Professional Development is Key to Winning The Hearts of Millennials

As a fundraiser with some success to your credit, you are glad to be able to turn the drudgery of the database to someone lower down the org chart. Likely female, she is young, ambitious, and eager to further the mission by raising as much money as possible from small donors, while handling gift processing and database management. You are glad to hand off all those pesky, bottom-of-the-gift-chart mechanics to the woman we’ll call Database Diva. With Diva handling the drudgery, you are free to go out and raise as much money as possible from the $5,000-plus donors. In the world of development, you think: What could be better?               

In reality, a few things could be better.

First of all, Database Diva’s evaluation metrics contain a trap. If a donor who gave $4,000 last year gives $5,000 this year, that’s good for the organization, right? But that $5,000 gift gets moved into the major gift category so when Diva’s numbers are tabulated, it will look like she lost $4,000. The last thing we want her to feel is discouragement because she stewarded a donor into a higher gift category. Make sure the goals and metrics reflect that gift as a success for her.

Never forget that Database Diva has access to important clues about donors. She sees the handwritten notes that accompany checks. She sees the comments that accompany online donations.  There are addresses in fancy neighborhoods, extraordinary first gifts, or leaps in gift size. If Database Diva can be initiated into the mystique of why and how people give, she will become a great sleuth for the cause.

Here’s another key insight: Database Diva is likely to stay at your organization as long as she feels she is growing and flourishing. The mechanics of her job can probably be mastered in six months.  After that, what is going to make her feel challenged? How long is mastering the next database upgrade going to keep her mind engaged? Maybe a few months. How long is mastering donor psychology going to remain interesting and mysterious?

I have been at it for 25 years – starting out as some variation of a Database Diva myself – and it hasn’t gotten routine yet. But that is because I was fortunate to be challenged along the way and rewarded when my ideas met with success. 

To avoid a painful vacancy on your team, you can take steps to make it interesting for her. There are a number of ways to make Database Diva’s job more dynamic, all with adequate training and support:

  • She can call donors to thank them for their gifts.
  • She can be given a role in creating next year’s development plan.
  • She can accompany senior staff visiting donors, and, eventually, identify prospects and go out on her own.
  • She can be given a prospect research challenge: Find five donors we should be paying more attention to. You may want to offer a financial or time-off incentive to sweeten the pot when a success benchmark is achieved.

Above all, ask her how you can help her realize her professional aspirations. Those of us who have some seniority in the fundraising field are going to be turning over the reins pretty soon. The Database Divas are going to take over the world, so let’s equip them to thrive.

Paul Jolly is philanthropy manager at EARTHWORKS, an environmentally focused nonprofit in Washington DC. He is also a creativity coach and author of the new collection of poetry, Why Ice Cream Trucks Play Christmas Songs (Fernwood Press: 2019)

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