Who is Your Best Fundraiser?

Tell me something (just between us) – who is the best fundraiser at your organisation? Perhaps it’s your CEO (awesome!), the Chair of the Board (lucky you!) or is it your Head of Major Gifts? Or might it be your new Development Manager? – you know: the eloquent, fearless one.  Or maybe it’s your Regular Giving Manager? – the one who just turned a dead and dying appeal into something new and wonderful. Or – is it the person who sits at the Front Desk – your Office Administrator/Receptionist/Personal Assistant/Holy Oracle of Corporate Knowledge?

Of course, ideally, all the above are strong fundraisers at your organisation. But it might surprise you that your Front Desk person has the potential to be amongst your organisation’s BEST fundraisers. After all, you might not find even find “fundraising” in their job description.

I was speaking with a fellow non-profit colleague recently and she told me she is sending her entire team of five to a fundraising conference in the USA (we’re in Australia, so it’s quite a commitment her organisation is making). Including the Office Receptionist. “She’s my best fundraiser”, my non-profit colleague said. I was super impressed by her and her organisation’s commitment to professional development for her whole team – the sort of commitment that can change an organisation that fundraises into a fundraising organisation.

Let’s step back and consider what it is that your Front Desk person does (if you are in a large organisation with several Front Desk people in many different departments you should consider them all for this exercise). Answer phones, direct calls, take event RSVPs, process donations, manage diaries, logistics, draft letters, manage archival materials… perhaps these are some of the day-to-day duties that spring to mind. But I’m sure the duties are more aptly described as: customer service, customer enquiry and complaint management, creative problem-solver, customer engagement, customer experience, donor stewardship, communications and office angel. Yes? Put this way, you’re no doubt seeing the potential for your Front Desk person to be your organisation’s best fundraiser.

Your Front Desk person holds enormous power when it comes to creating better relationships with your customers (aka prospective donors). Firstly, if someone contacts your organisation it is usually because they have some level of interest in your organisation. Sure, they could be rip-roaringly mad at your organisation for something (hope not…) but even being mad at you means they have a level of interest and care about the work of your organisation. When people contact your organisation, they expect their enquiry to be addressed by someone who displays a good deal of knowledge and passion for your organisation, someone who can solve their problem (it is just plain irritating for the customer to have to speak with “The Supervisor”). In this interaction, your Front Desk person holds the power to inspire your customer about your organisation’s work.

Every inbound and outbound interaction should bring your customer closer to your organisation, and, by this I mean: closer to being a donor to your organisation. Your Front Desk person holds the power to make this so.

Here are three simple ways of making this possible:

Help your staff articulate why you do what you do and how you do it

All your staff must be able to articulate why your organisation does what it does and they should be able to give examples of how you do it (i.e. the proof that your work has impact). They must believe in your organisation’s reason for being. If you don’t believe me, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk “Start with Why” – his mantra being that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

Partly, this is about hiring the right people to work in your organisation. It is also about giving them ongoing opportunities to experience and be inspired by the work of your organisation. And it most certainly is about giving them the skills to express the why and how of your organisation in a way that is engaging and compelling to prospective supporters. These are basic attributes and skills that need to be nurtured in all your staff, irrespective of where they sit on the pay scale.

Let’s say I email the Foundation of a local children’s hospital to RSVP for a fundraising event. My email is received by the Administration Assistant for the Foundation. The Administration Assistant could very well respond just by saying:

“Many thanks for your RSVP, we look forward to seeing you at the event”.

That would do the job, but it would make more of an indelible impression if the Administration Assistant responded by saying:

“Many thanks for your RSVP, we look forward to seeing you at the event. It’s a busy time here as we have just opened our new neonatal ward. I was lucky to hear first-hand from one of our neonatal nurses yesterday about how he and his colleagues work tirelessly to ensure babies born prematurely at our hospital have the best chance of defying the odds and growing up healthy and complication-free. We’re looking forward to sharing some of our ground-breaking work in children’s health, including neonatal care, with you at the event next month.”

Wow! Firstly, I’d be inclined as the customer to respond to an email like this – remember, every interaction should bring the customer closer to becoming a donor. And secondly, I would be more likely to keep the commitment in my diary and show up at the event.

However, to give a response like this, your Front Desk person needs to have had opportunities to observe and be involved in the work of your organisation and see its impact first-hand. And – this is important – you must talk with your staff about how you all can articulate the impact of your organisation’s work in your everyday interactions with customers in a way that is inspiring, engaging and authentic. Nothing gives greater authenticity than a first-hand account of an impactful experience.

Empower your office staff to solve customer enquiries

Not all office staff are employed (and paid) at a level where making significant corporate decisions is appropriate. However, to the extent that decision-making is appropriate you must empower all your staff (especially your Front Desk person) to solve as many common customer enquiries as possible. Remember – it’s plain irritating for a customer/prospective supporter to be passed on to a second person to have their enquiry resolved. And if customer enquiries are handled by your Front Desk in a way that brings the customer closer to the organisation (and closer to being a donor) then that frees up your fundraising staff to get on with fundraising. It’s a win-win situation.

Here are some ideas to help make this happen:

  • Make sure that you have good processes, systems and scripts in place to enable your Front Desk person to accept donations with gratitude, efficiency and style.
  • Your Front Desk person must be well informed about all current fundraising appeals, PR matters, events and organisational activities – FAQ documents for all such things will assist your Front Desk person in their handling of customer enquiries.
  • On a weekly basis (at least), ask your office staff about what customers are saying, asking and needing – and have the flexibility to change your processes when required, to further empower your staff in their interactions with customers.
  • Remember, give your Front Desk person plenty of examples of the impact of your organisation’s work. Help them be confident to use these stories and proof points when dealing with customers.

Invest in the fundraising potential of all staff

No doubt you’ve experienced the huge challenge that is hiring good fundraising staff in what is, for employers, a very competitive recruitment market. Advancement managers must think laterally when it comes to recruiting new fundraising staff, and developing talent within your team is of vital importance for the ongoing success of your organisation. However, it does take time and sustained effort.

Here are some – of countless – ideas for developing the fundraising potential of your staff:

  • Have a fortnightly morning tea where stories are shared amongst your office staff of how your organisation is fulfilling its reason for being. Incredibly, I find that one of the biggest fundraising challenges in most organisations is that staff cannot articulate the impact achieved for their organisation’s beneficiaries. Believe me, you’ll be a sector leader if you nurture this ability in all your staff. Make sure all your staff are encouraged to contribute their stories (not just the fundraisers!). You could roster people to share a story each week (obviously, you also need to ensure that they are given regular opportunities to experience the work that your organisation does, so that they have something to contribute to these sessions).
  • Run an in-house internship program, both up and down the office hierarchy and across fundraising and non-fundraising roles. It could be as simple as you shadowing your Front Desk person for half a day and him or her shadowing you for half a day – and then debriefing on what you’ve learned and any suggestions for how things might be developed or improved.
  • Invite a group of donors in for a morning or afternoon tea Q&A discussion with your staff about why they support your organisation. Not all staff get the everyday opportunity to interact with donors, which, as fundraisers, we know to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of working in a non-profit organisation.
  • Run a scholarship program for paid professional development. I’m assuming your organisation pays for some level of professional development for all staff on a reasonably regular basis. However, consider allocating an additional, separate budget for a “Scholarship for Professional Development in Fundraising” made available to non-fundraising staff, selected upon application. (Of course, you could offer scholarships in other areas of professional practice – e.g. communications – if that is an area in which your organisation needs to develop its skill base).

I truly believe that changing the culture of your organisation to one in which all staff proudly take responsibility for cultivating donors, is the single biggest predictor of fundraising success.

Yes, changing the culture starts at The Top but it also starts at the Front Desk.