We are seeing a definite uptick in what I might describe as fundraiser abuse in a lot of organizations.

It’s a chronic issue: Higher-ups often see fundraising as a form of bounty hunting, rather than as a complex and elaborate process of establishing and managing relationships. This has been exacerbated by the misbelief (among said higher-ups) that fundraising spikes during Covid would somehow be sustainable. And that misbelief leads to predictable income shortfalls that wrongly get laid at the door of the fundraising team.

Sound vaguely familiar?

Here’s what the higher-ups need to understand: Fundraising is complex. By complex, I’m paraphrasing a definition established by complexity guru Dave Snowden. He distinguishes between complicated and complex. Complicated is engineering. Expertise dominates and produces predictably mechanistic outcomes. if you get the right recipe and the right experienced cooks working in the same kitchen, you will get a predictably fabulous meal. That’s how the higher-ups see fundraising. But that’s not how fundraising is at all.

In a complex world, outcomes are the emergent product of interlocking systems, where fundraising performance is the emergent outcome of a nearly infinite number of unpredictable variables. So many aspects of fundraising performance are the emergent product of any number of systemic factors: the state of the economy, consumer confidence, the political situation, cultural trends, the intergenerational flow of wealth, the national mood, Google adwords policies, changes in laws governing DAF’s or IRAs, etc..

You can nudge systems and you can navigate systems, and that’s what great fundraisers do, but you can’t control outcomes. Want a five-minute briefing on how to distinguish complicated and complex? Check out his short brilliant video by Jennifer Garvey Berger.

Sailboat racers are masters of complexity. They can’t predict with any accuracy how hard and from which direction the wind will blow, or how ocean currents will drive waves and swells, or when a gust will push things in a different direction. They are navigating these unpredictable uncontrollable systems by how they set the sails, how they stay prepared to meet the conditions as they arise.

Fundraising is the same. You need to get all the engineering (complicated) right: people with the right skills, good plans, sharp execution. AND you need to be prepared for abrupt and unpredictable changes in the weather. Because at the end of the day how much money you raise is at least partly out of the control of the most adept hands.

It’s human nature for people to look for someone to blame when things go wrong. Higher-ups blame fundraisers when projections (no matter how unrealistic) don’t get met.

What to do? That’s a great conversation to have. Here are some initial thoughts:

  • Don’t feed the misbelief. Nearly all fundraisers I know are exceptionally results-oriented. When the higher-ups raise the goalposts the fundraisers relish the challenge. Don’t set yourself up by feeding the belief that you have complete control over an unpredictable (i.e complex) environment.
  • Fight like hell to get higher-ups to understand how fundraising really works. My experience (and Alia’s and my research) suggests that many C-level folks don’t really want to know the ins and outs of how their organization gets resources. Many frankly admit they think fundraising is a necessary evil. If the higher-ups want to tell you to ‘do more with less’ or raise your projections without providing needed resources, consider looking for another job. (It’s a sellers’ market out there; you’ll find something better.)
  • Take as much sand out of the internal gears as possible by promoting real collaboration and harmony among all fundraisers in your org from low-dollar direct marketing to mega-major giving. Too much energy is wasted by internal feuding among fundraising teams over attribution, control over this or that donor, etc. You have enough on your hands to manage the external forces influencing your fundraising outcomes. Do everything in your power to make sure internally you are united.

How can we build a more complexity-savvy fundraising environment, both within your organization and sector-wide? Let us know what you think!