At this time, at this point, in this era: As fundraising needs to transform… Managing Up

Tom Ahern

Meet the frustrated: So MANY fundraisers quit so fast. They learn “best practices” … and then collide with the “Ignorance Ceiling.” I.e., bosses and boards insisting: “I don’t like it. No way.”

A.k.a., Approvals Gone Wild


This was the promising tweet from first-term AFP president and CEO, Mike Geiger:

How to Manage Up for Fundraising Success Without doubt one of THE most critical skills to have, ESPECIALLY in #fundraising dealing with CEOs and boards. Great piece by @hallholly & @InsidePhilanthr @AFPIHQ

Mike’s right. “Great piece.”

By one of my favorite industry journalists, Holly Hall. In my now VERY favorite (best informed, most current, quite gossipy) industry rag, Inside Philanthropy.

I immediately responded to Mike’s tweet:

I just told my MA fundraising class at St. Mary’s U MNthe very same thing. MANAGING UP is an essential skill … especially because the “Ignorance Ceiling” is so stout in the nonprofit world.

The classroom held 21 mid-career fundraising professionals, all pursuing Masters in Fundraising. Many are AFP members. And they will encounter the Ignorance Ceiling repeatedly, guaranteed.

Mike: I’m with you, buddy.


The Ignorance Ceiling

The Ignorance Ceiling is a barrier to career advancement.

It’s like the “Glass Ceiling.” Only it applies to any gender, I guess.


What IS the Ignorance Ceiling?

Well, it’s REAL, for one thing.

In the nonprofit industry, the Ignorance Ceiling is as common as sunrise. It just keeps coming.

I’ve witnessed this scene over and over, on three continents.

A fundraiser’s hand flies up …
… in a workshop in Italy, Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland; probably in Norway this coming September.

The fundraiser attached to the hand then asks ~ grinning, sheepish, resigned, wondering, pessimistic, hopeful:

“Tom: How do I convince my boss that … [fill in the blank; that some tactic she’s just learned from me actually works better than what she is currently doing]?”

My answer has evolved over time. Or i dunno maybe “devolved.”

  • FIRST understand, your bosses don’t know crap about successful donor communications. Measurably so. They’re utterly, comically wrong … pretty much 100% of the time. You can take that to the bank.

Hence: NEVER ask for approval. I sure don’t.

If you do ask, you’ll be quickly served a steel-fisted opinion originating from power rather than knowledge. Synonym? CLUELESS.

I’ve submersed myself in donor communications for at least two decades. And I still read an hour or two every day, just to (barely) keep up with developments in neuroscience and other areas of relevant research.

Nonprofit leaders, be aware: fundraising is changing … rapidly.

Any opinion held by a non-professional is dead wrong and at least 50 years out of date.

Let’s get real together.

For a long time, my personal morning mantra has been: “What if everything I think I know is wrong?” I wonder about that every day, in self-defense.

Why? Because charities hire me for just one reason: to help them make more money from the very same donors they already have, using the very same communications they already emit.

Opinion and ignorance play no role in that pilgrimage … except as obstacles to be overcome.


Who are you people?

Being “literate” (i.e., you can read and write) does NOT make you a skilled marketer nor a record-busting fundraising communicator.

A doctorate in some other field won’t help. Being a CEO, accountant, lawyer, engineer, teacher, politician or socially prominent?


None of these backgrounds qualifies a person to judge donor communications with a cunning eye.

You’ll guess. You’ll be wrong.

And your self-indulgent errors in judgement will cost your beloved nonprofit real money.

Let’s face facts. Granted any position of power, we instantly become over-confident.

So science tells us. So The Choice Factory tells us.  REALLY: it’s just garden-variety human nature to be over-confident. We all do it. Even — maybe especially — US presidents do it.

  • SECOND: Why ARE they undermining you? Dear fundraiser: Have you ever wondered? After all, hitting those daft, unsubstantiated, plucked-from-pretty-thin-air fundraising goals means your neck is on the line, not theirs.

And YET you’re letting THEM, the untrained, set the rules?

Get paranoid: Are you being set up to fail?

Treat the following statement as pragmatic, correctly worded, essentialpolicy for well-managed nonprofits that are NOW dependent or expect to BE dependent on fundraising to remain healthy and growing:

“The chief fundraiser [not the CEO, CFO, COO nor board chair] MUST absolutely, without question or interference, CONTROL/APPROVE every word and image in your donor communications.”

Otherwise, don’t bother to train people.



Nonprofits are SO [fill in the blank]….

  • THIRD: You cannot run a successful business this way. Sure, officially, you might be a ‘nonprofit.’ You still NEED a viable business model to survive and prosper.

For instance: If you want hyper-competent help, you’ll eventually have to pay higher salaries than you currently do.

The good ones don’t come cheap.

And they expect “the idiots” to get out of their way. (Thank you for understanding.)

Dear ED “of tomorrow”, dear CEO “of tomorrow”, dear board chair “of tomorrow”:

Have a plan.

A plan for GROWTH.

Put in permanent place a communications policy that nurtures/worships donors … and the fundraisers who service them.


PS: A systemic drag on donor commitment

Second-guessing by ignorant bosses (EDs, board chairs, fundraising committees) is a widespread problem in the nonprofit sector (which, in the US, now employs the third largest body of workers; after sales [#1] and manufacturing).

I encounter the same problem around the world. Like mold. Like disease.

Ignorance-informed, power-based, dumb-ass second-guessing is costly to your cause.

It kills mission growth.

Do I have your attention yet?