It always amazes me the way smart, responsible adults can find a way to kill, or at least smother, a very good thing. I’m talking about the case of a university in the Southern United States which has 15 colleges and one MGO assigned to each college.
When I first heard about this situation I thought, “Wow, 15 MGOs at a university, all working together to bring in much needed revenue. This is great!”
But as I dug a little further into it, this bright light started to dim.
I found out that due to recent cutbacks and the need to get work covered, the deans of each of the colleges had given their MGOs additional, non-major gift work to do. This, in turn, reduced their ability to raise money. And this is all beginning to sound too familiar.
The good news is that the university hired a development professional to head up the major gift program (good idea). But, the bad news is this poor lady was installed in the central office of the university with hardly any ability or authority to either influence or redirect the choices of the powerful deans in each college.
So you have the almost impossible situation of conflicting agendas – on one side is the university central office, and on the other side is the college and its dean.
And whoever designed this system has set up a budget where half of the cost of each MGO is given to each side and the supervision of each MGO is split evenly between the parties.
Now, here is the interesting thing: the university is in trouble financially. That’s why they have had to cut back. But someone upstairs either does not see or does not care that the very solution to their financial woes is sitting right in front of them with those 15 MGOs.
So the development professional – that poor soul in the central office – must cajole, debate and influence each dean to do the right thing, but so far has not experienced much success. Essentially, most of the deans are comfortable with their MGO doing non-major gift work while the college, specifically, and the university, in general, suffers financial hardship.
It seems that most of these deans are comfortable with a low level of fundraising activity in their college and they allow mediocrity because they “like” their MGO. And this is happening even when the total college fundraising dollars do not cover even the salary of their MGO!
When the head of development sends monthly reports to the dean and the MGO on contacts made, asks submitted, current phase of each prospect and dollars in the door – pointing out that the number of contacts and asks per month are nowhere near what is either needed or agreed upon, the reply from the deans is usually, “No worries… good things are happening in development.”
“Good things are happening in development.”
I’ve heard that phrase so many times it would make your head spin. In fact, I read a similar statement just this morning in an email that sounded exactly like the situation I am describing here.
The MGO is doing nothing, but is liked by the authority figure, so the summary statement on the state of affairs is, “Things are going great and I appreciate all that (name of MGO) is doing.” Never mind that the facts tell a whole different story.
I’m telling you this story because this situation, where authority and responsibility are split between two parties, is not uncommon among charities of all types. It is first an organizational design problem, secondly a management/leadership problem and lastly, confusion about the roles of technical people. Let me dig into these three points.
- An organizational problem. It is always amazing to me how leaders/managers like to make their organizations very complex. I look at some organizational charts and you would think the folks involved were sending a colony to the farthest reaches of space. There are layers and layers of complexity which could be expected at lower levels of the chart, but that complexity is also at the top. In my opinion, there are really only three major functions in an organization, emphasis on the word “major.” They are product, sales/marketing and administration/operations. In the non-profit world, substitute the word program for product. An organization exists to provide a product (or service), markets and sells that product or service and manages all the infrastructure (finance, HR, operations, etc.) to deliver that product via an administrative function. The problem with many organizations is they are not organized this way. So, in the case of the university, and many educational institutions, the leaders put the acquiring revenue responsibility (sales/fundraising) primarily with the product people (deans). That doesn’t make sense. I know, it’s convention and “we have always done it that way.” It still does not make sense. And, it causes problems. The dean’s major responsibility, in my opinion, is the integrity of the product, not fundraising. Just as in a medical institution, the surgeon delivers the product. She should not necessarily be in charge of fundraising. So this is one area where it begins to go wrong.
- A management/leadership problem. The leader/manager who creates the situation I have been describing in this post is the real problem. As a wise person once said, “the fish stinks at the head.” It is the leader’s responsibility to create a system where there is no conflict of authority or responsibility and where the organizational design is carried out logically, efficiently and correctly. I have to wonder if the leader of that university truly understands the root cause of his financial problems. I know this university. It’s got an excellent product. It is the leadership that has lost its way. And they have probably done so because they are copying business models that are outdated and useless. Oftentimes, politics, not practicality or wisdom, govern all the decisions on organizational design and responsibility for fundraising. And when I say “the fish stinks at the head,” I do not mean to demean leadership, because most often it is good. I mean to say that the problem rests with leadership. They should correct what is wrong here.
- Confusion about the roles of technical people. Technical people are those folks in the organization who design, create and manage the product/program/service offer of the organization. The good ones are pretty powerful people. They create great things and are truly amazing. But they are not usually good fundraisers or major gift people. Yet leaders, because of their prominent contribution to the organization, give these technical people the authority to rule the entire castle, not realizing that by doing so they undermine the very foundation of the enterprise. I do know why this happens. It’s because, historically, we leaders have valued management people more than technical people. We have paid them more. We have given them more prominence and authority. We have disproportionately lifted them up. So, if you are a technical person in this environment it is no wonder that you need and want to become a manager. You lobby and work your way into a position and then fail at delivering the very values the position requires. In the case of those deans OR the program person in your organization, if we would just let them be the technical people they were meant to be and honored and valued them as much as we value the management folks, we wouldn’t be in many of the situations we find ourselves in.
Well, what can I tell that development professional at the university about how to get out of the fix she is in?
- One idea is to have her show the top leader this post and begin a discussion about the university’s situation. Perhaps starting a non-threatening dialogue about the subject would be helpful.
- Another idea is to talk to the leader or managers about the connection of organizational design and delegated authority to the financial woes they are currently experiencing. I often find that if I talk about how to solve the money problem, people listen. I know this is delicate politically, but the money angle is a pathway for this discussion.
- Perhaps several of the 15 deans could be persuaded toward this point of view and, together, they could go to leadership with suggestions about how to solve this problem.
- Failing all of that, it’s possible that the development person just needs to go find another job, because if she doesn’t she will surely fail if this situation isn’t turned around.
These are not easy things to solve. I know that. And oftentimes our discussions on major gifts have to do with donors, MGOs, budget packaging, offers, asks, cultivation and stewardship. But every once in a while the organizational monster raises its head, and the very thing that is blocking the MGO’s success is the organization itself.