Skip Navigation
Print Share

Advanced Professional Spotlight: Questions for Barb Coury, CFRE

April 19, 2017

Barb CouryWhat’s your professional position now, and what are your responsibilities?  

I’m the chief development officer for the state of Indiana for the American Red Cross. I have oversight of all fundraising in the state for the Red Cross. Ten positions report directly to me, eight of which are major gift officers.

I think of Red Cross and of course the first visuals that hit me are disaster fundraising solicitations. But you’ve got eight major gift officers.

You have to remember that all of our direct mail is coordinated through the National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. We don’t conduct any annual fund drives across the state. Which, honestly, I prefer, because that structure allows me and my staff to focus on developing deeper relationships with donors.

So, major gifts are a large part of your fundraising budget then. Has it always been that way?

When I started five years ago, we held 57 different special events across the state.  Since that time we have eliminated every single one of them. We also had 17 different boards, and since then we have consolidated them into six boards. During this consolidation period, I met with each board and explained my approach to engaging board members in the fundraising process. Special events may make sense for some organizations and in some states for the Red Cross, but not here in Indiana. We are very careful about the cost of these events and revenue generated.

Eliminating all those time- and volunteer-intensive events, to say nothing of their costs, allowed us to sharpen our focus on gifts from individuals, corporations and foundations. And the response from our corporate donors was overwhelmingly positive, as their philanthropic dollars are now going to our mission and programs, not on an event

Is the Indiana experience typical for other regions then?

It’s different in each region, but what’s really interesting about the Red Cross is that, in my view, we made the practice of fundraising a priority soon after our national CEO was hired. As recently as 10 years ago the Indiana Red Cross received approximately 70 percent of its funding from United Way. But since we’ve focused on developing and cultivating gifts from individuals and organizations, that number has dropped here to about 30 percent.

The national CEO, Gail McGovern, has played a huge role in this. She started right before the recession, and our previous model was that when we’d need money immediately because of a disaster, we’d draw on our line of credit. But during the recession, those lines of credit shrunk. She deserves a lot of credit for helping us rethink our fundraising approach and diversify our strategy.

What do you love about working at the American Red Cross?

Quite simply, the mission, which extends far beyond responding to natural disasters. People don’t realize the Red Cross supplies 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply—the next largest source supplies about 11 percent. We are also the largest veteran-serving organization in the U.S. We’re the only organization that facilitates and verifies family emergencies between active duty personnel and their families to bring the military member home when needed.  We don’t get to decide who comes home, so we coordinate with the commanding officer to provide the background information and then we communicate with the families.

We also provide a number of preventive, life-saving skills classes, such as lifeguarding, CPR, and babysitting, for example. Globally, we have a robust program working with UNICEF, the United Nations and the World Health Organization to eradicate measles.

The Red Cross is mandated to exist by Congress, yet we receive less than 1% of our revenue from the government. 

Are donors surprised to hear all of that?

All the time. It’s one of the more fun and exciting conversations I get to have—when you can tell someone only knows about us because of disasters, and you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice as I talk about everything else we do. Almost everyone I meet says, “I had no idea the Red Cross did all that.” They get excited and want to help out, and we have a program or service for almost every interest.  

I was just talking to a donor about our nation-wide campaign to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries by 25 percent. In Indiana, we have seven house fires every day—and the Red Cross responds every time we’re called. We’re often there when the firefighters are, and we stay long after, connecting families to case workers and providing temporary places to live. We’re holding smoke-alarm installation events with corporate volunteers going door-to-door, and we already have documented 11 lives saved in Indiana because of these installations and 125 documented lives saved across the country. It’s these sorts of programs, with real local impact, that people are responding to.

Tell me a little about your career arc. Did you start out as a fundraiser?

I didn’t. Like many, I fell into it. My formal academic training was originally as a research scientist. I went to work for a for-profit biotech firm after completing a post doc at Duke in neurology research.  While I loved my time at Duke, the same could not be said for my first real-world job in a for-profit biotech, and it drove my love for science right out of me after six month. I’m a social person, and I was literally working with rats. Rats don’t talk much, and the job was socially isolating. It was very tough.

Fortunately, one of my friends was a major gift officer at Purdue University and talked to me about a job opening at the Krannert School of Management. I applied on Monday, got the job offer on Friday and promptly left my science job for a career in fundraising.  Since that time I have been able to go back and get a Master’s degree in philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IU, which was the first program of its kind.

Was that a tough switch at first?

Actually, what surprised me was how much of a good fit it was. I no longer had to write grants, and I could be social and talk to people about things that made a real difference in their lives. That was such a positive feeling. My first job was running the annual fund, and it was a great way to learn the business from the bottom up and get a sense of the scope of this sector.

Then the Purdue School of Nursing gave me a chance to run my own shop. After a few years I moved to the Purdue Cancer Center, where I was their first development professional. I loved that job, as it was a chance to talk about the research without having to conduct it. I was really in my element. I would still probably be there at Purdue if my family hadn’t relocated to Indianapolis for my husband’s job.

Did that experience prepare you well for the Red Cross?

I think anytime you have an opportunity as a fundraiser at a university or college, you should strongly consider taking it. A lot of these institutions have been raising funds for so long, and they’re really good at it. You get to see how a top-to-bottom operation is run—billion dollar campaigns and everything that is involved. They’re constantly evolving, and there’s less of a “this is how we’ve always done it” attitude and a willingness to try new programs and innovate.

That experience was a big plus at the Red Cross, which as I mentioned earlier, was concentrating on developing its fundraising programs. The year I started, the Red Cross hired about 20 other chief development officers. Getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, and being able to help contribute to building the program has been extremely rewarding.

You’ve clearly done a tremendous job. You’re our Outstanding Fundraising Professional. What went through your mind when you heard the news?

I was shocked. I really was. It’s the most important award that we have in our industry. And to be honest, I’m having a ball with it *laughs* I’m loving it! I know you’re supposed to be humbled by it, and in a very real sense I am, of course. But I’m also having a lot of fun with it. And why not, after all?

You must have some secrets, or just tried-and-true pieces of wisdom, that work for you. Care to share any?

I do, and they are fairly straightforward. To be successful, you must, quite simply:

  • Have a written plan, and work that plan.
  • Make your calls and visits.
  • Do the most difficult and most important stuff first.

Sounds simple. At least in theory.

Exactly. But I spend a lot of time stressing those three things because it’s very easy to get sidetracked. I speak to other nonprofits several times a year throughout the state, and I meet with the executive director and board chair before I present to the rest of their board. And I always ask, “What’s your plan? For the day? For the week?”  Often, it starts with, “First, I’m going to go through my emails.” That’s not a plan. You don’t even need to number that step because there is nothing that comes after it to make it a sequence.  That’s one of the reasons why special events are so popular, because at least it provides a plan for a few months.

Think about your workday in four quadrants. Upper left are important and urgent things. Upper right is important, but not urgent. Bottom left, is urgent but not important. And bottom right is neither important nor urgent. Which quadrant do people get stuck? The urgent but not important stuff. And what we need to focus on is the important but not urgent things. That’s typically how we’re going to get ahead—working on the important stuff, the things we want to do, but never seem to have the time for. That should be your goal because it allows you work your plan.

At the Red Cross, we also focus a lot on addressing call reluctance. Fundraisers need to understand what kind of call reluctance they have—whether it’s procrastination, or overpreparation, or getting stage fright. There’s at least 15 different types—and what you can do to overcome it. Then I tell my staff, “If you have to eat a frog, eat it for breakfast.  If you have to eat two frogs, eat them one right after the other.” Which equates to getting the hard stuff done early, and then moving on to the rest of your day.

If you put off calling your donors to ask for a visit, you will never be successful in fundraising.  I have never met anyone without at least one form of call reluctance and I have at least four types myself.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you just need to acknowledge it and then work on overcoming it.

It has definitely worked for you. What are you most proud of in your career at this point?

I’d say the work I’ve done in building and maintaining a good team of talented gift officers. I’m so proud that I haven’t had to hire a new fundraiser in years. The shortest tenured fundraiser we have on staff right now is two and a half years.

You’ve given us some advice. Let’s switch it up. What fundraising classes or presentations or books have helped you the most? Anything you’d recommend?

I am an avid reader of the research from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IU. They produce some great research and articles. I’d also highly recommend the Executive MA program at Lilly. It’s a liberal arts approach to understanding how the three sectors—government, the for-profit sector, and nonprofits—work together. I had classes on law, economics, human resources, history and literature. The faculty is outstanding and the coursework is fascinating. While you can do distance learning if you want, you can also spend several weeks or more on the campus, and I have made several life-life connections with the students I met through the program.

You traveled to West Virginia in 2016 after major flooding there and served as fundraising manager for Red Cross’ local fundraising efforts. That’s a bit more in line with what the public thinks the Red Cross does, but different from your daily work. What was that like?

It was exhilarating. In my regular job in Indiana, I do get out to meet with donors, but to be involved in fundraising 24 hours a day for six full days? It was an amazing and rewarding time.

How did you get involved?

The flooding began on a Saturday. All the Red Cross regional CEOs and CDOs in my division had a conference call on Saturday. I asked if I could help, and I was on the ground later the next day.  I also had someone from our division (Greg Waite) teaching me how to manage the operation, which was very helpful.

What do you do in that situation?

It’s a case of bringing your boards and other key people together and having a clear fundraising plan. We held an emergency board meeting and went through every list of donors, prospects, volunteers and everyone else we could find—and lined up each individual or organization with a board member or key supporter. They had 48 hours to make a connection. I jokingly referred to myself as the “Slacker Tracker,” which sounds more ominous than it actually was, and I just made sure everyone was on task and helped address any challenges or obstacles.  I staffed that board to make it easy for them to support the disaster operation.

We raised three million dollars in six days, which is great. But what’s really satisfying is how that campaign helped the West Virginia region overall. Its annual budget was one million dollars prior to the flooding. Now its annual budget is nearly double that amount. That’s possible, in part, because of the groundwork the deployed and local fundraising team helped lay during that time.

You lead a number of fundraisers in your job. What do you think your management style is like—how do you handle those responsibilities?

I’ve definitely had to work on my management and leadership skills. My husband is a fabulous manager and serves as my life coach and has helped me immensely. The Red Cross has invested in me as well by providing management and coaching training that I can use with my team., For me personally, it’s critical to have one-on-one time with each member of my team when it’s all about them—their opportunities and challenges, where they see themselves in the future, and building a plan to meet their goals.  I try to meet once a month with everyone, so that results in two days a month where I’m just focusing on developing staff. But the results and impact of that are invaluable.

When you think about how fundraising has changed over the time you’ve been in the profession, what stands out the most to you?

When I first started and was visiting potential donors, no one quite knew what I did. I’m sure that’s a familiar experience with many colleagues. I can still remember talking to a neighbor when I was working at Purdue, and she asked me if I stood at malls and asked for money that way. I probably should have been insulted, but I found her question hilarious. Now when I call a donor to ask for a visit, everyone knows what I do. It’s amazing how prevalent fundraising has become and the importance being placed on it. We can’t look to the government to fund the change nonprofits provide as that piece of pie shrinks every year.  Instead, we must focus on fundraising for ourselves. Most people get that.

I think technology is another profound difference-maker. Internally, the ability to see what’s happening across the country in different regions and their fundraising, and to be able to share best practices easily and update each other—that’s a huge plus. For example, recently our national CEO had a town hall meeting and we could invite donors at a certain level to join us. Or they could just listen to her in their own offices. That ability to give donors an up close and personal feel for the organization, and create a stronger sense of connection, just wasn’t possible years ago.

What’s the most challenging issue the profession faces right now?

Two-fold. One, very simply, is retaining good gift officers. We just have to do a better job.

Two is the double standard the American public seems to have when it comes to dollars spent on overhead for a nonprofit versus a for-profit. Spending very little on overhead doesn’t ensure great programs, and vice versa. Along the same lines, simply because we work for a nonprofit doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to be able to educate our kids, afford safe housing and good health insurance. We need to continue to educate donors and the public about why overhead is important to our organizations and that it is not a negative.

You’ve been involved in AFP for 18 years. How do you stay engaged with the association at this point?

I always try to have at least one of my direct reports on the local chapter board. That keeps me feeling more engaged and knowledgeable about what’s going on, and I can also keep my eye on a great pool of talented people should opportunities at the Red Cross become available. I also try to give presentations to the chapter when I can—I think that’s an important way to give back—and I attend several AFP luncheons a year. 

How do you manage to balance your personal and professional life?

I do not give myself an A-plus for that. I use my weekends to get caught up. Our son sits at the kitchen table with us after dinner and together we all do more work. I know it’s not the right answer necessarily but for now its works for us!

I do love to cook, read, garden and play golf—though that last one I don’t do well.

Last book you’ve read?

My family and I did listen to the audiobook of A Prayer for Owen Meany while we were traveling in the car looking at colleges for my son. A great read, or I guess, a great listen!