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Shelley Uva

About Shelley

When They Just Won't Listen

You’ve just been hired as the grant writer or foundations relations expert or major gifts officer or development associate for a fabulous university, museum, hospital, or social service agency. You’re sitting in your first meeting with your superiors in the development office and some of the people you will need to work with to raise programming funds. These people may be professors or doctors or social workers. Whoever they are, they are the people who make the programs work. You need to work with them to do your job, but what happens when personalities clash? When you disagree with the fundraising strategy that is being adopted? When egos get out of control?

What do you do when the people you are there to support just won’t listen to you at all?

Perhaps you’ve never had this experience, but chances are, if you have worked in development for more than ten minutes, this scenario is all too familiar. People who run programs are recognized as experts in their field, but fundraising seems to be one of those areas in which expertise is often not recognized. Many years ago, I was hired as a consultant to write a proposal for a neurosurgeon. As soon as I walked into his office and introduced myself to him, he let me know my services were not required.

“I’ve written 10 books,” Dr. Brain told me. “I think I can manage a grant proposal on my own.”

Well, possibly he could, but that was not the reply that came to my mind. What I wanted to say was, “Dr. Brain, let’s make a deal. If you don’t write any grant proposals, I won’t perform any brain surgery.”

More recently, I had a professor tell me that he had been teaching for 30 years and hardly required assistance from me to write a proposal. I thought it was interesting that Professor Ego so readily recognized his own experience, but seemed incapable of grasping the fact that other people also have experience. I’m not sure it would have mattered if I had mentioned to him that I have been writing grants for almost 30 years.

These kinds of difficulties arise often in the writing end of development because almost everyone thinks he or she can write, although in reality, most people cannot write at all. But writing is not the only area of development that inspires egomania. It’s amazing how many people with absolutely no expertise in fundraising think they know all about it. Sometimes people feel this way because they were lucky once or twice and something they tried actually worked. Of course, if they knew more, they would know the difference between luck and a real development plan.

People in many professions feel they don’t get the respect they should as professionals. But in development, this problem is not just an irritation; it actually can hinder successful fundraising. The organization that hired you did so presumably because they were impressed by your experience and expertise. So, how do you get the people in charge to remember that once you are on the job?

1. Learn how to really listen to people. When the person who makes the program work talks about what he or she does all day, listen and ask questions and go in and observe, if you can. Try to get a genuine feel for what these people do and how they do it and why they make the choices they make. If you understand the program thoroughly, it is much easier to understand why people make the suggestions they do with regard to fundraising. Very often, these suggestions are not workable, but the program person doesn’t know that because his or her viewpoint is very narrowly focused. At the same time, it is equally important that your viewpoint not be narrowly focused. You are there to raise money, but raising money is not the ultimate objective – running the program is the end goal. If you listen and you learn to ask the right questions, you can help your program person understand that what you do can really help them do what they do.

2. Learn how to express yourself clearly and succinctly. In a large nonprofit, you may have to work with a variety of people, including program officers, public relations and marketing departments, and the people who handle finances and budgets. When you need things from them, make sure you explain not only what you need, but why you need it. Most people do not especially enjoy being given an assignment from someone outside their department, but if you can make each one of these people understand that fundraising is a cooperative process, and that your requests are absolutely essential, you are bound to have better results. And, as we all learned long ago, don’t forget to say please and thank-you.

3. Learn how to deal with egos – theirs and yours. Always assume that the people you work with are just as busy and stressed out as you are. Sometimes, egomania and bad manners are the result. Try to keep yours in check and make sure your program people know that, after all, you are there to help them achieve their goals, not yours. Sometimes disagreements with program people are about more than hurt feelings. Sometimes, these disputes center on strategy or other important issues. These are the instances in which you may have to take a stand and defend it. But before you challenge a program person, make sure you have a good argument ready. Every disagreement is not a battle worth fighting, but when you have to do battle, make sure you are prepared. And, hard as it may be to accept it, the fact is you may still lose. Many factors play a role in decision-making, and being right is only one of them.

4. Finally, remember that fundraising is, by its very nature, a support service. The surgeon, the curator, the professor, the social worker: in the world of the non-profit organization, all of them are more important than the fundraiser, but each one needs the fundraiser to do his or her job. We fundraisers exist to make other peoples’ dreams and ambitions come true. The organizations we work for could not exist without us, but they don’t exist for us. We exist for them. One way to get the people we work with to listen to our expertise is to make sure that they understand our relationship to them and that we understand and accept it ourselves. To mix a couple of metaphors (and don’t do this in a proposal!): We are not the stars, but we are the wind beneath their wings.



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1 Comment

  1. Becki Shawver on December 3, 2015 at 9:32 am


    Great article!

    Sadly, some times no matter how hard we try, grant professionals simply can't get clients or co-workers to understand. With that said, we all have failures and I want to share a recent failure of mine. Note that I hate losing and worse I hate admitting that I failed. But we all need support and understanding and I'm hoping that others will feel less to blame for their own failures if we all acknowledge that no matter how good we are, there are going to be failures. And to know that sometimes, it's simply best to walk away.

    After a year of attempts to get information from the CEO of a small non-profit that is surely going to fail within a year, I walked away from the consulting job a few weeks ago.

    Part of the problem was that the CEO believed that a capital grant for $300,000 to pay off his mortgage was the solution to all of his organization's problems. Unfortunately, his personal for-profit business (associated in a questionable manner to the non-profit clients) has been paying about 75% of the monthly operating costs but will stop doing so within a few months because he says that he can't afford it any longer. He has no planned source of income to cover this shortage.

    Compounding this situation is the fact that he's kept very few records of clients and outcomes over the past 5-6 years. He questioned why he needed to have this type of data and seemed insulted each time I tried to explain why potential funders want to see his past performance before investing in his organization.

    Additionally, his board is made up entirely of his personal friends - all attempts by the local community and elected/appointed officials to have him accept an outsider have been to no avail. And to make matters worse, he has cancelled two small to medium fund raisers (about $10,000 each) because they are "too much trouble." After all, as he said, I was hired to get him that $300,000 within 6 months and then he wouldn't have any money problems.

    There were other challenges (such as all email messages to the center go to his email account and then he redirects them to the appropriate persons delaying communications sometimes for a week). Last month, I politely opted out of any additional work unless he would assist me with the information that I requested. He declined. I didn't even bother sending him a final bill. I just wanted to put an end to my own frustrations.

    I learned a lesson from this client. If they really are such control freaks and unresponsive to working with me, I'll walk away much quicker. A year was a long time to fret over how I could get this man to understand that grant professionals don't write grants "for you" - rather, we write grants "with you."

    So for anyone else feeling frustrated with a client or co-worker, rest assured that even seasoned grant professionals like Shelley and me have been there before and empathize with you.


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