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There’s a rift at many nonprofits. Development professionals are often at odds with the people in the organization’s business and finance office. But with a little work, conflict can become cooperation.

This is a guest post by Barbara Barron, Founder of Barbara Barron Consulting and a Capital Campaign Toolkit advisor.


From Conflict to Collaboration: Your Development Office and Business Office

By Barbara Barron

Many organization’s business and development offices live in an awkward space between conflict and cooperation. It doesn’t HAVE to be a thing, but my experience in this profession has shown me that it often is.

Sometimes this relationship is chilly but workable. Other times it can be unproductive — even adversarial.

The gulf between the two can be far more than frustrating. What’s worse, the differences can actually undermine your capital campaign. When you report that you’ve raised $7.2 million in gifts and pledges for your campaign but the finance director objects and insists you’ve only raised $5.4 million… well, you’ve got a credibility problem.

In it Together — So Why So Far Apart?

From the outside, it looks like they ought to be squarely on the same team. Both offices, along with the marketing team, where it applies, are responsible for obtaining and managing 100% of the revenue that comes into the organization. Together, they make up the business side of the house. They have goals and numbers to hit. They are in it together.

But all too often, what I experienced as an advancement director at various schools, and now witness as a consultant, is a sadly different scenario.

The Business Office Perspective

Business office colleagues are often skeptical or even dismissive of the pledges the development people are so excited to count. They may act miserly about budgets, not fully understanding or appreciating the value of money spent on cultivation and stewardship.

I’ve seen business office personnel act territorial about things like data updates. From their seats, it looks like their colleagues across the way in the development office are always (pre-Covid) “out to lunch.” Or “planning fancy parties.” It looks to the business office folks as though development is always spending money while they slave away, carefully tracking every precious penny spent.

The Development Office Perspective

Meanwhile, the development office can be dismissive about the importance of adhering to close and regular reconciliation that our business office colleagues need to do their jobs well.

For example, development people can be too casual about documentation, especially of those important pledges. Or not diligent about notifying the business office when restricted funds can be released. And then development people may act put out when finance asks for backup documentation, during the audit, for example.

So, everyone feels overworked and testy. Requests between departments go unanswered or are given only passive aggressive replies.

If the development team feels unappreciated for the charitable dollars they bring in with minimal thanks against fundraising goals they had little to do with establishing, the business team feels unappreciated for balancing budgets on the head of a pin amid ever increasing costs.

Now, this is clearly a dismal, worst-case situation I’m describing. Hopefully your organization has achieved détente or even a nice cooperative atmosphere. But if not, I have some tips.

Start with the Fundamentals

The development and business offices of most organizations fall somewhere along the continuum from hostile enemies to productive partners.

Like with so many conflicts, the solution is never found at the level of the problem. You need to get above the pettiness and find common ground.

Start with the fundamentals — a shared vision and mutual respect. The following strategies will help you do just that.

3 Ways to Improve the Relationship Between the Development and Finance

Recently, I spoke with two experienced CFOs from very different organizations about these problems and how to lessen the rift between departments. Here are some suggestions we came up with.

1. Develop Shared Understanding

How often, if ever, do your two offices come together? Do you each know what the other does, beyond a cursory understanding?

*Organize a gathering (with snacks, naturally) to talk about what each department is facing. Discuss the log-jam times, the high-pressure moments during the year. Learn about the demands made on each department so they can understand each other’s worlds. Then discuss how little things might be implemented to make life easier for everyone.

2. Create Opportunities to Build Relationships

Beyond department meetings, host occasional gatherings for colleagues to get to know one another and build genuine relationships, much like you do with your donors. A shared meal is simple and yet effective. It’s far harder to “other” someone you have come to know.

One of my CFO friends told me about working at a college that owned a bowling alley. She brought the two offices together for some fun and healthy competition in the lanes.

3. Focus on Your Mission

Beyond shared experiences and some all-important fun from time to time, there is an essential piece that is easily found. My other, wise CFO friend said it well when he talked about the importance of sharing why we work where we work. Ask yourself:

What it is about the organization’s mission and values that resonates with you?

There are plenty of places to work, many at which your paycheck would be bigger. It follows that there must be reasons that brought each of you to this place — to this work.

Discover a common thread

What about being at your nonprofit draws you in? And keeps you?

My friend has found that, when he has that kind of conversation, a common thread is revealed. Often, it’s a desire to do what we can, in our roles, to serve. To support and enhance the experience of our program people and the clients, patrons, patients, or students we serve. He speaks of being “custodians of our donor’s trust.” I like that.

A Final Word to Both Departments

To development people — never forget that it is your department, your work, that makes the organization’s services possible. Without the charitable dollars and those specifically raised for capacity and outreach, our organizations would not be able to deliver on their inspiring missions.

To business people — never forget that your work on tracking and reconciling the numbers to the very last penny builds the trust of people who support the organization.

Once you understand, respect and fully appreciate the importance of the work your colleagues in the other department do, and once you come to know them as individuals, you will find that you will work together more smoothly and happily.

Barbara BarronBarbara Barron has worked with schools across the country on all aspects of capacity building campaigns, annual and planned giving campaigns, and board training. She focuses on building leadership giving programs and growing the capacity of professional and volunteer teams by increasing competence, confidence, and joy.

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