picture with a skeleton key and financeThe finance person in your organization can be your best friend, your worst adversary, or a totally neutral party who really has no interest in what you do as a MGO.
If Jeff and I had to choose which of these relationships to have, we would select “your best friend.” Here’s why.
Good, competent finance people can help MGOs construct the financial side of a compelling donor offer; they can help analyze performance; they can help MGOs make an argument for expanding the fundraising program because they understand how major gifts work; they can understand that a MGO who stops or slows down value attrition is actually contributing economic value to the organization; and they can, when educated to the economics of major gifts, appreciate that the program is about long-term relationships that the passing of time will bring to full maturity and contribution.
On the other hand, bad finance people can wreak havoc on a major donor program. If left uncontrolled by the top leader of your organization, they can kill the program.
I’ve experienced all three types of finance people.
We are working with one large organization right now where the finance person is an absolute dream. We love working with her. She is positive, constructive, forward-thinking, and constructively critical in a kind way. When I am with her, I feel like she is part of our team. She is truly present to serve our major gift efforts. And the MGOs love her.
We had a situation last year where the finance person was the exact opposite. He actively told the MGOs they were doing no good when, in fact, they had saved the organization over $750,000 in one year by slowing down value attrition – there were donors on caseloads who actually renewed and upgraded their giving because the MGOs of this good organization had treated them as partners. He would sit in finance meetings and belittle the MGOs and the program. He would badger the Development Director, telling him he was managing the program wrong. The list of abuses by this self-expressive man went unchecked, and he severely damaged the spirits and morale of all the MGOs. I still do not understand how this man’s boss put up with his antics. It was disgraceful and hurtful.
And then there’s the finance person who just doesn’t care. They’re almost as damaging as the actively bad ones. They are just counting and categorizing the money. They have no interest in moving the organization ahead financially. They are just there – collecting a paycheck. Pretty sad.
No matter what kind of finance person you have, Jeff and I believe there are some basic things you can do to keep them happy:

  1. Educate them. Most finance people do not understand how major gifts works – that you build a caseload from current donors; that you qualify donors for your caseload; that you are trying to match interests and passions to organizational needs; and all of this takes time. We strongly urge you to bring the finance person into the educational and learning process you are experiencing. They don’t need to understand it as thoroughly as you do, but they do need to know and understand the main points. If you don’t help educate them, expect a lot of resistance from finance.
  2. Keep them AND their boss informed. There is nothing more deadly than to keep a finance person in the dark. They operate on data and information. Withhold it or forget to share it at your peril. If you have set goals and are missing them, explain why and what you are doing about it. As you learn new things about major gifts, share it with the finance person. If you get a big gift, add the finance person to the email distribution list that is announcing it. If there is trouble with a donor, let them know, especially if it adversely affects your goal. Bias towards including them.
  3. Own their concern for the economic health of the organization. I am always amazed how misunderstood finance people are. They are charged with watching out for and caring for the financial health of the organization. Stated simply, they do that by pointing out where things are going well and where they aren’t. It’s when they state when things are not going right that they irritate people. Or when they question why someone is doing X or Y. Be patient with this line of questioning. It is their job to wonder why. They are simply doing their job. And without them, the organization would not operate well. I would encourage you to regularly and openly encourage your finance person. Many of them are not thanked enough for the good work they do. Be different and thank them. Regularly. Fill up their hearts with appreciation.
  4. Keep pointing out how you are reducing attrition. It is a fact that caseload donors give more and stay around longer than general file donors. It’s likely that when you were building your caseload, the general file donors you were qualifying had value attrition of 40%. This means that if 10 donors gave $1,000 each last year for a total of $10,000, that same group of donors would be giving $6,000 this year. You would have “lost” $4,000! We have seen this value attrition as high as 80%, which means the $10,000 last year would be $2,000 this year. The point is that those general file donors, the ones the finance person is depending on to deliver net revenue, are not performing that well. The good news is that value attrition from your caseload donors is likely closer to 6-11% – let’s say 10%, which means that the previously-mentioned $10,000 from last year is now $9,000 this year, a “savings” of somewhere between $3-7,000. This is real money that you as a MGO have “brought in” from current donors. This is a hidden value of your program that finance people do not understand. When they grasp this idea, it helps them know you are contributing value IN ADDITION to the new or increased gifts your caseload donors are giving.
  5. If the finance person is abusing you, talk to his boss. Unfortunately, abuse does happen: a finance person openly or subtly abuses the MGO. You do not need to put up with it. This can take the very direct form of negative comments in meetings, or it can be behind the scenes undermining – sowing negative and disparaging information among the leadership team. Your boss needs to deal with this. And if he or she doesn’t deal with it, or it continues, you might need to find another job.

There is nothing better than a good finance person to be your partner. If you have a good one, pour on the love. I mean it. They need affirmation just like you do, and they do not get enough of it. If you have a bad one, try to win them over through education, information and appreciation. Go to lunch. Talk. Listen. Reason with them. Try to see their point of view. You will be surprised how much good happens.