A Collaborative Guide to Raising More Money and Retaining More Staff

When I first started working for Operation Smile two years ago, the development department, which includes more than 10 separate divisions, was siloed. Within the department, walls had developed over years that impeded effective communication, stymied philanthropic growth and contributed to staff attrition, dissatisfaction and low morale. While I recognized that these issues could not be eradicated overnight, I knew that one single operational tenet, if embraced, would help combat and reduce the negative side effects of insufficient cooperation and poor communication.

That tenet was collaboration.

To truly embrace the notion of collaboration, I knew that collaborative behavior would need to be consistently and publicly rewarded. But, before I could begin to instill a desire to collaborate in my team, I needed to improve communication. We began by instituting a mandatory monthly team meeting that included all development staff, both remote and at headquarters. Slowly but surely, the monthly development forum took hold and became a participatory exercise for division members to educate their colleagues about their respective roles.

The process was engaging and inspiring, as each team worked to outdo the previous team’s efforts to provide an informative overview of their individual and collective responsibilities. The presentations were often light-hearted and entertaining, ranging from an instructive Jeopardy game with prizes to a version of a dating app that depicted individual’s qualities and responsibilities of staff members.

Simultaneously, we instituted the peer-driven “Collaboration Cultivator” award. Prior to every development forum, staff were encouraged to nominate one of their colleagues for the award, which recognizes an individual’s action and commitment to being collaborative, supportive, selfless and creative. Empowering staff to nominate their peers gave the award greater significance and promoted tangible collaboration among the entire team. The award is still vied for every month and several members of the development team have won multiple times. Every winner receives $50 cash and a giant cardboard, three-dimensional letter “C”, which of course stands for collaboration, and is proudly displayed on their desk.

December’s Collaboration Cultivator Award Winner Sofia Machado Lemus holds the giant “C” award.
December Collaboration Cultivator Award Winner Sofia Machado Lemus.

While I knew the award was coveted and I was encouraged by the detail provided by the nominating staff members, it wasn’t until I began receiving annual self-assessments that I realized how valued the award was by so many members of my growing development team. Multiple team members, from virtually all divisions and all levels of seniority, listed being nominated or winning the award as a distinguished achievement they were proud of and that affirmed their professional worth. That was proof to me that such recognition is a powerful motivational tool.

They say it takes months of consistent application to institute a behavior and even longer to get a group of people solidly behind that behavior, so that they not only exhibit it, but encourage it. It also demands that leadership consistently demonstrates the desired behavior and champions it publicly among their team.

In the past two years, I have watched with great pride as the development team embraced the concept of collaboration wholeheartedly.

While it took time, I am confident that our team is now so staunchly supportive of collaborative engagement within our department that they’re now actively instilling the desire to collaborate across other departments — so much so that they requested that the award be expanded to include nominees from all other departments.

The institutionalization of the concept of collaboration has helped the department achieve unprecedented success: The team raised more money in the past two years than ever before in the organization’s 37-year history.

Moreover, it is directly responsible for the diversification of revenue, as all divisions began working more closely together, establishing mutual trust and forming more efficient workflow processes that have strengthened and expanded over time. Teams are more reliant, supportive, encouraging and knowledgeable of one another.

Director of Planned Giving Fred Facka leads a educational workshop for his teammates, sharing information about his work.
Director of Planned Giving Fred Facka leads a educational workshop for his teammates, sharing information about the way he works.

That awareness and knowledge promoted widespread understanding of how interconnected and interdependent every division within the department is on its fellow divisions: Global Philanthropy and Brand work seamlessly to provide the necessary support to cultivate funding relationships with corporate partners. Data and Analytics work very closely with the Major Gifts team to ensure donor data is accurate and readily accessible, helping gift officers leverage critical information and giving histories to maximize donor outreach. Mass Market Fundraising works equally closely with Digital to extend the reach of direct response appeals, promoting online giving and utilizing social media to educate the public about our brand.

As fundraisers first and foremost, it’s professionally fulfilling for me to watch our team come together and improve every day, the way they work both independently and collectively while meeting or exceeding monthly, quarterly and annual revenue targets. But that’s not the penultimate goal nor the most important indicator of success.

Development team staff working together to creatively problem solve during a team building activity.
Staff working together to creatively problem solve during a team building activity.

Success, for me, is staff retention.

It’s one thing to have one successful year and exceed your revenue target. Real development success, however, is exceeding revenue goals year in and year out. We are well on our way to attaining that kind of consistent fundraising success.

Maintaining a high-performing staff is essential to realizing ongoing and sustained fundraising success, but retention is dependent on a few key things.

  1. Staff must feel valued and that their efforts are critical to larger goal — that they are a part of something bigger than their individual aspirations.
  2. Consistent cooperation must be evident and individual and group achievements must be recognized. The competitive spirit that propels development must be rewarded.
  3. Leadership must identify and guide high performers to additional responsibility and support internal promotions, so high performance becomes standard performance

In the past two years, I’ve striven to make these things synonymous with the culture of our department and the benefits have been tangible. Most notably, staff retention has vastly improved. We have gone from losing at least one person a month to just two staff leaving in the past sixteen months, both to pursue graduate degrees. I regard that statistic as the single most important indicator of success and I believe it came to fruition because collaboration was nurtured.

Foster collaboration and you foster your team. Foster your team and you foster your goals. Reaching your goals fosters staff retention. Retaining a successful team fuels sustainable success.

Kendra Davenport is the Chief Development Officer for Operation Smile and manages global development strategy, brand, marketing and public relations. She previously served as the president of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, the vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs at Africare. Kendra has also supported development at Project HOPE, the Population Reference Bureau, International SeaKeepers Society, First Candle and the SIDS Alliance, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and communications from Chestnut Hill College and an Executive Master of Policy Leadership from Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. Additionally, she is CFRE International certified as a fundraising executive, and volunteers her skills and expertise to assist the Loudoun County government, Leadership Roundtable and Georgetown University.




Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most. operationsmile.org

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Operation Smile

Operation Smile

Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most. operationsmile.org

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