“Why am I failing at my job?”

We hear this question a lot these days. Failure is lurking for many (if not most) mid-level, major gifts, and planned giving officers in the non-profit sector.

But it’s a quiet question. You have to dig to find it. Why? Because these good frontline fundraisers are usually afraid to say it out loud for fear that that they will get in trouble by unmasking or bringing to light their boss’s heretofore private feelings.

You know how it is. You have this feeling that your supervisor is not entirely happy with your performance. But they’re not saying anything about it. It’s just a vibe you get. So, what can you do if you find yourself in this position?

First, dig out that job description – the one you were hired with – and then compare what that document says about performance against how you are objectively doing. So, you do that. To demonstrate, let’s take a major gift officer job description. This is how it usually goes.

The original job description lists the following job functions:

  1. Creates and executes a caseload communications plan.
  2. Leads in one-to-one solicitation, gift acknowledgement, and stewardship communication.
  3. Successfully manages a portfolio of major gift prospects.
  4. Serves as key fundraising contact for [region].
  5. Coordinates and implements special projects as assigned.
  6. Takes donors on site visits.
  7. Manages all office systems related to the major gifts job.
  8. Participates in the annual giving campaign and selected events.
  9. Works in conjunction with other development department functions assuring collaboration between direct marketing, social media, foundations, corporations and planned giving.

I am already depressed reading this. How can the MGO, who must own this job description, know if they are succeeding or failing? As can be seen, except for point #3 above – “successfully manage a portfolio of major gift prospects” – except for that one point, the rest of the job description is a mishmash of non-revenue producing activity.

Even the “manage a portfolio of major gift prospects” point is off because it uses the word “prospects” rather than “donors.” Not to mention, it doesn’t say precisely how the MGO will be measured. In truth, it’s no wonder frontline fundraisers are disoriented, discouraged, and dropping like flies. Who would want to work in such an environment?

Surprisingly, most job descriptions Jeff and I (and our team) see are wrong. First, they have everything AND the kitchen sink in them. Pull yours out and see if what I am saying is true. Secondly, there is nothing in the job description that states how the person will be measured.

Think about this. How can a person emotionally survive in an environment like this? Never knowing what is being valued and what isn’t. And if they do know what is valued, then there is no metric to measure that value. So, there’s plenty of insecurity around that point.

Let me show you what I mean by how an unrelated or undefined task leaves this MGO confused and worried. To illustrate, I’ve just grabbed four of the points above:

  1. “Successfully manages a portfolio of major gift prospects.” How is success defined? Is the portfolio actual donors or prospects? If donors, how were they selected? Are they active? Do they want to relate?
  2. “Serves as key fundraising contact for [region].” What does key fundraising contact mean? Is it any donor or person in that region who wants something? What is the limit to this? Can they ask for anything or does this frontline fundraiser simply have to be available? How much time should the fundraiser allocate to this?
  3. “Coordinates and implements special projects as assigned.” What constitutes a special project? What if too many are assigned and there is not enough time to relate to donors? How will success be measured?
  4. “Takes donors on site visits.” What donors? To what sites? For what purpose? How will this use of time be measured and valued?

You can see that with this kind of job description, the frontline fundraiser lives in total chaos. What’s more, the lack of precision and accountability creates an undefined and hostile environment.

At this time, most frontline fundraisers in non-profits and charities around the world live like this – it is a dark, hostile, and scary place to be, which is why I think the frontline fundraiser’s failure starts with the wrong job description.

If you’re a frontline fundraiser, what can you do about this? Ask for definition and clarity. Don’t keep living with that old and ineffective arrangement.

If you are a leader or manager, re-write those job descriptions to add clarity. After that, add an accountability section to each job description. Here is what a very brief job description with an accountability section will look like – there should only be five categories of work in every MGO job description. (Check out this template if you need one.) The five work categories are:

  • Qualify donors for a caseload.
  • Create individual goals for each donor on the caseload.
  • Create a contact, marketing, and communication plan for each donor on the caseload that is focused on fulfilling the donor’s interests and passions. Execute that plan and modify it as circumstances change.
  • Work with program staff to secure project information for creating donor offers (front-end) and reporting to donors on how their giving made a difference (back-end).
  • Perform other major gift officer duties as required, including monthly reporting to management that accurately reflects caseload activity and performance.

I know you may look at this very simple to-the-point list and get anxious about something being left out. Believe me, this is it. It really is! If your MGO does these five things, then they will be successful. But, if you load in a bunch of other stuff, they will fail. It is that simple.

Once you have written the above five points into the job description, create an accountability section. I actually label that section: “Accountability: Performance will be measured by:” and then I list a “mirror” of each of the five categories of work above and state how the employee will be evaluated. Then, I add a couple of other points about the employee’s ability to manage people, process, deadlines, and budget, and their ability to relate to others, both of which are important performance evaluation items.

Now, think about how freeing a job description like this is! It tells the MGO what they are supposed to do. Significantly, it also tells them how they will be measured. Bam! No more wondering, no more anxiety, and no more subjective interpretation about how things are. In short, it is clear, objective, and understandable.

Resolve today to help your frontline fundraisers know what they are supposed to be doing and how they will be evaluated. Believe me, you will keep more of them around for the long-term, and they will be happier and more fulfilled in their work.