How and what development professionals are held accountable for are two of the most important questions nonprofit organizations and their fundraisers face. Accountability is a necessary tool for managing staff and fundraising efforts, but it is only as good as the foundation upon which it is built.

Early in my career as a fundraiser I struggled in achieving the goals and actions for which I was being held accountable. I would work hard with the best of intentions. But when it came time for my bosses to tally up my successes and failures they saw me as falling short. The result was frustration.

I kept trying to meet the standards—usually only a dollar amount to be raised—placed in front of me. Being chided for my failure to do so seemed to leave me with only two alternatives:

  • Quit the field of fundraising because I was unsuited to be a professional development officer.
  • Hang on and keep trying until I was able to move on to an organization where I might have better luck.

The first of those choices would force me to accept that the problem lay solely within me. The second assumed that a different organization would yield a different result—that luck of the draw was the difference maker.

I was not ready to give up on myself. Nor was I willing to relinquish control of my fate or my organization’s to a belief in luck. What if, I began to wonder, the fault lay not in what I was doing, but in the accountability metric? What if the criteria by which I was being judged lacked validity? What if I was being measured on the wrong scale?

Was achieving the goal set by the executive director and board of my organization the only way to judge whether I was doing my job well? Such thinking led me to question how goal setting was done. Was it based on what we believed we were capable of raising, or on what we wanted to be able to spend?

That led me to another question—one at the heart of the entire concept and reason for accountability. Why was I being held accountable?  It seemed to me the reason why we assess the performance and results of a fundraising effort should be so that we can learn how to do better next time. Yet here I was time and again simply being told that the failure to achieve goal was my fault. There was no logical review of the steps in the welter of interlocking complexities that lead to achieving a fundraising goal. Is accountability about parceling out praise and blame, or about learning from what worked and what didn’t?

What Should We Measure and Why

One time I found myself working with a CEO who actively resisted measuring things such as how many prospects were “qualifying” and even the definition of qualifying. Such knowledge would be useful in evaluating and understanding our overall success or failure. It would shed light on potentially systemic problems. However for this CEO the goal was the only factor in examining performance. You either hit it or you didn’t. As far as he was concerned, he had hired a development professional and given me the responsibility for raising the money the organization needed. I was to go do my job.

The problem was the amount he wanted was not what one development professional could raise by himself in the time frame expected.  This CEO had not considered the fundraising resources and capabilities of his organization. My attempts to learn from the situation and determine what would work were met with accusations of excuse making and failing to accept accountability.

At that early stage of my career I didn’t know how to articulate my concern over qualification of donors, much less whether we even had the right funding model and appropriate diversification of strategies for major donors, events, marketing, and direct mail. When the CEO addressed the issue of my failing to deliver the dollars needed to balance his budget. It was too late to do anything to fix the already failed fundraising effort. In the face of an impending financial crisis, my concerns rang hollow to my boss and were treated as excuses. Just as he had been able only to see the fundraising goal, now he was able only to see the outcome of not achieving that goal.

I was being judged after the fact solely on whether our fundraising had hit its goal. I was not being held accountable for how well I did each of the things required to achieve that goal. Nor were the size of the goal and the way in which it was set explored as possible contributing factors. The goal was sacrosanct.  On top of that resources were assumed to be adequate to reach it. There was no discussion to be had about whether we had created a bridge-too-far situation.

Determining Where and What Can Be Done

In another instance I was working for a large organization that had many local affiliates. This time, I was a little more prepared. I was asked by the CEO to look at all the revenue streams in our budget and tell her the ones for which I would hold myself accountable. I went through the list with her with my resignation letter in my coat pocket. In descending order the largest prospective revenue streams were:

  • A government contract for which she already had sole responsibility.
  • Private funding raised by the affiliates who would resist “home-office” attempts to raise funds in their backyard.
  • A handful of national foundations directing funding to local or statewide efforts and an equally small number with admittedly long decision making processes. In short, national foundations that, with the exception of one, either did not qualify as prospects or whose criteria we did not meet.
  • The small amount that came into the home office from the board, which was hardly worth the expense of a full time development officer.

I offered either to help the local chapters raise the funds they needed or to centralize fundraising from private donors—a small part of the individual efforts of the affiliates. It was my judgment that this latter endeavor could become a large part of a centralized major gifts operation. But again I was told that, “I was hired to raise money, not rearrange the furniture.” Once again an organization was failing to take into account its resources and capabilities when setting a fundraising goal. And it was setting up an accountability effort based only on outcome. Process wasn’t even an afterthought.

I have come to believe that meaningful assessment and accountability rest on examining the actions taken in support of the goal set. First the goal has to be achievable. Is it realistic, or pie in the sky? Then strategy and tactics need to be chosen based on the resources of the organization. Fundraising accountability is something which must be accepted by the development department, but it is the responsibility of the leadership of a nonprofit to ground expectations within the reality of the organization.

Sharing the Responsibility

Not all of my work has been with organizations as shortsighted or as narrow in their understanding of accountability as those cited above. There have been organizations in which the development staff, executive staff, and board worked together to determined goals and identified the actions for which each would and be accountable.

When a campaign was not going well, and interim goals were not being met, everyone worked to determine why. This could be done with speed and accuracy because the actions each individual should take were clearly defined. Any issues of individual responsibility were almost always caught early and addressed through a process of group accountability and with mutual respect. If it was determined that front line development staff had done all they could, the executive staff would swing into action. If more firepower was needed, the board entered the fray. In the end, each participant at every level was held accountable for his or her assignments and actions.

With the growing professionalization of the development field, the role of boards and volunteers is becoming more and more complementary to, rather than paramount over the role of paid staff. More and more, staff are being asked to take the lead and know when and how to employ volunteers. With that, comes navigating the shifting landscape of how to hold all parties accountable.

In the end we need to realize that the goal, while the bottom line, is not the totality of the campaign. It is how we kept score.

Accountability Should Be about Achieving Success

One of the drivers of accountability is the desire to measure an organization’s return on investment (ROI). As a development pro, the question of my ROI has regularly come up. While it seems such a simple question, answering it is anything but simple. And as a neophyte fundraiser not being able to respond easily was fear inducing.

What I know now is that fundraising is a complex system and accountability is equally complex. Recognizing that is not an excuse or an attempt to avoid accountability. It is the first mature step in figuring out how to take a serious look at:

  • The actions that lead to success.
  • Who needs to do what.
  • How the adequacy with which each action is performed will be measured.

Every nonprofit organization needs to be able to evaluate its fundraising efforts and the performance of those charged with the responsibility of carrying out those efforts, and every development officer must be willing to accept the accountability metrics of his or her organization. But no one should be hostage to a fiat of accountability such as a fundraising goal in which he or she has had little or no participation in setting. A Development Officer can’t will the numbers to change. Nor is a broad brush attempt at defining activity as something like “get more prospects” going to produce results. Conflict and turmoil among the staff, are more likely to be the outcome.

Accountability is more than numbers. It is about assessing processes and the performance of individuals asked to implement those processes. Fundraising that is realistically conceived, designed within the context of an organization, and executed with skill and continuing oversight is more likely to succeed than fail. Don’t take into account the context of reality, the need for skilled professionals with adequate resources, or leadership that holds itself and others accountable for plans and actions, and a fundraising effort is destined to fail.

And anyone who would argue that poor accountability metrics and standards are just nonprofits failing to act like businesses and implement proven sales strategies, I point to all of the recent conversations in the sales field around exactly the same accountability issues. For the best insights on this, look into the excellent work of Jason Jordan, with Vantage Point Performance and the book he wrote with Michelle Vazzana, “Cracking the Sales Management Code.”

Not every fundraising effort is going to succeed. However it is imperative that an organization gain an understanding of what brought about success or caused failure. Fundraising capability grows out of the knowledge gained from fundraising experience. The only way to acquire that knowledge is by assessing process and actions. Numerical results alone tell us nothing about how they were achieved. The interconnected actions of fundraising deliver those numerical results. True and worthwhile accountability lies in those. In short, what did you do and how well did you do it; not did you hit the number.