Have you ever heard of a fundraiser fired who was just about to secure a gift for $1 million?

That’s what happened to a professional I’ll call Tom.

Houston, we have a problem

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of Tom’s story when someone called me in a similar situation. Tom didn’t last six months. The vice president fired Tom as soon as she could because she felt threatened by the immediate success of a first-rate fundraiser. In other words, the leadership of this nonprofit organization and centers of power were so convoluted that the charity preferred to fire a successful new fundraiser rather than upset the vice president.

When Tom entered a large nonprofit organization in a newly created position, director of development. The entire team that reported to the vice president was young and early in their careers. Tom was ostensibly hired to “professionalize” the department as the middle manager.

In theory, the vice president would be able to spend more of her time doing what she was good at doing, working with major donors, instead of perpetuating a revolving door environment with staff that stayed less than a year. Since senior management realized they had a problem, they convinced the vice president to hire a director of development, but she never really bought into the idea.

An iron grip and set up for failure

When Tom began at the organization, it didn’t take him long to realize that the vice president had an iron grip on her team. And, she also had a similar grip on the leaders of the organization. I think it’s fair to say that many preferred not to deal with the vice president and they allowed her to behave badly–so long as she raised the money. In reality, although she was good at raising most of the money, in recent years the goal had been missed. But, there was always a reason.

Tom was set to fail from the very beginning. Instead of allowing him to do what he was hired to do, what was in his job description, he toiled countless hours writing and re-writing grant requests. His grant writing was in addition to the grant writer whose job it was to do this task. He expected he would go out and call on donors, which was part of his job duties. The vice president limited any contact with donors.

Raise money and get fired

Due to his experience in the industry and his contacts, he did have an ace up his sleeve. He called on a prospective donor early, and they became interested in the organization and donating. The vice president allowed these meetings to occur, for a little bit of time.

The days continued shifting sand. According to the vice president, Tom was too detail oriented. And, when he was strategic, he was taken to task for not being detailed enough. All the while, Tom thought that the $1 million gift he was working on securing would help him keep his job.

That was not to be because a few weeks before the donation closed, Tom got fired.

Want to guess what happened with the gift?

That’s right. The donor said they needed to “re-evaluate.”

Damage to the non-profit

More than likely the vice president knew from the day Tom interviewed for the job that she would fire anyone hired into the position of director of development. During his short tenure, the vice president worked overtime discrediting anything he did with senior management and the CEO.

Unfortunately, the nonprofit and CEO are responsible for this and Tom’s story is a tale of weak (and reckless) leadership. However, as I saw again in the case of another fundraiser, although the gift amount was high, many fundraisers in small nonprofits across the country have suffered the same experience.

Ultimately, the nonprofit–which has a responsibility to the community–treads water. The poor leadership of senior leaders at Tom’s old organization, not to mention the damage done by someone like the vice president, harm nonprofits. They may tread water for a while. The board may accept for a period the excuses or perhaps they’ll ignore it, so they don’t have to deal with it. However, the ones who suffer are not only people like Tom, but it’s the entire organization, and everyone served because the nonprofit limps along year by year–perpetuating an unsustainable situation.


Author of “Not Your Father’s Charity: Grip & Rip Leadership for Social Impact” (Free Digital Download)

© 2017 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.