Leaving It All Behind? | Sharpe Group
Posted June 1st, 2006

Leaving It All Behind?

Suppose you have just started a new position—a new opportunity to raise funds for an organization you believe in, work with new colleagues you respect, and establish relationships with a new group of committed constituents.

While this is an exciting moment for any development professional, it is also a critical time for both the organization you are leaving and the organization you are joining. Why? Because being a development professional is complicated. As someone who helps others plan significant gifts that may in some cases be their gifts of a lifetime, you may of necessity learn much about a donor’s financial situation, health issues, family relationships, aspirations, and concerns. Much like a physician or an attorney, a development officer can naturally develop personal and oftentimes confidential relationships with donors. Therefore, transitioning out of one position and into another can offer certain challenges and must be managed with care.

Preparing for the move

For the benefit of your successor, as well as the donors you are leaving behind, thoroughly update all of your donor files before you move on to your new position. Make sure your latest contacts have been recorded properly. You may want to create a document summarizing the next appropriate steps for each of your top donors and prospects to leave for the benefit of your successor. This will be especially helpful if one or more donors were actively considering gift proposals and/or making arrangements to complete funding of gifts that have been previously committed.

Before you leave, consider arranging to introduce the new person in your position to these top donors and prospects face-to-face if possible. If that cannot be arranged, you may want to send an appropriate letter to these special donors and prospects explaining your departure and introducing your successor or other contact. Because of the natural friendships you may have developed with many of your donors, some may feel disheartened when they hear the news of your departure. Taking the above steps before you leave—making sure your successor understands the giving history of top donors, and is introduced in as personal a way as possible—can help the donors you leave behind feel more at ease.

Successful gift planning professionals understand that building and maintaining relationships with donors is critical. Keep in mind that these relationships must still be managed with care, perhaps even more carefully, during this time of transition. As you transfer the relationship management responsibilities to someone new, make sure your donors know how you appreciated the opportunity to work with them, and valued their friendships. Serve your donors’ needs until the end, and you will have served them, and your organization, well.

Can you leave it all behind?

As you walk out the door on your last day, it is wise to take nothing with you except personal items. Leave donor files and records for your successor. You will not need them as you begin working in your new position with a new base of constituents, and the information they contain belongs to the organization.

Of course you cannot forget what donors may have told you over the years. You may want to think of these confidences in two categories—things donors have told you as a representative of your organization and things they may have told you as a friend. For the former, your duty was to keep confidential notes in donor files that you could share with your successor and others in your organization that would likewise be held in professional confidence.

When your donors divulged things of a more personal nature, it was up to you to decide whether or not to include these items in donor files. Most gift planning professionals agree that you should not put anything in a donor file that you would not want revealed in the future to the donor, his or her family, your successor or other staff, or a court of law. The details of sensitive conversations may or may not be appropriate to record in the donor files. That is a decision each gift planner will make on his or her own. But, the personal information you may have learned about your donors, whether in the donor file or not, must remain confidential. For example, a donor may have shared concerns about a relationship with a spouse or a child, their competence to manage assets, or any number of other personal issues.

Donors sometimes reveal more to those who help them plan their charitable gifts than they would to their friends, family members, and others. In the gift planning process, a donor’s ultimate dreams and values are often what are being discussed, along with the details of their personal financial situation and matters that may be inhibiting the completion of gifts they would like to make. The most successful gift planning professionals are those who earn the trust of their donors and help them realize their charitable goals. When you leave an organization, your duty to keep your donors’ confidences remains.

Be prepared for challenges

As you begin your new position, if possible reach out to your predecessor and seek the same sort of assistance you have offered your successors. While the person or persons who have handled your donor relations responsibilities in the past may or may not be available to you, you can save much time and effort in taking on your new responsibilities if you take the time to seek guidance in learning about the persons who may be the highest priority for contact in the early days of your new position. Hopefully you will find your predecessor will welcome the opportunity to help make sure the relationships they managed are well handled in the future.

While it may, under certain circumstances, not be prudent to actively work with the donors you knew in the past from your new place of employment, some of those donors may seek you out. This may be especially true if you have moved to another organization in a local area. How should you approach this situation?

If the donor initiates contact with you at your new organization, you can continue a relationship, but it must be based on your mutual goals of supporting the charitable organization you now represent. If your new position is based in the same locale, you may find that one or more of your previous donors also have a pre-existing relationship with your new employer, so continuing your friendship is only natural and a necessary part of your duties.

The more difficult situation arises when a donor contacts you and wants to make a gift to your new organization, but has no previous relationship with the charity. If you have not proactively contacted such a donor, and the donor takes the initiative to get in touch with you, it is your responsibility as a development officer to work with this donor—listen to his or her charitable goals, discuss your new organization’s goals, and determine if there is compatibility between the two.

Be aware that your job is to help people give to the charities of their choice. Make sure the donor is choosing to give to your new charity because of a belief in its mission, not simply because you work there.

Responsibility never ends

When a development officer changes jobs, there is one thing that doesn’t change—the responsibility to serve the donors’ needs both now and in the future. While circumstances beyond your control may prevent you from taking all the actions described here, knowing that you have fully and ethically supported the gift planning program and donors of your former institution will help ease the transition to your new position.

From the Field

To find out more about the real-life issues involved with changing jobs in the development field, Give & Take talked with Dan Murrell, director of development at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and previously in fundraising at Trezevant Manor, a Memphis-based nonprofit retirement community.

G&T: How did you prepare the organization, your successor, and your donors for your departure?

Murrell: I was able to give Trezevant Manor a month’s notice before I left. So I had a full four weeks to work side-by-side with my successor, who was promoted from within and was already involved with many of our donors. We had time to review what was going on, try to update files, and get things more organized. I left notes on many things and we have stayed in contact. For a while after I left, we talked about twice a week. We talk less frequently now.

As far as working with Trezevant donors before I left, I just wanted to make sure everyone felt taken care of. I tried to personally tell as many people as I could about my leaving. I located important documents pertaining to donors’ gifts and shared them with my successor so she could handle any questions or concerns the donors might have. So I felt it was a fairly smooth transition.

G&T: Were there any challenges for you as you considered changing jobs?

Murrell: Yes. We had built up the planned giving program like it had never been before. And we had just finished the first capital campaign at Trezevant Manor, so we had done things in development that had never been done there. So there was a pride of creation in the program. I had relationships with a lot of people who were not only donors, but called this organization their home. They benefited from our mission on a daily basis. So my first consideration when I thought about leaving was taking care of Trezevant’s donors. I worried about how my departure might impact them.

One of the other challenges that I am still working on is making the shift mentally from one organization to the next. I will still sometimes refer to Trezevant as “we” rather than “they.” Part of that comes with time in a new organization. That’s not to say I am diminishing the friendships I had at Trezevant, because I still get to see some of those donors from time to time.

G&T: Have you experienced crossover donors since you moved to your new position?

Murrell: Yes, there are several donors that I worked with before at Trezevant that I am still working with now as donors of the Community Foundation because they are on the boards of both organizations. I have enjoyed maintaining those friendships and growing them. But I would never ask a donor I had known in my prior role for a gift to my new organization if there was not already pre-existing donative intent. As a fundraiser you are supposed to match a donor’s interests with your organization’s interests. I would never try to force a change in a donor’s current giving commitments.

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