nonprofit sectorLast week I had the opportunity to speak to a philanthropist in her 80’s. Leigh (she asked me not to use her last name) actually worked in the nonprofit sector for decades only retiring last year. Those who know her consider her a master fundraiser having raised tens of hundreds of millions of dollars during the course of her career. Clearly, she has seen a lot in her nearly 50 years in the industry.

Leigh is also very generous. She did not have a family and children of her own, so her “family” naturally became the people she worked with and the causes she supported. She is a thoughtful major donor for a number of schools and nonprofits and has funded the education of many people along the way.

I had a great conversation with Leigh and I thought it would be a good idea to have her perspective to share on what she has seen as a nonprofit executive and major donor. This will be a two-part series.

When you got started working in the nonprofit sector, Leigh, what are your thoughts about those earlier times?

One thing’s for sure. There weren’t nearly as many nonprofits as there are today. I’m not sure that’s such a good thing. I think there may be too many organizations competing or duplicating efforts.

As a woman, starting out in the industry in the 70’s were interesting times. For the most part, I was reporting to men and they were in charge. I started out in the secretarial pool, and I was fortunate enough down the line to have someone notice me. Those were the days when it was expected that a woman wanted nothing more than to be home with her new oven so she can cook. But, I happened to be working at a time when women were entering into the workforce in large numbers and things were bound to change.

How have you seen the nonprofit sector change?

That’s a big question. It’s changed a lot in good ways and bad ways. When I started out in the industry, we were not professionalized, if you understand. There weren’t nearly as many, if any, programs as there are today in nonprofit management. Although I have an MBA, I think it’s important that the sector has worked to professionalize itself with certifications or programs in business school directly related to operating a nonprofit business.

As a fundraiser, when I started, I was mentored. That was how you learned the art of fundraising. It’s very easy to learn about the so-called science of it, but it’s not easy to learn about how to handle people and work with major donors, for instance, if no one teaches you. That is something that I think is important and is somehow being lost. So, while we’re teaching more people about the business side of nonprofit work, I think that mentorship has started to go by the wayside.

There seems to be something being lost in this move toward technology. I understand that times change and the world changes. I also understand and know that technology is providing opportunities that did not exist before in philanthropy. Technology has been an incredible force, one I don’t think we fully understand or grasp yet as a sector.

But, I think the art is being lost. I think understanding how to deal with people is being lost in this race toward technology. I was always very committed to training professional fundraisers on how to deal with people, especially those who work with individual gifts. Now, I think many nonprofits are no longer investing time or resources in their people, especially the young ones, and executives think that because a twenty-something knows how to work with technology that’s going to be the path to raising money. It’s not.

There takes a certain level of sophistication and understanding in dealing with the personalities and egos of members of a board or individual giving donors. Knowing how to deal with them well and effectively is something that takes training. Someone has to invest the time with younger professionals and train them in that art. I think that’s something that’s being forgotten as we move to technology. I think that understanding how to deal with people needs to be coupled with using technology effectively. They’re not mutually exclusive.

People are still making decisions on giving money. People still make decisions about donating. Executives, marketers and fundraisers need to understand how to deal with people. That’s something that I think is being lost.

On Thursday, I will publish the remainder of my conversation with Leigh where you can read her thoughts about the tension in nonprofit staffs today, her take on donors today and the future of the nonprofit sector.



Author of “The Rise and Fail of Charities In the 21st Century: How The Nonprofit World Is Changing And What You Can Do To Be Ready”.


© 2015 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.