Douglas D. Himes, Ph.D.

What is development?  What is it that we who work in development do? Most of our time and energy are directed toward raising money; in fact, the term development has been connected with fundraising since 1924, when it was first used in that context by Ernest DeWitt Burton, then President of the University of Chicago. Is fundraising our primary function as development professionals? It pays our salary and fuels our organization. Is that the essence of development? It’s been said that if anyone tells you, “It’s not about the money; it’s about the principle,” you can bet it’s about the money. In this case, it’s really not about the money. Money is only one of the by-products of development, a means to an end. In its broadest sense, development can be defined as “the promotion of understanding, participation, and support.” If we accept the definition, or at least the premise that development is not strictly about raising money, what then specifically do we develop?

The most obvious thing we develop is relationships. Development is a personal business. We talk about “friend-raising” and “fundraising” in the same breath. With whom do we develop relationships? We certainly develop relationships with our donors, and any successful nonprofit organization devotes a lot of attention to cultivating and maintaining good donor relations; but we’re back to money.

We also develop relationships with our volunteers, who are also donors, even if they don’t give money. It’s about support through service and gifts.

Some of the most important relationships we develop are with and among board members. We all understand that the governing board is the engine that drives the organization. Our board members are the true leaders, every one of which should feel a sense of privilege to be associated with our organization. We depend upon these leaders to light the way, originate action, take responsibility, establish and maintain standards, create confidence, sustain the mood, and keep things moving. We all know that, in any fundraising campaign, the board must be first in line with 100-percent participation, and the level of their combined participation must set a respectable pace for the campaign that can be represented to others as leadership by example to motivate their participation. Relationships with our board members are vitally important.

Beyond the board, we develop relationships with members of committees and advisory groups. These groups not only provide important support for the organization; they can also provide entry-level positions for the recruitment and grooming of future board members.

We develop essential relationships with staff throughout our organization. Development is integral to the structure and fabric of any nonprofit organization. The degree to which that is understood throughout the organization will be determined in large measure by good staff relationships. Some of these relationships are particularly important. A close relationship with the Executive Director/President/CEO of our organization is absolutely essential. This is a relationship that must be nurtured with regular, open communication. Also of critical importance is our relationship with our Chief Financial Officer. Too often this relationship is characterized by what might be described as adversarial avoidance. Development officers and financial officers speak different languages. Any of you who get involved with the accounting functions of your operation and have to keep track of unrestricted gifts, temporarily restricted gifts, permanently restricted gifts, and board restricted gifts, and then translate the distinctions into development terminology will understand the importance for the development officer and the financial officer to understand each other’s language. This is a relationship that must be grounded not only in open communication, but also in mutual education and respect. There is a very special relationship between the development director and the development staff. These people are key to our effectiveness. They must feel that they are an important part of a closely-knit team. They should understand as much as we do about what’s really happening in the workings of the organization. How many times do we come back from an important executive meeting and go straight to our desk? Who else needs to know what took place in that meeting? When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he did not go into his office and close the door. He shared with his people what he had learned. We must condition ourselves to do the same.

Beyond our organization, we develop relationships with other organizations. There is an increasing emphasis in the nonprofit sector on collaborative services. Funding organizations and many individual donors want to ensure that their support is producing maximum benefits to the populations being served. Duplication of services undermines that objective. The complementary relationships that you develop between your organization and others will ensure that everyone gets maximum support for the things they do best.

Finally, we develop relationships with allied professionals: people like attorneys, accountants, financial advisors, who provide important services to our organizations and to those who support our organizations. So often I work with development officers who, particularly in planned giving, get so enamored of the complexities and technicalities of the gifts that they lose sight of their own gift: the ability to develop relationships. You can buy the technical advice. Concentrate on what you can do better than anyone else—which is to build personal relationships—and rely on allied professionals for help with the technical details.

What else do we develop besides relationships? From my perspective, one of the most critically important things we develop is vision. The Bible tells us: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov 29:18a KJV) Nonprofit organizations without vision run that very risk; and it is virtually impossible to have a successful fundraising campaign without compelling vision. Money chases after vision. Support flows to promising programs, not to needy institutions. Proper objectives for nonprofit organizations reflect not the needs of the organization, but rather the organization’s response to the needs of society. Studies have been conducted in attempts to learn why major donors give so generously to their charities of choice. The answers are consistent, and the central theme is vision. Major benefactors give to invest in the vision of an organization. They give out of two basic human needs: the need to be needed, and the need to be a part of something worthwhile that is greater than themselves. They do not give to organizations just because the organizations need money. No one ever buys a Buick just because General Motors needs the money. Many of my firm’s clients seek our services under the misconception that fundraising consultants raise funds. Their starting point is: “How do we get the money we need?” Our starting point is: “How would the world be different tomorrow if your organization weren’t here, and why should anyone care?” You may need to raise money to expand your facilities. The reason why anyone should give you money has to do with the ways in which your expanded facilities will enable you better to touch the lives of people. You may need to raise money for the preservation of an historic church building. The reason why anyone should give you money has to do with the ways in which the ministries supported by the historic building touch the lives of people. It’s about human beings, not money. It’s about vision, not need. It is fundamentally about making the world a better place in which to live. Money is simply a means to that much greater end.

Associated with vision, our work in development provides another very important dimension to our organization: historical continuity. When you consider the entire history of civilization, we occupy only a tiny speck on that continuum. The basis for all of our vision is inherited from previous generations. The dreams we can dream today are a result of the success of previous generations in turning their vision into reality. Our success in turning our vision into reality will provide the basis for the vision and dreams of future generations. Much of what we do in development involves keeping faith with the past, keeping step with the present, and keeping our promises to posterity.

Another product of development is organizational planning, both strategic and long-range. It’s impossible to realize a vision without a plan. Very often the impetus for organizational planning comes from the Development Office. The board must eventually adopt the road map, but the details of the trip often come from us. When I do board training, I often challenge any board member who does not believe the necessity for planning to try driving home from the meeting looking only in the rearview mirror. Development is key to organizational planning. Once in place, the organizational plan must be translated into a business plan, a development plan, and a marketing/public relations plan, so that everyone in the organization knows what must be accomplished to get from the beginning of the year to the end of the year on target.

As development professionals we also develop leadership at many different levels in our organizations. How many CEO’s have you trained in the finer points of development? How much training do you provide for your board members, so that they can be more effective leaders? What is your rôle in nominating board members and other leaders in your organization? Many nonprofit organizations look to their volunteer leadership for what H. L. Mencken called “inherited respectability.” That’s not good leadership. Your volunteer leaders should hold the mission of your organization, or your campaign, so closely to heart that they can be at all times articulate, effective ambassadors—people who not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. The strength of your volunteer leadership will contribute more to the success of your organization than any other single factor. It is not enough to have first-rate people; you must have first-rate attention from first-rate people; and the first prerequisite is that you believe as passionately in the mission of your organization, or your campaign case, as you expect your volunteer leaders to believe in it. Then, at any time, you should be prepared to nominate the top ten people for any major job. The ongoing recruitment of strong volunteer leaders is truly one of the greatest arts in the development profession.

Something else we develop is an understanding of philanthropy. The term means “love of humankind.” This is the true context of development. If we do our job properly, what we cultivate in our constituencies is an understanding of philanthropy, and, by extension, charity, as it relates to our organization. The charitable intent that results from such an understanding produces the support that our organizations need for survival and growth.

Another product of development is visibility. We’re responsible for more of this than we may realize. In any nonprofit organization, development, marketing, and public relations are organically interrelated. The presence that an organization has in its market—its visibility—is often a result of development activity. We also create visibility for our donors and volunteers. This is not only one of the rationales for various recognition programs; it is also a key ingredient in ongoing cultivation, which is the basis for growth.

One of the most precious things that we develop—and safeguard constantly—is credibility. Personal integrity is very important, but we are responsible in a larger sense to many constituencies for the credibility of our organization. Nowhere is this more sensitive than with donor credibility. Our donors must feel totally confident that their wishes are being respected and
their gifts are being directed as they intended. The lifeblood of our organization rests upon such credibility.

It should be clear that everything I’ve discussed thus far is integral to the mosaic of a healthy nonprofit organization. Having established that development involves much more than fundraising, I would like to turn our attention now toward fundraising and some of the development fundamentals that affect our ability to raise funds. The first should be a mantra for any nonprofit organization seeking financial support from donors: The needs of the donor are as important as the needs of the organization. In our fixation on the financial needs of our organization, it is so easy to view the donor as merely a source of money. Giving—whether it be of time, talent, or treasure—is always an act of enlightened self-interest. Your donors are motivated by many considerations, just a few of which are: 1) their personal identification with the relevance, importance, and urgency of your mission; 2) their personal financial objectives; 3) obligations to other charitable organizations and causes; 4) other financial obligations not directed involving charity; 5) fear of the future and possible economic insecurity; and 6) their sense of place within a larger scheme of things. The latter is one of the reasons for our use of a scale, or table, of gifts in a fundraising campaign. Occasionally the results of donor motivation can be astonishingly gratifying. Some years ago, Notre Dame University faced the necessity to construct a new building for its business school. Our colleagues in the institutional advancement office developed a list of major donor prospects, and the appropriate school officials set out to visit the prospects. The Vice Chancellor called on one such person, a man who had connections to the school and was capable of a large gift. There are a couple important lessons to be learned from what happened. The Vice Chancellor, aiming high, as we all should do with qualified prospects, explained the need for the project and asked if the man would consider underwriting the construction in exchange for the university’s naming the center for him. The man asked how much it would cost. “Thirty million dollars,” was the answer. He considered this for a moment and said, yes, he would like to do this. In the process of thanking the donor for his generosity, the Vice Chancellor observed that his was one of the largest gifts ever made to Notre Dame University. With raised eyebrows, the man said, “One of the largest? What was the largest?” The Vice Chancellor said he thought it was $35 million. The man said quickly, “I’ll give you thirty-seven.” A $30-million ask produced a $37-million gift for no other reason than the donor’s sense of place within the larger scheme of things.

Another fundamental of development frequently lost to sight is: It’s not about the tax benefits. As development professionals, we should certainly be conversant with the tax benefits of all the major vehicles of charitable giving, but we should never mistake such benefits as a primary motivating factor for donors. There are many ways to get tax benefits, not all of which involve charitable giving. Tax planning appeals to the intellect. Charitable giving is not a cerebral process; it is emotional. It is simply not a rational act to give away what we work hard to get. Charitable giving is prompted emotionally and then rationalized. The actual structuring of a gift may be cerebral, even logical; but, as Bob Sharpe, Sr., used to say, “logic flows on the river of emotion.” Without the emotion, your donors may never get to the logic.

Another fundamental that we often don’t think about is that fundraising is an integral process. It functions at three different levels. Most nonprofit organizations have three kinds of financial need: short-term (annual), mid-term (capital), and long-term (endowment). Think of it as a tripod, with each of the three adjustable legs representing respectively annual, capital, and endowment fundraising. When the ground is level and each leg is the same length as the others, the organization is in financial equilibrium. If the needs change, and the ground becomes uneven, the legs can be adjusted with more emphasis in one or two of the areas to keep the organization in a state of equilibrium. Donors have three levels of financial capability: short-term (disposable income), mid-term (accumulated assets and disposable income), and long-term (net worth of estate). What makes this an integral process is that these three levels of donor capability correspond exactly to the three levels of organizational need. All three levels contribute to the same vision, and they don’t compete with each other, because the money usually comes from different pockets. Our task as fundraising professionals is to match the three levels of donor capability with the three levels of organizational need in ways that achieve maximum benefits for both the donor and the organization. It’s true that fundraisers don’t actually raise funds; we’re matchmakers in a much larger scheme.

I’d like to turn our attention to a critically important tool and discuss with you the truth about feasibility studies. Typically when organizations need to raise money, the first thing they want to do is a feasibility study. If they’re smart, they hire a good consultant, who is charged with the responsibility to find out if they can raise as much money as they think they need. Because everyone is eager for the answer, they hastily put together what passes for a case, usually based entirely on need and generated by staff, and they send the consultant forth to divine the answer to the burning question. The answer is both predictable and often inaccurate. People will not give sacrificially to something they don’t understand; a case based on need will not reach the heart, where the decision to give originates; therefore, the study will not reflect the true potential of the organization to raise the necessary funds. Other consultants get paid tens of thousands of dollars to reach these conclusions. We tell people this for free. What I can’t begin to tell you is how many times we have been hired to come in and clean up the mess and ill will created by the typical up-front feasibility study. An accurate feasibility study must be based on a real campaign case. Plato said: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” The most important work in a campaign is the work that goes into developing the case, for it is on the case that the entire campaign—and ultimately its success—will be based. The case must be visionary and compelling, and it must communicate effectively the relevance, importance, and urgency of anything you are trying to accomplish in a way that will reach the heart of anyone listening. It should be crafted by a committee representing a cross-section of the organization’s constituencies with the full knowledge and representation of the board. This is a process of both creation and cultivation. Buy-in at the core of the leadership begins with the development of the case. It takes time, but no time in the course of a campaign is better spent. One of the great oracles from the earliest days of organized fundraising, Harold “Si” Seymour, said it best: “You can’t make a good pickle just by squirting vinegar on a cucumber—it has to soak awhile.”

I’d like to leave you with a very important parting thought. As simple as it is, we so often forget it. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Whatever you need—money, volunteer service, advice, perhaps a sympathetic shoulder to cry on—“ask and ye shall receive.” If the Vice Chancellor at Notre Dame had not asked for $30 million, the school would not have gotten $37 million. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Development is a complex field that grows more intricate and competitive every year. We live in the business of the nonprofit world, but much of our support comes from people who live in the business of the for-profit world. We must be able to function with equal facility in both worlds. Si Seymour, whom I quoted earlier, contended that “business flourishes best in an atmosphere of joyous adventure.” We are largely responsible for that atmosphere of joyous adventure. Once we put the fun back in fundraising, we need to step back and look at the big picture of all that we do as development professionals, so that we can appreciate how universal and truly exciting this field really is, and just how many people’s lives are touched—often in profound ways—by our work.