengths and not your weaknesses is actually a philosophical place to start. I think that it takes knowing where your manager actually is and what they actually think about talent to know whether you are actually going to thrive underneath that particular individual. So I did not thrive under managers who did not believe that actually you should operate from a place where you are really pushing the envelope on your strengths every day and that they’re going to push you and stretch opportunities to really flex in those places.

Part of understanding your manager's style is, I think, part and parcel of a foundational piece of being able to manage up. So it doesn’t mean that you’re going to change who they are. But it does mean that you, as the team member, working underneath someone, should really understand what makes them tick if you can, because there are some people that are very hard to read. Then do what you can do to protect your own authenticity and your own success within an organization.

For example, I’m not a micromanager but I worked for quite a few. Necessary for their role, I think, in some ways or forms. But I don’t thrive underneath that. But I know in order to be able to have any hope of being successful and really rocking out in the areas that I’m great at at work, micromanagers need lots of information all the time. So if I slack on providing information and an overabundance of it, all of a sudden I found myself in a swirl of types of conversations I didn’t want to have, pulling me off my game of really delivering on my goals.

Part of understanding how to work with someone is understanding what they do feel and what they do understand. Everything is not for everybody. So do you have enough there in your role to be able to be successful despite how your manager may operate? Or are you only going to ever go as far as you are because that person is there? I mean, those are some of the things I think as professionals we have to ask ourselves.

It doesn’t mean jump ship early. It just means you’ve got to constantly be in conversation with yourself and then also try to build as healthy as you can of a relationship with your manager.

MT: But if they want you to stay inside and write grants, and that’s not taking advantage of your strengths, how do you deal with that?

KP: That’s in conversation. So I would hope – and every organization doesn’t have this. I say this with a little hesitation. But I would hope that if you’re having check ins and regular conversations about how things are going, what your goals are, how those tasks are helping you meet your goal, etc. with your manager, you’re able to sort of bring these things up:

"Hey, Kishshana, one of the things that I was really excited about was last month when we had that major donor come to the office and I got to greet them and talk with them for a few minutes about their gift. I was really excited and they were really into it. I know that I write grants and that’s my job and I kick butt in doing that, but I would love to be able to have more opportunities to be able to get out and do that because that energized me. I got back in the office and I think I wrote three grants that day. So are there opportunities that we can think of together that I’ll be able to do that in the future? Because I just felt so energized in that small moment. It really helped me do the other parts of my job a lot better."

So as opposed to saying, I am unhappy that I’m not able to do this, this, and this, and I need to do this. I want to do this. No. Frame it in a way that really helps you say, I appreciate where I am even if where I am isn’t where I want to be forever. Here’s an opportunity I saw that kind of gave me a glimpse into something that could help stretch me. Can we think together on a way to help create more of those experiences? Then see how that conversation goes.

MT: So what can people do to start managing up? Are there some phrases they can use or things they should know?

KP: Well, here’s what I’ll say. You have to steward your career the way you steward donors. Managing up in my mind starts with managing yourself. If your stuff is messy, and you’re not quite right, please don’t try to go manage other people. Across, down, whatever. Start with yourself, really understanding your role, how your role fits into the fabric of your team. How your team fits into the fabric of the organization. What is the perception of your role? Not of you as a person. People can like you and think you are terrible as an employee. They really want to have drinks with you after work so let’s say that. But how does that all wrap into the fabric of the organization? Then do the same thing for your manager. How do you perceive them in their role? How might you manage how they perceive themselves in that role? How does that wrap up into the team, wrap up into the fabric of the organization?

Take a little bit to do that because I think that often times we see things only from our own perspective and we don’t step into the shoes of our manager to understand what pressures they may be going through that keep them from being able to really be receptive to feedback that you might have. Then I would say that it starts a conversation.

How are things going? If you could have your druthers, what would be different? What does success look like for us as a team based on our goals, and are we getting there? Being able to have these broader based conversations with your manager and then say, here are some of the things that I’ve been working at that I think will help us with that. Do you think these things make sense?

Then, how do you see yourself in that? This is you talking to your manager. So that you can get some talking. Now, some of you are going to say to me, Kishshana. I can’t even get five minutes with my manager. Look folks, talk fast. So if your manager is the kind of person that responds better to the written word than they do to having conversation, get it in some bullets. I’d love to talk to you Kishshana about two ideas I had, boom, boom. Here’s a link to something I want you to read. I’d love to be able to cover this in our one-on-one on Thursday. So really starting to be proactive in helping your manager be successful. That will in turn help you be successful. 

Join us for the 3rd annual Fundraising Career Conference April 17th, 19th and 21st 2017. Since 2015 over 900 people have attended this online conference, resulting in more successful job interviews, 42% salary increases, new jobs, better workplace environments, and more! This year we're going deep, with sessions on how to build trust with your boss (and not get fired), how to be a better mentor and manager, creativity and play at work, and more! Learn more.

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at Join her at the 2017 Fundraising Career Conference.

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