CDE project 17 sec­tion 3.3: trust — risk — people

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 21, 2017

Trust - give time to your relationships

Richard Turner said that one of the most powerful shifts he has ever made as a leader was deciding to spend time every week with the people he manages. He acknowledges that there is nothing so astonishing about this, but given that there will always be so many other demands on your time, some of which could appear more important, there is a world of difference between agreeing that the habit makes sense and actually doing it. 

As a leader at Solar Aid, every week Richard sat down for 30 minutes with each person he managed. The format may have changed a little from week to week, but the default plan was to spend ten minutes listening to what the other person wanted to talk to him about, ten minutes talking about what Richard would like to catch up on, and, whenever possible, ten minutes discussing his colleagues’ development. 

Richard said, ‘I was amazed at how amazing it was’. 

It had such a powerful effect at Solar Aid because in addition to increasing the flow of information, which helps create a shared consciousness, above all this leadership habit helps build robust, trusting relationships.

Liz Tait extends this principle beyond her immediate team. She has made it her habit to spend at least half an hour with every member of her department, every year. (Note that there are 44 people in her department.)

When they meet, she asks them questions such as: ‘if you could change anything about where you work, what would you change?’; ‘if you were the Fundraising Director, what would you do differently?’ She comes out of these meetings with reams of notes and lots of potential actions. While she can’t act on every idea she receives, over the years this habit, in addition to building trust, has enabled her to spot patterns that have enabled her and the team to improve the way things are done for both colleagues and donors.

When we asked Liz how she manages to follow through on her philosophy, even on a difficult day, she said that though she does not always succeed, she always comes back to this practice as her intention. 

The risk of promoting efficiency ahead of relationships

‘They keep saying the people in fundraising are apathetic and have no drive. The sad thing is it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because now some of them are even wasting time on Facebook and seem to have lost their energy. People aren’t taking risks because they see others getting into trouble and so they just keep their heads down.’ This is what a fundraising manager told one of us in 2012, as morale in her organisation had sunk to an all-time low, with fundraising results equally worrying. 

She said that the more the leaders became worried about results, the more they presumed this was due to mistakes and lack of efficiency and hard work on the part of individual fundraisers and team leaders. As a result, they created more and more systems to measure financial performance (all of which required fundraisers to stop focussing on supporters in order to provide the information) and far more robust procedures for signing off decisions.

They had presumed that the more you check up on people and make intelligent decisions on their behalf, the fewer mistakes they’ll make. The unfortunate consequence was that everyone was scared of messing up and no one felt trusted to use their initiative.

This graph shows the nature of all the emails which were received by the group ‘All Fundraising Managers’ during one four-month period in 2012.

Figure 1. Emails received by All Fundraising Managers group.

None of the emails in this four-month period contained guidance, stories or encouragement about achieving great donor relationships.

From this graph alone, it is not hard to imagine how most of those managers would feel, and therefore the signals they would be likely to send their own teams. It is hardly surprising that most staff took fewer risks and focussed more on money than donor relationships. You can imagine the impact this had on many of the interactions they had with donors.

Apparently, the Chief Executive and many of the senior leadership team did also occasionally talk about how important it was for fundraisers to work hard at building relationships with donors, but you can tell just by the content of their emails to the leaders of fundraising teams what was actually more important to them. 

The unintended result was an environment in which people did not feel trusted to take action. In fact, the ones we spoke to had far more colourful ways of describing their feelings about the senior leaders than simply ‘they don’t trust us’. It is not surprising that donor experiences suffered, that many people chose to leave and that the charity found it extremely difficult to recruit.

In contrast, Liz Tait told me that she recently heard of a volunteer who had spent nearly two hours speaking on the phone to one of their charities’ supporters, an elderly lady who lives on her own. Viewed through the prism of efficiency, such behaviour may sound contrary to the interests of the organisation, but if we are striving to go the extra mile to show that we truly care about donors, like the behaviour of the sales assistants at John Lewis, it makes sense. To feel safe that such interactions are the right thing to do, that volunteer or staff member needs to feel safe using her initiative.

People - Ideas and actions to help you build great relationships

  1. Acknowledge that the signals we send others in every interaction make a difference to how they think and feel about their own abilities. At its simplest, resist the temptation to do most of the talking. Deliberately ask other people about what they think. Initially, they may not always realise they have answers, but the more you practice this coaching style of leadership, above all with the belief that others are capable of leading themselves, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
  2. Acknowledge that genuine trust makes all the difference to how people behave, and so none of the other strategies will work in the long term unless you build strong relationships as the foundation. This is of course true of your relationships with donors, but as a leader your first job is to help your colleagues succeed, and that usually means focusing more on your internal relationships.
  3. Give more time to internal relationships. At its simplest, this can mean spending half an hour with each of the people you manage every single week. Who else in the organisation should you regularly spend time with, especially those in non-fundraising teams? To create trust in all parts of the culture, which trustees, supporters and volunteers should you develop strong relationships with?

Click on the image below to view project 17 in full - PDF format

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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