Feminism and fundraising targets

As the new financial year approaches, many of us will have been involved in target-setting. If you’re lucky, you’ll have had a say in the final figures. If you’re not, they’ll have been imposed with minimal discussion.

I’ve noticed a concerning tendency among some of my fellow – and mostly female – fundraisers. Online and during casual chats at conferences, I encounter negativity about targets. They’re seen as impossible, idealistic, unreachable goals. GIFs are circulated depicting variations on a theme of ostriches hiding their heads in the sand.

This, to me, points to a worrying sense of helplessness. Complaining perpetuates this negative cycle and changes nothing.

Why are targets so often unrealistic?

Many others have written excellent pieces outlining the reasons why unrealistic targets are imposed on fundraisers:

  • Budgets are based on what’s needed, rather than what the portfolio can realistically deliver;
  • Excellent performance in one year is “punished”, resulting in a demand to improve by 10% or 20%, regardless of the circumstances;
  • The ignorance of non-fundraising senior management plays a significant role.

I would add one more reason which I haven’t seen addressed in any fundraising articles/blog posts: middle management which fails to challenge unrealistic goals, instead unreasonably pushing the pressure down to their team.

Harvard Business Review published a very incisive piece on this issue last year, highlighting that “Too few managers have the courage or the wherewithal to do anything but roll over when their boss hands them an astronomically high number.” That’s harsh, but based on experiences earlier in my career, and accounts I’ve heard from others, it’s as equally applicable to the charity sector as it is to the industries that HBR usually covers.

What has this got to do with feminism?

Women are socially conditioned, far more than men, to be acquiescent. Given the over-representation of women in the fundraising workforce, it seems inevitable that this conditioning has affected our organisational cultures.

Fundraising departments often have a culture of “niceness” which generally means that people are pleasant and friendly. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, the flip-side can be an aversion to conflict and healthy debate, which means that issues fester beneath the surface and avoidable problems aren’t anticipated.

It’s therefore probably unfair to place so much of the blame on the middle managers. In order to resist unrealistic goals, they have to fight against their own social conditioning (if they are women), and an organisational culture that’s hostile to open challenge and debate. I know how awkward that feels because I’ve done it. I’ve felt in the past as if sometimes this type of behaviour means I’ve been perceived as a “troublemaker” whereas in other cultures it would be seen as perfectly healthy.

I’d rather take that label, however, than let my team down by giving them goals that I know are impossible. The other benefit of having these experiences, and speaking openly and frankly about them when job-seeking, is that it’s enabled me to find an employer with a healthy and sensible attitude to target-setting.

Fundraisers, we need to resist the culture of bad targets

There are many, many reasons why this culture of unrealistic targets needs to stop:

  • It’s bad for your own career. Failing to negotiate a realistic number means you’ll never achieve the track record of achieving targets that appears as a requirement on virtually every fundraising job ad that I’ve ever seen.
  • If you’re a manager, it erodes your authority. A formal job title as “manager” isn’t enough to run a successful team. You need to ensure your employees trust you and believe you have their best interests at heart, as well as the organisation’s – especially if you want to keep your best staff.
  • Impossible targets encourage unethical behaviour. The aforementioned HBR article explains how these unhealthy cultures led to scandals such as Wells Fargo. We’ve got plenty of our own scandals in the charity sector that are probably caused, at least in part, by a relentless push towards unrealistic income targets. As our sector continues to experience intense (and justified) scrutiny, we need to consider and avoid the unintended consequences of our internal cultures.
  • It stymies genuine relationship fundraising. Most of us know how fundraising should be done: it’s based on long-term relationships built through trust. It can take many, many years to secure a transformational gift. However, pressure to achieve the big money “now” leads to a desperate scrabbling around for “quick wins” and the long-term important but non-urgent work to build these vital relationships never gets off the ground.

How should we move forward?

I hope that other fundraisers – those who might be drawn towards complaining, and especially the women among us – will be motivated to make a real change.

  • If you’re a junior fundraiser, scrutinise your target. Think about how you are going to meet it and make a plan. If you are unsure about any part of it, have a discussion with your manager. They should be able to help you understand how you have a reasonable chance of meeting it.
  • If you are a department manager, make sure you can give your team this confidence. If you can’t, have this same discussion with your manager. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge your team if you think their proposed figures are too low, but you need to be able to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable pressure.
  • When job seeking, ask how targets are set, and whether staff have a say in them. When going for interviews myself, I found this question to be extremely illuminating. One charity avoided answering the question directly. If more fundraisers ask this question, more employers will see that they need to give a good answer in order to compete for talent.

It should be possible to have these discussions while maintaining a high standard of professionalism. After all, reasonable targets are in the best interests of your organisation.

I don’t mean this to give the impression that I think targets are inherently a bad thing. I love having a target! When used correctly, it’s a brilliant motivational tool that can also help a fundraiser track their progress and impact. But there is an important difference between the budgeted figure which finance relies on in order to allocate expenditure, and the “dream” stretch target. Don’t confuse the latter with the former.

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