How Do You Measure Love?
This fundraising story is not like the others.
In an interview for the top fundraising job at the Oregon Food Bank, C. Nathan Harris was asked if he had ever developed an innovative approach to fundraising work. His answer: putting less emphasis on financial goals for fundraisers as a measure of success and more on human-focused measures like relationships with supporters.
Jokingly, he described his philosophy using a lyric from the Broadway musical hit Rent: “How do you measure a year? What about love?”
His answer must have left an impression. Harris got the job.
At the time, the approach was largely theoretical. But Harris and his development team are now working to apply it.
The experiment has multiple goals: to make fundraising a more just profession, to build more authentic relationships with donors and the broader community, to help the public understand the root causes of hunger — and to take action to fight it. It borrows ideas and language from social-justice organizers, much of which might seem foreign to many fundraisers. The wholesale reimagining of what development can be is very much a work in progress, but the organization hopes the new approach will advance its mission and improve the giving experience for donors and fundraisers alike.
“Together we are going to create something different that is rooted in philanthropy’s true meaning, a love for humankind, and is rooted in equity,” says Harris.
Yes, fundraisers are still responsible for raising money. Harris still reports to his board’s finance and audit committee on a regular basis, and his team still reports monthly on progress toward financial goals. “We’re not abandoning the idea of financial goals,” he says. “At the end of the day, we still have to hold ourselves accountable as effective stewards of the resources we need to fulfill the food bank’s mission.” But fundraisers will not be evaluated based on the money they bring in.
Over time, Harris and his team hope to be able to track things like whether a supporter volunteers, contributes to other organizations united in the fight to end hunger, or engages in advocacy for a more just food system — all defined by the team as indicators of love and equity. These factors also guide prospect management and will ultimately change the composition of fundraisers’ portfolios.
Leaders are working to develop tools that allow them to track other indicators of donor engagement and staff satisfaction. That pivot requires the food bank to provide more opportunities for individuals and organizations to learn, grow, and engage in action and connect with the cause — with gifts seen as just one of many ways individuals show their “love” of the cause.
Measuring love is a squishy proposition. Food-bank leaders say it’s an experiment they’re building as they go. But they say their North Star is the organization’s values, not cash.
Fixing What’s Broken
The problems that the food bank’s approach seeks to address will not surprise anyone working in fundraising.
“An orientation to financial outcomes in which we value the financial contribution of the donor more than the integrity and well-being of our staff creates the conditions for high turnover,” Harris says. Fundraisers who face sexual harassment or racism, particularly from donors, may hesitate to report it, worried it could have a negative impact on their careers and ability to close future gifts. Fundraisers also feel they’re being held accountable to financial goals when they don’t ultimately have control over whether donors decide to give.
Case in point: the pandemic.
While fundraisers worked themselves into the ground to connect with donors and acknowledge gifts, last year’s record high revenues may have had more to do with donors’ concern about the Covid economic crisis than specific actions taken by fundraisers. Still, fundraisers may feel pressure to continue to bring in high levels of support even in an environment in which donors are less inclined or able to give. That can lead to burnout.
In addition, the field’s laser focus on raising more money means that some donors — particular those from lower-income backgrounds and communities of color — often receive less attention from development staff.
While some of the food bank’s new practices are works in progress, other changes happened quickly. The development department was renamed the Community Philanthropy team to honor fundraising ideas and principles that recognize the interconnectedness between the organization’s staff as a whole and the communities it serves.
Most fundraisers received new titles — many felt the common title of “officer” evoked police and military imagery. Gift officers are now called “developers.” Several additional staff members were hired, and the team was restructured so that fundraisers now manage fewer donors.
Barb Young, a veteran fundraiser, has been at the Oregon Food Bank for a decade and works directly with major donors. When Harris joined the team, Young says she was supportive of his vision in theory but was skeptical about how it would pan out in practice.
“My philosophy has always been to build authentic relationships with donors,” Young says. And that hasn’t changed.
Early on, she wondered how an organization that relies on fundraising success to maintain its substantial operations would ultimately put less emphasis on money as a measurement of success.
When she served as a development director at previous organizations, the buck stopped with her to report to the board and make sure the nonprofit was meeting its operating goals. It’s been challenging to leave monetary goals behind, or at least to give them less weight, she says. “It’s so ingrained in you as a fundraiser that you’ve got this number to hit,” she says. “The biggest change is being able to let that go.”
But over time, she’s found the changes to be liberating, she says. She went from managing a portfolio of around 220 donors to close to 150. “It really opens up the ability to take the time necessary to really cultivate and nurture meaningful relationships,” she says. “It encourages risk taking that we may not have felt comfortable with before.”
Read more about how the Oregon Food Bank’s community philanthropy team is working to measure “love.”
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