Fundraising and Zombies

Howard Lake | 7 February 2013 | Blogs

Zombies on Flickr - photo: Rodolpho Reis
Zombies. Photo: Rodolpho Reis on

My dear old friend Paul had a great very well paid position, as head of fundraising at a very venerable charity.

His pay had been pegged to the cost of living when the organisation had been booming, under a charismatic leader some thirty years ago, and it still equated to the income of a high-flyer in a growing concern. Paul had never flown high, indeed anything approaching take-off gave him vertigo, and he loved the quiet life. Arriving in the office rather later than his staff he would slowly take off his old coat and scarf hanging them carefully on a coat-hanger behind his door. Then unpacking his lunch-box and putting it in same place in the fridge he was ready for the mornings slow shuffle through the office, turning down ideas, stifling innovation and avoiding looking at any figures or meeting the Director, who incidentally thought fundraising a rather unnecessary evil so avoiding him was not difficult.

There are three sorts of fundraisers

"There are three sorts of Fundraisers" Paul used to say "those who understand the maths and those who don't. Heh heh…”


Most of the charities income came from the government in the form of an annual grant, and occasional legacies arrived from supporters who knew the organisation in its glory days, so providing just enough additional income to breathe new life into the organisation, often when life itself was trying its hardest to escape.

Paul's staff worked best when he wasn't there and rarely suggested anything new: "We tried that years ago – didn't work" was Paul’s stock phrase or when quoted other organisation's success, "Alright for them. It would never work for us".

Just the way things had always been done

And so it went on year after year, as the supporters grew older and the work became less and less relevant to the poor beneficiaries. The members of the Board, who were allowed to serve as long as they could shuffle into the meetings and some of them way past that, felt only a vague unease offset by a fine lunch and the knowledge nothing could be done; it was just the way things had always been as far as they could recall, which was usually not much before the fine lunch. Of course the Chairman met with the Director before the Board meetings to ensure everything went smoothly, and so it usually did.

Unusual events exposed Paul as a zombie

It was shortly before the last general election when a concatenation of unusual events exposed Paul as a zombie. The incoming government cut the organisation's grant by 30% to help balance their books, a new trust fundraiser was appointed and the Chairman died from food poisoning.

The new Trust Officer was passionate about the cause, a passion he had kept well muted at the interview following a strong hint from his brother in the finance department, noticed the previous Trust Officer had written strong applications to several major funders, but that Paul had not sufficiently overcome his pessimism about the world he almost inhabited to actually sign them and submit them to the grant-making trusts.

The Board, none of whom wanted to move up to become Chair, took the surprising decision to appoint on an interim basis a young whippersnapper (who was the nephew of the treasurer and reputed to be quite bright) until a new more senior figure could be appointed.

The Trust Officer and interim Chairman took to each other at once, forming an alliance with sundry staff and suddenly the Director himself moved on – shortly before a new firm of auditors carried out a full audit. The Chairman asked the senior managers namely Paul, the Finance Director and Head of Operations to write three year strategies for their departments, and soon it was clear to everyone that only effective fundraising could save their jobs. Work quickly ground to a halt as CVs were buffed up and sickies taken to see recruitment agencies.

Never tell a zombie he is dead

All eyes were on Paul to produce a new fundraising strategy and true to form nothing happened, deadlines sauntered by laughing and the Chair fumed, but he found no allies on the Board for drastic action, and with recruitment for the new Director (who might just have done something) dragging on, redundancies looked imminent. It was then the new Trust Officer made a serious miscalculation and accused Paul of being dead on his feet citing the pile of unsigned applications.

Never tell a zombie he is dead. Paul, as near as is possible for the undead, sprang to life and went for the Trust Officer's jugular. Accusing him of a serious breach of discipline he sacked him on the spot. The Trust Officer took the case to court. The case took time. Redundancy notices were handed out and the organisation shrank. The Chairman moved on as a friend of a trustee took his place. Eventually, a new Director was appointed by the Board. Reputed to be a safe pair of hands, he oversaw the running down of the charity and let the dust settle and the Trust Officer leave with a rather to large pay-off. Paul went happily back to the illusion that he was functioning in the real world, and the remaining staff kept their somewhat diminished salaries. Paul is still there. Indeed, Paul will be there long after I have passed on. I don’t think he can die – he is a zombie.

Zombies are hard to identify

Paul may still be a friend but I could not work with him, and find it surprising the high level of tolerance people have for zombies. I guess they lack the killer instinct.

Zombies are hard to identify – look sideways in the washroom mirror at your colleagues, and you may see that it is not a smart suit and fashionable tie they are sporting it is just a bundle of flapping white rags, and that noble forehead in reality has a nasty gash where the fatal blow was struck. Hard as they are to identify, zombies are harder to kill. Give me a mad axman or an aggressive wolf in the office any day – at least they know when the game is up.

Many of us lead ambitious lives, but we hunger after the wrong things and so barely manage to achieve mediocrity. We look forward to the dream job, or at least the next job and then the one after that, so that our salaries rise and we can afford to pay for the things we bought on credit last year. As we know, really this is nothing to be proud of and at best we are coasting through our work hoping to land a better position, however much we protest our passion for the mission. If our passion for the mission was weighed against our passion for a better job I sometimes wonder which would be the greater?

Instead, a truly satisfying life is one where we transform the organisation we work for and transform the lives of its beneficiaries. As fundraisers we are often uniquely placed to do that by bringing in a huge increase in funds. Yes, it is possible but we often just lack the drive and ambition to make it happen. So many of us, for example, go to a fundraising congress and pick up some good ideas about improving the fundraising techniques we employ, but how many of us have really looked for the way to double our income in say, three years? And how many are prepared to argue and win the resources that are needed to drive such a programme forward, not to mention tackling the things that we will need to stop doing; which can be harder than starting the new cool activities.

The lassitude that might just turn us into zombies

Instead we improve things a bit here and a bit there, stalked by the danger of that lassitude that might just turn us into zombies. Could we instead be heroes? A hero is certainly someone who transforms the organisation they are working for and so goes on to greater challenges as a rising star. Of course, that route is open to us all if we can just stop being passengers waiting for the career bus to drop us at the next job.

Of course, it is hard and it is not just about long hours or being the boss's  BFF, but it is about ambition for achievement and a drive for significance through that achievement. And there are wolves to be overcome and zombies to kill, so maybe you are just not up to it; but if you are then there is no time like today and if you would like some help – let me know.

John Baguley

CEO International Fundraising Consultancy

Photo: Rodolpho.Reis on

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