When I’m talking to nonprofit board members and executives about the work I do as a fundraiser, I like to make clear at the outset that I’m not a superhero. I’m not the person who is going to swoop in and make sure everything is hunky-dory, then leave with a “my work here is done.”
It’s a tempting thought: “we hired a fundraising consultant, and suddenly cash started rolling in,” Kind of like: “who was that caped crusader? I don’t know, but we owe her a debt of gratitude.” Fact is, I have never seen a person single-handedly turn an organization into a fundraising machine without the enthusiastic cooperation and participation of those who were already there. For that reason, I would be reluctant to take credit for the successes I have been privileged to lead, witness or participate in, in any capacity.
Whether it’s professional staff, development committee chair or outside consultant, it’s important to realize the role of the fundraiser is that of a personal trainer rather than the cosmetic surgeon. With either one, you’re going to look different in the end, but with a trainer, you’ll sweat more and may hate her later, but your successes will be yours to keep, sustainable over time, and a direct return of the effort you put into them.
Of course, fundraisers should excel at fundraising. Making an ask, cultivating a relationship, understanding how a story is told, why a donation is made and what variables can impact the work that they do is all important stuff.
But a fundraiser is not the only person in an organization with fundraising abilities and responsibilities. Everyone in an organization has a job to do. In addition to fundraising, a fundraiser must work to help colleagues, coworkers, board members and other constituents turn their passion for the organization into action.
By far the most common reaction I get when I tell people they are going to have some responsibility for fundraising is trepidation. They may be uncomfortable with talking about or asking for money, or making a call on a stranger. They may drag their feet when asked to fill a table at a gala or introduce your executive director to their corporate foundation manager. They may also be reluctant to engage in even the most basic cultivation activities such as writing a thank you letter. I’ve seen all levels of reluctance on a board. Most people have a line it seems they will not cross.
But here’s the thing: the vast majority of the donors in this country are individuals. On average more than 75% of the dollars given in the U.S. in any given year will come from people acting on their own. Another chunk will come from bequests – from people having made decisions about how their estates are handled after they pass. Of the 12% of philanthropic dollars that come from foundations, the majority is coming from family foundations. Most of the money in this country is coming from people, who engage with other people, and make decisions from a very personal place.
So I can’t group a bunch of potential donors together and give them all one pitch and expect each of them to respond in the same way. I am looking at approaching each potential donor with the intent of building a relationship on behalf of the organization, on the personal, thoughtful level that they need in order to make a decision about their gift. I’m just one person and there’s only so much ground I can cover.
When I’m looking at a group of board members, whether they’re reluctant or enthusiastic fundraisers, I know they’re sitting at the table because they want the organization to succeed. What is within them that I can utilize to increase our reach as a group? Each one of them will bring something different to the table.
If I am to look at myself as a personal trainer, I am therefore a fundraising coach. It is my responsibility to work with each individual potential fundraiser to understand what their baseline fundraising fitness level will deliver. Can they add a personal note to a newsletter article or clipping that a friend of theirs who is also a donor might be interested in seeing? Can they attend a house party or presentation and be ready to ask a strategic question if no one pipes in during the Q&A? Can they join me at an open house for a local foundation and talk about our organization if anyone asks?
In cooperation with the reluctant fundraiser, I will work to develop a short list of action items that slightly pushes the envelope for them, and check back after a discrete period of time that we’ve agreed upon together. How did it go? Would you be willing to share your experience at the next board meeting? Great.
What’s next? Each successive list of action items should be a little more challenging, directed by the volunteer, and come with a deadline. As they develop their fundraising strength, fundraising volunteers also develop personally in their cache as a community volunteer and as a passionate supporter of your organization. As they can do more, they take on more, and become more self-sufficient.
In this way, cultivating fundraising fitness is much like cultivating physical fitness. One does not start out a power weight lifter or a marathon runner, but lifts what he can on a regular basis, or runs limited intervals with lots of walk breaks in between. The key is consistently building strength and endurance over time, with plenty of interim benchmarks to reach and the corresponding celebrations and recognition.
The fundraising professional, then, is at times coach, mentor, leader and support, making sure records are kept accurate, materials are available and that she is working with each individual to help shape the future of the organization one fundraising success at a time.
The superhero cape is optional.