Keep Sacred Your Time with Prospective Donors

Whether you’re running a small, medium or large fundraising organization, you can probably identify to one degree or another with Jennifer Nicely’s dilemma.

She wants to preserve as sacred the time she spends with prospective donors – “because ultimately that’s what you’re here for.”

Yet, as president and chief development officer of the five-person Memorial Health Care System foundation staff in Chattanooga, Tenn., she also wants to preserve her seat at the table of the system’s executive management team. Understandably, she worries that missing too many meetings will diminish the power of philanthropy within the system, but acknowledges the “amount of time spent on true fundraising, true donor development, gets sucked away and sucked away.”

But distractions from the main thing ­­are not isolated to small staffs. There are inherent forces in any size organization that can lure staff away from focusing on prospective donors. And sometimes – let’s be candid – even those staff members whose primary focus is supposed to be major gifts lose that focus as they slip into routines they find more comfortable than face-to-face meetings with prospects.

The Discipline that Keeps You on Track

The Lean principle of highest-and-best-use says you should calculate how to deploy your own time and that of your staff members in the roles where they will yield the most gain. Two things to monitor are the resource deployment ratios between direct and indirect FTEs and the degree of support (and consequent focus) provided to your front-line fundraisers. One rule-of-thumb (supported by AHP benchmarking data) is to ensure between 45 to 55 percent of your FTE time count is focused on a combination of front-line fundraising and the direct support of such face-to-face encounters leading to significant gifts from individuals.

In other words, ideally your full-time front-line gift officers and the people who full-time directly support their efforts should be close to 50 percent or more of your staff. In real life, however, often the most experienced fundraisers on staff have gravitated to management positions but still carry some level of a portfolio. In such cases you need to include in your calculations only the amount of time you and your senior colleagues actually spend as front-line fundraisers. Management time, however important and valuable, is “indirect” time.

Joe Stampe, president of Meridian Health Affiliated Foundations in Neptune, N.J., keeps development officers on his 31-person staff from losing focus.  “I can’t also have them on the planning committee for the event, doing a direct mail solicitation, worrying about the board annual appeal, because those things take away from the time they should be out identifying prospects, cultivating prospects and soliciting,” he says.

Jennifer Nicely, who has a small staff and thus is herself key to the major gifts effort, makes a differentiation between her time as head of the foundation (which is “indirect” in our calculations) and that as a major gift officer. She understands the need to protect donor-facing time from administrative encroachment. She blocks out time to cultivate prospects or meet with those prospects “so that nobody else schedules meetings on top of it.” And, she adds, “I will miss any meeting to go be with a donor, and they (other system leaders) understand that.”

Not a bad operating philosophy for any leader or front-line fundraiser in any size fundraising staff.

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