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Four Ways Nonprofit Bosses Kill Fundraising – and How You Can Fight Back (but Keep Your Job)


One of the more startling things we’ve learned here at Moceanic is how big a problem nonprofit CEOs are for fundraising. Far too many people in the fundraising profession have a significant uphill battle to fight on every project they do: The boss screws it up!

It’s an unfortunate reality, and we’re not going to fix it just by complaining about it.

But maybe we can make things better by understanding the boss’s goals, intent, and approach. So we can meet them on more fruitful ground.

Here are four common nonprofit leadership styles that are distinctly harmful to fundraising — and how you can fight back (without losing your job):

Destructive Boss Type #1: The Technocrat 

This leader is an expert in the organization’s mission, adept at rallying resources to get the best outcomes for the organization.

Almost always, though, the Technocrat is less interested in fundraising. Under her regime, fundraising tends to be a neglected stepchild in the organization, a languishing afterthought. Fundraisers tend to be underpaid, poorly supported, and seldom challenged to rise to greater heights.

What you can do about a Technocrat: The truth is, a little benign neglect isn’t the worst thing that you can get from a nonprofit boss! But in the long run, neglect will hurt.

With a Technocrat, logic usually works.  You can explain what you’re doing, and why it makes sense. Your Technocrat has a good chance of understanding the data-driven world of direct-response fundraising, so approach issues from that point of view.

Destructive Boss Type #2: The Poet

This self-expressive leader really believes in his ability to communicate; every word from his mouth is perfect — unchangeable, like some kind of scripture. The clarity, simplicity, and donor focus that fundraising requires often doesn’t sit well with the Poet, who blithely believes his genius and unique voice will create a superior form of fundraising. It rarely does.

What you can do about a Poet:  This one is a challenge. Logic doesn’t work because it’s not the issue for the Poet.  In my experience, you can only attempt to persuade the Poet that fundraising is not poetry. It is no more poetry than your mortgage application.  (You and I know different, but we’ll keep that to ourselves, okay?)

The Poet needs outlets. Hope that he keeps getting book contracts that will keep him out of your fundraising hair.

Destructive Boss Type #3: The Consensus Builder

Not really a leader, the Consensus Builder becomes captive to the majority opinion and/or those who yell the loudest or persistently. Since that’s not usually the people who know or understand fundraising, your fundraising tends to degrade over time, and generally gets eviscerated by committees. People who are terribly harmful to fundraising (and anything else) seldom are disciplined or let go.  Problems tend to fester, hidden by a thick layer of fake smiles.

What you can do about a Consensus Builder:  The best way to get your Consensus Builder to care about fundraising is to persuade him that donors are people too! Once he feels the need to include donors in his thinking, you at least have a chance of doing things right now and then by being the spokesperson for donors. Which is basically what professional fundraisers are anyway!

Destructive Boss Type #4: The Entrepreneur

Usually, the organization’s founder, the Entrepreneur is a passionate exponent of the organization’s mission. Highly opinionated, she is often obsessed with explaining the organization’s processes and inner workings. This can make fundraising difficult, as it leads to fundraising that’s all about explaining to and educating donors under the false assumption that if they just understood the work, they’d be forced by the dictates of logic to donate! This, as you know, is a dramatically incorrect assumption about donor motivation.

Sometimes the Entrepreneur works in favor of fundraising if she happens to have fundraising as part of her vision — after all, the organization grew out of the Entrepreneur’s vision, and the money came from somewhere! In this case, you have the enviable job of educating someone who’s eager to be educated about fundraising.

More often, though, you’ll struggle somewhere between being forced to create “explainer” fundraising and neglected, underfunded fundraising.

What you can do about an Entrepreneur: Logic can work with her! Explain what you want to do and why. Show her what the experts say.  Test things. The Entrepreneur, after all, wants nothing more than for her vision to succeed!

The Main Solution In Every Case

Know your stuff! If you are just making stuff up and creating fundraising based on your own preferences, you are no better and driving great fundraising than a troublesome boss! Read the excellent books on fundraising. Follow a few blogs.  Take courses (like those we offer inside The Fundraisingology Lab!)

Should you Give Up?

Ultimately, you may find a destructive boss to be incorrigible.  If that is truly the cause it is probably time for you to find another job. This can be difficult for fundraisers who believe in their causes.  But life is too short — and there are too many other important causes — to waste it with a boss who won’t let you do your job.

Please share your experience with difficult bosses — successful or not — by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Our executive director does not fit into a predefined category that you have presented. I have been able to approach him with logic, and he is receptive to information, but has clearly stated he is not an extrovert, i.e. has difficulty with one-on-one meetings, and has not understood his role and how it relates to my role as the resource development coordinator. I have had to educate him, but he is assured that if I need his input/direction, he will certainly work with me on any fundraising opportunity that I may present to educate and improve our grantmaking and fundraising activities. Not the greatest, but certainly not the worst, but at best, willing to learn.

    • Carla,

      Willingness to learn is one of the most important characteristic of any leader. The best leaders are insatiably curious. So I’d say you’re in good shape, whatever challenges you face. As for your boss being an introvert and not comfortable with some of his roles, you can encourage him that any introvert who wants to can be GREAT at those things, even though they come less naturally than to an extrovert. I think having to work harder at something that isn’t easy for you can make you much more effective at it.


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