Beyond the Ask: A Fundraiser’s Rise to the Pinnacle of His Profession

By Holly Hall

Reaching the top of the fundraising profession involves so much more than perfecting one’s solicitation skills. Just ask Bob Carter.

Now chairman of Carter, his simply named consulting firm also known as Carter Global, this consummate fundraiser has climbed the ranks of the fundraising profession, raising money worldwide for more than a decade. He has also led difficult efforts to reorganize failing fundraising companies and nonprofit organizations—work that most development professionals are only too happy to avoid. His career offers several fundraising lessons, especially for those interested in consulting work or the financial rigors of running successful nonprofit organizations.

Carter’s experience reflects not only the high points possible with an international fundraising career—global travel, frequent flyer miles, well-placed clients, and lucrative pay—but also downsides like family disruptions from the constant travel. (Carter and his first wife, the mother of his two grown sons, are divorced. His second wife, Carol Armacost Carter, a seasoned fundraiser in her own right, is a managing director at his company. This year marks their 35th anniversary.)

Carter’s fundraising career started out of necessity: After completing a four-year degree at Johns Hopkins University, he found that he couldn’t make ends meet with his first job out of college: teaching English.

So he landed a better paying job at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins. As the young associate director of annual giving there, Carter looked for ways to increase giving. “We had to keep calling those who didn’t give, and I really hated it,” he recalls. With his boss away overseas, Carter and his colleagues stopped calling the non-donors and started asking people who did contribute to give 50 percent more.

Within a few weeks, the experiment’s results had proved themselves, and Carter’s returning boss reversed his initial decision to cancel the new approach. “A large percentage of the generous donors gave more, and we got closer to our goal than ever before,” recalls Carter. “We were even able to cancel the so-called ‘spring clean-up drive’ to try and get the non-givers to donate.”

Next, Carter was recruited to a more senior fundraising role at Catholic University as its vice president of university relations, but he lasted only 18 months. “Everything was too Catholic,” he says. “Everything had to be approved by the School of Religious Study, and it was too overbearing and dysfunctional.” That job, he adds, “helped drive me out of institutional work” and into consulting.

Accepting a position at Ketchum, a well-respected consulting firm based in Pittsburgh, Carter used the job to build his fundraising expertise. His years with the company provided him with an insider’s view into the fundraising operations of the company’s numerous and varied clients. Among those Carter worked with are many of the nation’s largest and best-known charities: the American Red Cross, Feeding America, the National Parks Foundation, the National Geographic Society, CARE International, and many others.

Carter’s professional skills and standing were also enhanced by serving on nonprofit boards: the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the Giving Institute, a consultants’ association that publishes “Giving USA,” the annual tally of American philanthropy; the Mote Marine Laboratory, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and others.

At Ketchum, Carter thrived. Promoted to the firm’s chief executive, he took responsibility for leading the company out of a financial crisis in 1992.

The crisis was spurred by Carter’s predecessors, who had invested some of the company’s profits in commercial real estate, software companies, and other ventures the company was ill equipped to handle. After borrowing money to cover the company’s fiscal obligations but having trouble repaying the loans, Carter was summoned by his creditors. They wanted to know: Could he sell the company for less than it owed them? That way, they could recoup at least some of their money. Carter accepted the challenge, finally finding a buyer, a consulting company focused on religious causes that purchased Ketchum in 1995. (Ketchum, which no longer exists, was eventually bought and folded into another company.)

In the Ketchum reorganization and sale, Carter says he realized the company had lost its focus by investing in businesses it didn’t know. “It was clear those parts of the organization should be cut loose,” he says. “We had to let people go.”

Carter resolved to speak personally with everyone he laid off to explain why downsizing was necessary, and now says that holding those conversations “was really hard, and I didn’t handle it perfectly with every person.” To get through the Ketchum ordeal, Carter made a list of priorities to keep himself on track: preserve as much value for Ketchum stockholders as possible, save as many jobs as he could while being financially responsible, maintain Ketchum’s brand by continuing to deliver high-quality service, and keep the company alive for as long as possible. Fundraisers and other nonprofit leaders facing big cuts, Carter says, would do well to create their own downsizing priorities.

It was around this time that Carter, perhaps fueled by work stress, was forced to recognize that he’d developed a serious drinking problem. With clients, two-martini lunches were routine—Carter loved doing business over drinks—and the cocktails flowed more freely at night. A functioning alcoholic, Carter says that he knew “I wasn’t at the top of my game” professionally. But his job performance was not negatively affected by the drinking, he says. Colleagues, he explains, enabled his habit by covering for him, driving him safely to and from appointments, for example.

But if his work didn’t suffer from the drinking, his physical health did. Carter finally realized that, if he wanted to live, he had to confront his alcohol addiction. He checked into a Pennsylvania rehab facility where he spent a month drying out, learning about addiction, and going to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, which he still attends. He also participates in interventions to get alcohol abusers into treatment and counsels others when asked. In July, Carter celebrated 21 years of sobriety.

Six months after selling Ketchum, the company he loved, Carter was asked to return as the consulting company’s president, a position he held for another dozen years, until 2007, when he stepped down to take a consulting job with Omnicom’s Changing Our World. At that company, Carter began working overseas, providing counsel on charitable activities among organizations and entities including the royal family of Qatar. He established Bob Carter Companies in 2011, continuing to work overseas and with domestic charities; the firm was renamed Carter in 2015. It has recruited other fundraising experts such as its president, Steve Higgins, who worked with Carter at Ketchum.

The consultant helped steer another challenging reorganization in 2016 as the immediate past board chairman of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. That year, the fundraising association was threatened with a new mid-six-figure budget shortfall, just a few years after Carter and fellow trustees were forced to cut $2 million out of the association’s budget amid a sharp decline in dues-paying members during the Great Recession.

The more recent shortfall led to the ouster of 13 staff members, including then-president Andrew Watt, who abruptly left the organization in June 2016.

That reorganization—criticized in fundraising circles for the way it was handled, with at least one staff member urged to lose weight to stay on the job—nevertheless restored the organization’s fiscal health. Mike Geiger, the new chief executive appointed in November, says that a recent budget surplus will allow the Association of Fundraising Professionals to invest in new research and education while also overhauling its technology platform this year.

At 72, Carter still works full time, but only with organizations of his choosing. In his long career, he has helped hundreds of charities raise more money, including many that have grown markedly more sophisticated in recruiting donors under his counsel, which often lasts a decade or longer.

No cause is more dear to Carter than The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland, a private school in Baltimore. Growing up in nearby Elkridge, Md., Carter attended Boy’s Latin starting in fourth grade and graduated from its high school, distinguishing himself as a student with a flair for writing and language—he is fluent in French—and as a leading athlete on the lacrosse, basketball and football teams. Among other honors, the school awarded Carter with its Alumni Cup for leadership based on character and inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.

“Bobby got a white sweater for winning three varsity letters, and he wore it all the time,” recalls Dyson Ehrhardt, a fellow Boys’ Latin alumnus who is the school’s associate headmaster for development. As a student, Ehrhardt coached the younger Carter in lacrosse. As a player, he says, Carter “was a warrior, a fierce competitor.” When meeting with Carter, Ehrhardt adds, “I want him beside me, not across from me. I don’t want to do battle with him.”

As an adult, Carter has chaired the school’s board and played a key role in two capital campaigns. And, as board chair emeritus, he remains actively involved.

In fact, Carter’s passion for Boys’ Latin is so keen that he has the school’s motto Esse Quam Vider—“to be rather than to seem”—sewn into the cuffs of all his dress pants, according to Christopher Post, the school’s headmaster.

Another organization Carter has assisted for years is World Vision International, the religious organization that has long relied on modest monthly sponsorships from donors who help the charity serve needy children worldwide. When World Vision wanted to expand its fundraising to include large outright gifts from individuals and families, Carter helped pull it off. A $500 million campaign begun a decade ago brought in $537 million.

“We needed help since we’d never done this before,” recalls Cheryl Jereczek, World Vision’s vice president of philanthropy. “We worked with Bob on how to pull together the campaign, from building the case to how to engage executives and volunteers—all of that.”

Now, Carter is advising World Vision’s overseas affiliates, helping several of them hold similar fundraising drives and guiding the parent organization toward a second major-gift campaign.

Carter has advised the Stevenson School, a private boarding school in Pebble Beach, California, for 25 years. After helping Joe Wanke, the now-retired leader of the school, succeed in Stevenson’s first capital campaign, which raised $27 million on a $25 million goal, Carter and his consulting colleagues have continued to increase donations by, among other things, helping Stevenson start a planned giving program and add major gifts staff.

“We felt we had a special relationship with him, but I bet every client feels that way,” says Wanke of Carter. “That’s why he is so successful.”

Over the years, Carter has maintained an eclectic set of interests: French, salt-water fishing, and country and western music, to name a few. “He can do a mean two-step,” says Paulette Maehara, a now-retired former president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Public policy is another keen interest: Carter works with fundraising colleagues to advocate for federal policies that he believes protect and strengthen philanthropy. On the fundraising association’s board, for example, he was a lead actor in efforts to lobby for maintaining the charitable tax deduction when lawmakers on Capitol Hill moved to eliminate and then to cap the charitable deduction.

But no matter how deeply he wades into politics to enhance charitable giving, Carter’s personal political views, who he votes for, and what party he belongs to are strictly private matters. He refuses to reveal those details about himself to clients—or to reporters, for that matter—steering any professional discussion away from politics.

And he plans to keep it that way: On his profile on Facebook, in the Political Views section, Carter has typed a single word: “guess.”

Tips From a Globe-Trotting Fundraiser at the Top of His Game
Asked for his advice, veteran fundraiser Bob Carter offers the following tips to development officers as well as other nonprofit staff and volunteers who want to succeed in raising money or doing fundraising consulting:

Just do it. The biggest mistake that Carter sees among the charities he advises “is not doing fundraising and instead holding meetings, talking about it, reading about it, sitting at a desk, putting off face-to-face meetings with potential donors, and letting fear take over,” he says.

Too many organizations want to ask right away without doing any in-person relationship building, or they will do online fundraising instead of meeting face-to-face with donors and potential supporters, says Carter. “You’ll never get the biggest gifts that way.”

To prod his clients into more in-person contacts with donors—both existing and prospective ones—Carter says he’s talked with his colleagues about “getting signs reading ‘No Fundraising Happens Here’ for clients to put on their desks.”

Be prepared for “No.” Carter tells his clients to have at least five responses prepared in the event that they get turned down when asking for money or trying to recruit the leader of their next fundraising campaign.

For example, if a chair candidate rejects a request to lead a campaign, charity officials should plan to ask that person additional questions. Some examples: Would you help us recruit the right leader? (“If they say ‘Yes,’ you’ve got their participation,” Carter says.) Who do you think that leader should be? Can we come back to you at another time to evaluate our progress? Can we talk about some prospective donors with you? Will you serve on the steering committee with our other leaders when we get them in place? We want to make sure our case for support is as strong for corporate donors as possible, will you review it for us?

A desirable campaign chair who says no is usually a respected leader, Carter says, “and you always want to have a dialog with a good leader.”

Get permission from donors. Another thing Carter tries to teach his clients is “to ask potential donors for the permission to ask.” By that, he means asking questions to determine their preferences for a future solicitation, rather than formulating the fundraising request around a one-sided focus on the organization and its needs.

Carter offers the following questions to gauge people’s preferences in being asked for money: Would you like us to put together material for you to consider? How would you like the discussion to take place? Who would you like to have there?

Because they have not sought this kind of permission or taken other steps to engage donors, “some institutions are really not ready for the ask,” Carter says. “They have not prepared the prospective donor, they have the wrong amount,” and so on.

Carter recalls accompanying one charity on a fundraising visit to a corporation during which the charity’s leaders planned to ask the company’s executives for $5 million. “I could tell the corporate prospect was not ready for the ask,” says Carter. The representatives of the charity, he says, “were too anxious to get the gift and hadn’t done their homework.” So Carter slid a note across the table, advising them to hold off on the solicitation.

The charity returned to the drawing board and developed a much expanded project that, with the company’s input, corporate officials could get excited about, Carter says. “The result was a $17 million gift.”

Don’t hire consultants for the wrong reasons. Some charities retain fundraising consultants because “they’re looking for someone to tell them what they want to hear,” Carter says. But all too often, he adds, what clients want to hear is not necessarily the best course of action if they want to raise more money.

“We are not there to make friends, we are there to tell the truth,” Carter says. When hiring consultants, he adds, charities should be open to feedback and potential solutions that differ from ingrained viewpoints.

In his long career, Carter has also had charities that expect him to fix an unsalvageable situation.

“There was a zoo that had some serious financial problems, and it wanted a miracle worker,” he recalls. The problem, he says, was that the zoo’s financial issues were so severe that it placed escalating pressure and unrealistic demands on fundraising to save the day. “We knew it would not work and we would be taking money for nothing,” Carter says. Eventually, after parting ways with Carter’s company, he recalls, the zoo failed and had to be bailed out by the state.

Want to be a fundraising consultant? Here’s how. In line with Carter’s scrupulous avoidance of political discussions with clients is his advice for aspiring fundraising consultants: Know the varying viewpoints on issues of the day, and don’t take sides publicly.

“Be sure you get news from at least one international source per day, so you are not filling your brain with only domestic news,” he says. “You have to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Global events affect philanthropy wherever you might be raising money. Terrorism, economic failures by industries and governments impact how your donors feel about their futures and commitments.” That context, Carter adds, “may help you make a sale in an environment that requires setting you apart from five other consultants in the room.”

Another tip: Find other fundraising consultants to confide in and to seek advice from, Carter says. “Listen and listen again to people who’ve been doing this for a long time who are willing to talk to you,” he says. “I run into so many people who are consultants and struggling alone. Don’t try to do this work in a vacuum.”

And for those who aspire to consult overseas, as Carter has, he advises them to develop proficiency in a second language. “My international work was influenced by my proficiency in French,” he says. “It allowed me to advance in ways I never would have otherwise.”

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