Young nonprofit professionals, the Launch Pad contest, and going to people’s strengths

by Janine Vanderburg, JVA Consulting

Many of you by now may know that my idea to train boomers with sales backgrounds to become nonprofit fundraisers is one of 25 finalists in the national Civic Ventures Launch Pad contest.

Last night, I received an email message from Lauren Croucher, a young nonprofit professional for whom I have great admiration. And her question was this:

Hi Janine, I’ve known you through my work with YNPN and other nonprofits in Colorado. I’d love to vote for you – many of my nonprofit colleagues are encouraging it. I’m a bit confused, however, about your language about the existence of a leadership gap and the need for corporate folks to step in. How will this affect young nonprofit leaders, such as myself, in filling these leadership positions? Many of us will tell you that there is no leadership gap, only a lack of willingness to let young professionals lead and care for their organizations. Can you respond to this?

Thanks,
Lauren

And I thought that this question was sufficiently important that, with Lauren’s permission, I’m both publishing it, as well as my response to her.

Lauren, thanks so much for your question and I’d love to respond; this is something I’m extraordinarily passionate about.

I TOTALLY agree that there is a lack of willingness to let young professional lead for their organizations, which is why I’ve been such an advocate of Denver Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), why I created Executive Director Academy so that young professionals are in a better position to apply for executive director jobs, and why I have personally advocated more times than you can know with nonprofits of all sizes that they need to cultivate their internal benches and develop their young talent. In my workshops on succession planning and in the strategic planning I do with nonprofits, my key point is that as opposed to planning for a search, boards should right now be ensuring that plans are in place to develop talent.

And it’s something that I’ve modeled at JVA. Our editor, two members of our evaluation team (including the evaluation manager) and our business development manager were all JVA interns a few years ago.

So why am I advocating now for retired boomers with sales backgrounds to fill nonprofit fundraising jobs? Do I want corporates to displace aspiring young professionals? Absolutely not!

So what am I hoping to accomplish through this idea? I’m hoping to relieve young staff professionals and young board members (and actually those of any age) from the unrealistic expectations of fundraising that the sector places on everyone.

I believe strongly in the strengths finder concept—that people do best and will experience their greatest growth and success in areas where they have natural talents and strengths. For some people that will be fundraising—they embrace the marketing and sales aspect of it—it is something that they are naturally good at.

From all of my work in the sector, however, including training thousands of nonprofit staff members, volunteers and board members, I know that the majority of people do not want to fundraise, or don’t necessarily have a natural talent to do so. Most people I’ve met haven’t started a nonprofit, or decided to work in one because they want to fundraise (I know there are some exceptions). Yet somehow, for them to be able to be legitimately involved with the organization, we require them to fundraise. We act as though they can’t really care about the organization if they don’t fundraise. We call board members “dysfunctional” if they refuse to fundraise. In the last two weeks, I’ve had two executive directors under 30 share with me that they might leave their organizations because of the unrealistic expectations about fundraising and the number of hours a week it caused them to work.

And as I’ve thought more and more about this, I’ve started thinking: How insane is all this? In the business world, there are the core products and services of an organization, and then there are the things that support it: sales, admin, IT, accounting, etc. In the nonprofit world, except in the smallest organizations, no one expects everyone to do the IT and accounting work, but if you don’t embrace fundraising (the sales function), you are suspect. Does that make sense? Only in this way: that fundraising is so vital to advancement of the mission, that we require a lot of people to focus their time and energy on something that they may or may not be good at.

And I started imagining another world—one in which people are passionate about programs and mission-related work (young EDs for example)—could hire a group of people who are already highly skilled at asking people for money and closing deals, who have participated in corporate sales training programs and for whom asking for something is as natural as breathing because it’s something they are naturally talented at. And if these young EDs have a natural talent for fundraising, they could learn from someone who has the benefit of the depth and breadth of sales training rarely available in the nonprofit sector. And if they don’t, if they are involved with a nonprofit because of background, expertise and passion for the issue or cause, they can freely give of their talents without the burnout of facing unrealistic expectations about fundraising, having to cajole their boards to fundraise, etc.

The Launch Pad contest focuses on boomers, and I do believe that retired boomers with sales backgrounds are a great immediate source to address the fundraising issue. But by no means do I believe it needs to be limited to boomers: I’ve posted previously on Facebook my intent to fully develop this idea with boomers, but intend to fully roll it out to people of all ages transitioning from the corporate sector specifically with backgrounds in sales.

My intent is to totally change the nonprofit paradigm that says: to be involved with a nonprofit, you MUST fundraise. I no longer believe that. I believe that people excel when they give the talents they have. For some of us, that is fundraising. For others, it may be any number of other things. Nonprofits benefit when we reduce artificial barriers (including age and fundraising requirements) to full participation and inclusion in mission-related work.

Thank you for raising the question.

All the best,

Janine

Janine Vanderburg is President/CEO of JVA Consulting, a former member of the Advisory Board of the Denver Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, and a current finalist in Civic Ventures Launch Pad contest. To learn more about Janine’s idea and to vote, go to: http://launchpad.encore.org/meet-Janine

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2 Responses to Young nonprofit professionals, the Launch Pad contest, and going to people’s strengths

  1. Abby says:

    Being a young nonprofit professional, I can see Lauren’s point, however, when this idea was initially brought to my attention- I didn’t see it, and only saw it after this blog.

    When presented with Janine’s idea I thought of the nonprofit I work for. I am thankful to be at a nonprofit where I do not have to fundraise, my boss handles this, and does so with class and skill that I am thankful to learn from her. I thought about how I HATE fundraising, and if there is one person who could get people motivated about it, it would be Janine. The innovation that she has brought to JVA would be capitalized, and only best practices would be utilized for gaining success.

    The next thing that came to mind were my parents. My dad is a salesman, he is a boomer and is about ten years out from retirement. However, retire is a word my dad will not understand and he will become restless after a few months. While my dad is a salesman, I do not have the skills of a salesman. I have learned how to think business from him, but asking for money, selling something, makes me incredibly nervous. My dad- he’s someone I would want out there advocating from any nonprofit, bringing in funding and making the life of the nonprofit better, while giving him meaning to his retirement.

    When I thought of this scenario, I was never threatened of losing my job- or being pushed out. It’s not something he will look towards to secure a steady income. Boomers also are looking for meaning, they aren’t going to take retirement idly, they have accomplished too much to do this. Some will. Some won’t. Those who don’t, I truly want them in the nonprofit sector contributing.

    I think this idea has the potential to help revitalize the sector, and to change fundraising as a whole.

  2. Abby and Janine, thanks for the thoughtful dialogue on this. I’m really interested in exploring collaboration between the three sectors and think this idea could be really fruitful for nonprofits. I’m just not convinced that bringing in corporate sales folks will solve our fundraising concerns, but I’m very interested in learning more about the strengths-based work Janine and many others are doing. I agree that everyone has different skills, but I also think that those of us who serve in the nonprofit sector do so out of passion for our work – fundraising is actually a simple step for all of us. People don’t choose our sector for the pay, we choose it from the passion and satisfaction we get from our work – the ingredients needed to fundraise. Fundraising is little more than telling your love story for your work to others so they can support your passion financially. I’m not saying that corporate folks don’t have a place in the sector – quite the contrary! I think we need to spend less time focusing on the sector lines and focus on, as Janine puts it so well, our skills and passion for our work. It’s simply a question of the paradigm that we are working within and I think Janine is doing a great job of opening up our viewpoints to consider what else might be out there for our sector, and in encouraging open and honest dialogue from all perspectives. I can’t wait to hear more from all of you and appreciate your openness and willingness to engage with others to find great solutions in our communities.

    Best,
    Lauren Croucher

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