What it takes to be a good Fundraiser
There are so many articles written to answer this question, and most of the time they focus on character traits of the individual. I think that all kinds of personalities can be great fundraisers. I believe that the organization is really the key to whether or not a fundraiser is successful.
- A strong, well led organization. The best fundraiser cannot raise money if the organization does not deliver on its mission. Stewardship is almost more important than closing the gift, and fulfilling the promises made to the donor about how their gift will be used and the impact of that gift directly affect the reputation of the individual fundraiser. If the promises are not kept, the donor will not give again – and they will never trust the fundraiser again. If trust is broken between a donor and a fundraiser, that can haunt the fundraiser throughout their career and actually derail it completely. The brand of the organization is also important. If the groundwork hasn’t been done to brand and communicate the mission of the organization to the community of stakeholders, don’t expect a fundraiser to be able to raise much money.
- Strong fundraising support. The lone fundraiser is a recipe for disaster. Fundraising is a complex job that requires complex skill sets. The fundraiser has his or her skill set but they cannot replace the leader of the organization to close gifts with high level donors for example. CEOs want to make deals with CEOs. Other support needs are branding/communications, research, technology and office support. The more support the fundraiser gets, the more volume they can deliver in terms of funding. I once had a position with the Nature Conservancy that funded my position through several federal grants. I spent a full day every two week pay period filling out my time sheet. Eight hours. Those hours were billed to the grant. Surely it would have been more fiscally responsible to have someone else do that task.
- Balance between oversight and autonomy. People don’t get into fundraising to sit in an office all day and do tons of reports. Fundraisers work differently than most of the other people in an organization, and there is often concern about making sure they are doing forty hours of work. I’m a big believer in the hour thing working itself out in the wash. There are weeks where you may work 20 hours and others where you might work 60. Having said that, it’s tough to stay motivated if you don’t have accountability, so I am very supportive of weekly meetings with leadership to keep the process moving, and we have goals to keep us motivated. Unfortunately, there’s a point of pride that’s developed in fundraising about working long hours and being a road warrior for the team. I think that’s dumb. We all have lives that are more important than our job. Overworking will eventually just lead to burn-out.
- Opportunities to be creative. People make friends in different ways, attract lovers in different ways, raise their kids in different ways… Why shouldn’t they be free to develop donor relationships in different ways? Donor development needs to be natural for the individual fundraiser. Unnatural, textbook tactics feel creepy to donors. The same goes for messaging. Fundraisers need the freedom to adjust messaging for themselves and for specific donors. They also need to have the freedom to create their own style in how they ask for money to suit their nature and the personalities and expectations of their donors.
- Budget for training and conferences. The fundraising sector has a strong professional network with valuable training and meaningful conferences relevant to every kind of organization and development role. Connecting with peers brings fresh ideas back to the organization and re-inspires individuals. Doing any job day after day is a slog, and fundraising has a high burn-out rate. Training directly impacts success. My favorite recommendation is the Fund Raising School at the Lilly School of Philanthropy. Courses here are pricey, but they are worth every penny. I’d fundraised for ten years and took “Principles & Techniques of Fundraising” and realized I basically knew nothing about fundraising before that course. That’s how good it is. Click here for the catalog.
- Good paycheck. Successful fundraisers are stolen. The average time in a single position in higher education in the Midwest is 16 months. In this environment as soon as you start having success, you are inundated with emails and calls from recruiters. The reason people stay is because they are happy in their job and they feel they are properly compensated for their work. The reason they don’t is that they aren’t happy and/or they find out there is more money to be made somewhere else. Fundraisers are unhappy in a job when they realize they can’t be successful for some reason, don’t like the culture of the organization, feel they don’t have a good quality of life where they live or get an offer they can’t refuse. We are really good at publishing standard salaries, and an underpaid fundraiser will stumble onto this news soon enough.
- Pep Rallies. A good manager of fundraisers will bombard them with the brand of the organization. A big reason fundraisers stay in a job even when under pressure with better opportunities is that they are in love with the organization, and that has a lot to do with brand affinity. This is such a strong factor that it can often mitigate shortfalls in some of the other things discussed above. I’ve been fascinated in positions throughout my career where no attempt was made to emotionally connect me to the organization. (I mean, our job is to do that with donors so you’d think they would use that trick on their staff.) On the other hand, I’ve made pittance in positions that I was heartbroken to leave because I loved the organization so much.
I think I’ll make this blog a living document and add more to it when I think of it. Please post comments with your own suggestions of things to ad.