Nigel Harris & Associates


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RESPECT is important in fundraising leadership

R-E-S-P-E-C-T……what it means to you

Respect, Otis Redding wrote about it. Aretha Franklin sang about it.

It is a gift we can all seek at times. And we can also feel its absence, whether real or imagined.

It is also a gift we are able to give. And it can be a super power, that when nurtured, honed, and offered authentically, defines, and differentiates leadership and leaders.

Several years ago, I identified six leadership characteristics, framing what I saw as the three Rs of leadership, and three more for good measure.

My focus at the time was leadership in fundraising, although I would argue that then, and now, there is a case for these characteristics to apply to leadership more broadly.

Three Rs of Leadership

The first three Rs have a specific order. Relevance, relationships, and results.

Relevance is foundational to leadership. Leaders needed to be relevant and create relevance in the work they do, as well as the people they work with.

Relationships give carriage to leadership. Leaders are most effective when they work with and through people. Without people, who are you leading and to what end?

Results define leadership. Leaders ultimately need to accomplish outcomes that matter to others. And remind others what they are there to accomplish.

Framing relevance. Building and sustaining relationships. Achieving results. There is a logic to the sequence, one that is even more apparent when it is reordered.

And Three More Rs

The next set of Rs have no specific order. All underpin leadership in the way it is practiced, developed, and experienced.

Resilience is a leadership essential. Leadership is tough. Leaders get knocked down. And there is not always someone there to pull you up and dust you off. You need to find a way and get up when you’re down and keep going when things are hard. As well as keeping your humility when things are running your way.

Reflection is one of the grounding elements key to humility. Challenging yourself and others to seek perspective and context, foster curiosity, and continue learning. Finding time and space to think in order to constantly build on what you do.

Which brings us back to respect. Respect is always genuine when it is earned. It doesn’t come with a job or a title. Leaders need to give it – authentically – before it is reciprocated. Respect is fundamental to the humanity of leadership and the way in which leaders serve others.

So as leaders, why do we need Otis or Aretha, or anytime else to remind us that respect is so important? And why would this even need to be said?

Respect is obvious by omission. As a leader, you may not notice when it is not given. But others do.

When The Respect Just Isn’t There

I was speaking with a colleague working in fundraising a few weeks ago who made a jarring observation. They identified that a key leader in their organisation didn’t give respect when it counted. Of course, it was their observation, and as such, contestable. But to me, I heard no sense of bias or skew, just a level of resignation to an unchangeable reality.

This wouldn’t be a remarkable observation if it were uncommon. Things happen. Situations are not always perfect. People don’t always gel.

Unfortunately, in fundraising, it is not an uncommon occurrence. It’s actually a frequent conversation that extends beyond anecdotes. The researchdata and lived experience paint a consistent and concerning picture.

It is a picture that includes turnoverburnoutunrealistic expectations, diminished confidence, limited knowledge, and a lack of respect from leadership. The dichotomy is that this is a picture of a practice, fundraising, which serves philanthropy, or in other words, the love of people.

That makes no sense. It is genuinely hard to reconcile. And the massive problem here is that it diminishes and constrains the way we serve social purpose. And when needs are great and resources scare, this really matters.

There is a significant leadership issue at play here. Ultimately, this is about leadership and the role of leaders in serving purpose.

But like all stories, there is more than one side.

Fundraisers Stepping Up … And In

There is more that fundraising practitioners can do to claim their space and make a stronger case to gain the respect they may feel they deserve.

Fundraising is a practice that anyone can enter, and anyone can claim a level of knowledge of. There are no prerequisites to work in fundraising, and no common identity in fundraising practice. So, if anyone can be a fundraiser, then we shouldn’t be surprised when organisational leaders claim to have knowledge of fundraising as well. And worse still, contest or override those actually tasked with responsibility for fundraising.

If fundraising practitioners don’t galvanise around a common identify, then there is little cause for complaint when everyone assumes to know ‘your stuff.’ Worse still, if fundraising practitioners haven’t attended to a defendable and continuing knowledge base, then it’s only reasonable to expect challenge.

Respect is earned, and there is a case for fundraising practitioners to do more to earn the respect of organisational leadership.

That said, when fundraising practitioners have experience, knowledge, qualifications and credentials, there are still far too many cases of organisational leaders not recognising or respecting what that represents. Worse still, when demonstrable results are added to that combination, the respect may still be absent.


Reasons and Responsibilities

One reason may be the accessibility and familiarity of fundraising. Most of us are exposed to fundraising in some form or other in various experiences and roles. It is reasonable to assume that the experience with which we are familiar is all of the story. Until we know differently.

Another reason is the lack of structure around fundraising practice. If there are no recognsiable pathways or criteria for organisational leaders to identify, then it is reasonable to assume a more ad hoc or organic approach which has less substance and defence. And that makes it harder to garner respect.

There are also issues around power, curiosity, purpose – all of which take us to Respect.


How leaders hold and exercise power raises important questions around responsibility, legitimacy, perception, and impact. Reflecting on these questions and respecting the power you hold and use as a leader is a key to giving and receiving the gift of respect. And with power, it is about how leadership is seen and experienced by others rather than how leaders might see and exercise it.

Setting realistic and achievable expectations, understanding systems, processes, and principles, and providing appropriate and relevant support, are examples of how leaders may exercise constructive power in fundraising. So too is expecting fair and reasonable accountability for performance and outcomes where they are informed and resourced.


Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a lack of curiosity can kill off effective leadership. Yet when it comes to fundraising, curiosity can be strangely absent for leaders. Looking past assumptions and immediate experiences to seek a greater level of understanding about the why, what, and how of fundraising practice and philanthropy is a challenge for leaders in the for-purpose sector.

Every time a question is asked about cost per dollar raised or expense ratios a leader is potentially exposing a lack of curiosity. Right idea, just the wrong questions. And pursuing a greater level of curiosity will explain why that is the case.

Every time there is a question asked about how much money has been raised this week, or what a particular activity returned, or who are we going to ‘hit up’ for a donation, a lack of curiosity is also exposed. And at times, a lack of courtesy. Once again, right ideas, wrong questions, and even language.

So, what might be a valuable leadership approach to curiosity when it comes to fundraising? To start, framing a shared understanding of philanthropy. Understanding why and how people may give, and to what. This leads to the need for clarity around fundraising practice, what is happening and why, how it is resourced, supported, and measured. Which in turn creates a better understanding of what successful fundraising practice is and isn’t.

If leaders in governance and executive roles need to understand finance, then doesn’t that responsibility extend to services, people, information technology as well as philanthropy and fundraising?

And it may be argued that curiosity drives and builds respect, by acknowledging a need to learn more and leaning in to that learning.


In the for-purpose sector, a leader’s primary responsibility is serving purpose. However, there is a risk, even evidence, that leaders can impede their capacity to serve purpose by the decisions they make.

Limitations can be created from the way leaders think about the for purpose, or not for profit sector. If leaders assume that not for profit means ‘spend no money, hold no money or invest no money,’ then serving purpose, especially in addressing long term issues, becomes extremely difficult at worst, and highly inefficient at best.

The most fundamental leadership questions in a for purpose context is what are we seeking to accomplish and why? That should lead to any number of challenging questions around how, who, when and where in the pursuit of purpose.

Once again, respect plays a strong hand in leaders accepting and fulfilling their responsibility in serving social purpose. Ultimately, consideration of who is being served, and who supports that service, stand above institutional and individual preferences. Service above self. That’s respectful!

Being Human

If you accept that respect is a leadership superpower, the bonus is that it is a power that is easily and readily cultivated. It costs nothing in monetary or human terms. Perhaps just a little humility. Beyond that, it’s all upside.

And one more thing. Respect gives us the room to be human. To be vulnerable, get things wrong and fall short from time to time. In the space we create through giving respect as leaders, we find authenticity, forgiveness, and humanity. Respect shapes leadership people want to follow, which is essential in serving purpose.

Be like Aretha. Be like Otis. Respect

Nigel Harris AM