The board of trustees must be the lifeblood of a non-profit organization’s fund-raising and development activities. They are the leaders who approve program initiatives developed from the organization’s long-range strategic plan. They authorize the expenditure of funds to carry out those initiatives. Those board-authorized expenses determine the organization’s operating budget. When that operating budget is greater than earned and endowment income, money must be raised to cover the resultant deficit. Therefore, it is trustees who establish fund-raising goals through their expense authorizations.

An Alarming and Potentially Dangerous Trend

Those leaders of non-profit organizations who establish fund-raising needs should carry the full responsibility for meeting those needs, but in recent years I have seen more and more organizations place the burden for fund-raising gift solicitation on the shoulders of executive directors and development staff. When staff members are given the responsibility of raising all or most of the money an organization needs, I have seen those non-profit organizations experience many serious and damaging consequences. In those instances, trustees failed to recognize that successful fund-raising officers do not ask for the money; they get others, beginning with the trustees themselves, to ask for it.

As I have seen more and more heated discussion in recent years about who should be raising the money for non-profit organizations, I have observed a change in how we development professionals describe and perhaps even think about ourselves and how others see us.

What’s In A Name?

There is a tendency in the development profession these days to describe our work as fund-raising and to call ourselves fund-raisers. To my way of thinking, volunteers are the true fund-raisers and we development professionals are the people who create the opportunity for them to successfully raise money. We establish the fund-raising atmosphere by developing the plans and providing the tools of fund-raising for others better positioned to use them.

To some this may seem like a thinly split hair, but I think it is the fulcrum that allows us to leverage development effort into successful fund-raising.

In my experience, the most successful development officers have been facilitators of fund-raising, not solicitors of gifts. But today, many development professionals are being hired to raise funds, not establish and manage development operations. Sometimes they even seek to be the fund-raiser for the organization—its chief solicitor. The once clear difference between the role of a professional development officer and that of a trustee or other volunteer as a gift-soliciting fund-raiser has been blurred.

Often, development professionals have become fund-raisers for organizations at the request or at the insistence of the board of trustees. Sometimes they have taken on the responsibility of asking for gifts out of frustration. In my fund-raising workshops, there was a time when I could deal with the issue in just a few words and move on to the next topic. The obvious dangers of traveling down that dark road could easily be illuminated. But that is no longer the case. I am finding more and more development professionals, executive directors, and trustees who embrace the idea of having staff ask for all or the majority of gifts. I believe it is more necessary than ever before to show them the detrimental consequences of ceding frontline fund-raising duties to staff.

Be a Facilitator Not a Solicitor

Professional development officers should be the solicitors of last resort. A request for a donation should come from someone within a prospect’s peer group. It is the job of professional development officers to design, put together, and manage the campaign. They provide donor prospect profiles, organize site visits, and otherwise help to arrange relationships beneficial to their organization. Volunteers who are themselves business executives, well-off individuals, community leaders, or board members, are the ones who should ask their counterparts for donations.

Not Convinced?

Identify the following statements as true or false

___ The Board will pitch in to help raise the money when they know you are being paid to do so.
___ You will take the time and expend the energy necessary to cultivate potential donors for the long-term good of your organization when you know your performance is being measured almost exclusively on how well you meet short-term campaign-funding demands.
___ You will be able to take the time to help build a volunteer solicitor organization that will generate more money from more donors while you are instead meeting daily with prospects to ask them for gifts.
___ The personal and exclusive fund-raising-related relationships you develop will be available to your organization once you leave that organization.
___ Although you do not share career status, economic status, or social position with major donors, you are well positioned to personally get them to give to their fullest ability.
___ You will have the time to meet with each and every major prospect as many times as needed to present the organization’s case, convince each prospect to provide support, and then maximize each donor’s gift.
___ If you meet the fund-raising goal with seeming relative ease this year, the board will not arbitrarily raise it to a much higher level next year.
___ If a campaign fails, the trustees will not place the vast majority of the blame at your feet.
___ If a campaign fails, you will not blame the trustees because they didn’t help you enough.

Did you identify all the statements as true? Even a majority of them? If not, then you are beginning to see some of the real dangers of placing gift solicitation duties in the hands of paid staff.

As well, when you examine those consequences and limitations to staffs’ effectiveness in asking for the money, a key question for the development staff—for the executive director—is just how many prospects’ “doors” can a staff person open in the first place relative to their own time and other duty constraints and the volume of prospective major donors to be solicited? And realistically, many doors will not open at all to admit staff to be able to ask for gifts of this sort—doors which would otherwise be more readily open to the prospects’ peers and others of influence and affluence in the community.

Long experience has shown that the best development officers manage campaigns. They rarely ask individuals for money. They provide fund-raising plans and tools to others better positioned to do the actual asking. Development officers are facilitators. The money raised through their efforts supports their organizations’ work, but their efforts are best deployed behind the scenes in support of others who do the asking. A development officer’s principal charges are to create numerous, efficient, and compelling opportunities for donors to support an organization and to make the experience of giving satisfying and rewarding.

Peer-To-Peer Solicitation Delivers the Most Money

From many of the articles posted on this website, you can readily see the strong and unwavering position I take that members of the board of trustees and other volunteers are the people who must raise all or most of the money for a non-profit organization. These days far too many boards and eager-to-please development professionals are starting down the slippery slope of relying on staff to be the gift solicitors of first resort.

Following is an overview of how I would see the effectiveness of staff solicitations vs. solicitations made by volunteers. Over simplified, to be sure, but wouldn’t you want the best possible five out of five positive characteristics working when seeking major gifts?

  • When a volunteer solicitor’s relationship to a prospect, relative to the solicitor’s level of giving, is the same or more than the prospect, the following qualities are shared:
    1. Career Status
    2. Economic Status
    3. Social Position
    4. Interest In The Organization
    5. Mutual Respect
  • When a staff member-solicitor is compared to a prospective donor, only the following qualities are usually shared:
    1. Interest In The Organization
    2. Mutual Respect

What do you say? Wouldn’t you rather have five out of five of the best chances for major gifts working for your organization—rather than only the two the staff fund-raiser brings to the asking table?

The best solicitor is a member of the prospect’s peer group or the peer group to which the prospect aspires. The CEO of a company is far more likely to share career status, economic status, and social position with another business leader than the development director or even the executive director of a non-profit organization.

Ideally, prospective donors should be asked to give by someone likely to have a high degree of influence over them. Qualities to look for in a solicitor for a specific prospect include:

Past association with the prospect:

    The solicitor could be someone a prospect knows professionally, shares the same neighborhood with, or has in some other way had positive and meaningful contact.


    People who have a compelling presence and an infectious personality can influence both the willingness to give and the size of the gift.

Stature: People are flattered when someone they consider important asks them for a contribution.

Commitment: The higher the degree of devotion and dedication to an organization and its programs that a volunteer solicitor manifests, the more successful he or she will be in convincing others.

I have heard the argument made that a staff member’s commitment to an organization and the respect that he or she has earned in the community or in the eyes of the prospect is enough to overcome an absence of shared social, economic, and career points. Don’t you believe it! Peer group pressure and leverage are and always will be two of the best solicitation tools of fund-raising.

Not an Ideal World

However, I understand and accept that there are times when staff has to step into the breach and ask for money. We should all be so lucky to have an unlimited number of dedicated and effective volunteer fund-raisers waiting to be matched up with each and every potential major donor. When effective volunteer solicitors are not available, it is far better to have staff ask for the money than to fail to court and solicit a prospect who otherwise might be lost forever.

In those rare instances when they have to take the lead and raise the money, staff must be skilled and discreet at working to shift and spread the credit for any of their success in raising funds to a logical board member or the board as a whole. The last thing staff needs is to be seen as successful fund-raisers. We know that when that happens, board members will take the easy way out and abrogate their fund-raising responsibilities. We must never give the board an opportunity to declare of an executive director or development officer, “Let Helen ask for the money. She’s good at it.” Or, “Helen got the money last year, so she should go and ask for it again this year.” Or even worse, “That’s what we hired Helen for. That’s her job.”

We have to be careful to avoid this no-win trap. I suggest a help in doing so would be to share this article with your leadership, particularly if you find yourself in “Helen’s” position. Simply let your leadership review the above true-or-false quiz, and then ask how they would respond.

Trustees need to recognize that executive directors, development professionals, and other staff should be solicitors of last resort except in those exceedingly rare instances based on personal relationships when they are solicitors of best resort. The question trustees should always ask is, who is the best person to ask this prospect for money.

Fielding The Best Solicitation Team

Who should ask for a major gift depends on who will be the most effective individual to make the “ask,” and that usually means more than one person—a team. The executive director should be, as the occasion warrants, a team member in the company of a key volunteer in the solicitation effort. The executive director, as the staff “expert,” usually more than anyone else, possesses deeper knowledge of the organization in general, and of the details of a particular cause being promoted. More often than not, the executive director is in the very best position to answer any question posed by any prospect. That could be true as well with the director of development and other staff department managers as appropriate to the solicitation visit. Who actually makes the “sales close” can be determined and agreed-upon in advance. But in the end, the person who should take the lead, close the deal, and ask for the money, should be a peer of the prospect, or as near to a peer as possible.

The “Final” Word(s)—Again!

The organization that turns to its staff as fund-raisers of first resort is setting itself up for failure. A board of trustees that decides staff, rather than they and other volunteers, should ask for the majority of donated funds is failing to fulfill a major part of its responsibility to oversee the organization and maintain its fiscal soundness. It is the board that approves spending, and it is the board that must take responsibility for assuring that sufficient funds are available to cover those expenses. They should not shirk their responsibilities and expect or demand that others do what is their job.

Those are my views of who should raise the money from within an organization. How do they relate to yours?


Those are my views of who should raise the money from within an organization. How do they relate to yours?