Meet Our Award Winners: Matthew Bregman
In our February issue, Fundraising Success named the winners of our 2010 Fundraising Professionals of the Year Awards. In this recurring "Meet Our Award Winners" series in the Advisor, you will have an opportunity to learn more about these distinguished nonprofit professionals and their unique perspectives on fundraising. Here, meet Matthew Bregman, who was named one of this year's Fundraising Stars.
Director of development
El Museo del Barrio (New York, N.Y.)
Your organization's mission: El Museo’s mission is to present and preserve the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States. Through its collections, exhibitions and publications, bilingual public programs, educational activities, festivals and special events, El Museo educates its public in the richness of Caribbean and Latin American arts and cultural history.
Annual operating budget: For the current fiscal year, our budget is approximately $7.8 million.
How much raised annually: Approximately $5.8 million.
Role models: In terms of nonprofits, I have two main role models. The first is Karen Hopkins, under whom I worked for five years at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Karen is a brilliant, funny person who drives relentlessly toward her goal with passion. I learned from Karen that you must feel strongly about your cause and then follow every thread until you reach a “yes” or a “no.” Most people, in every line of business, allow lots of half-baked ideas to collect around them. Karen bakes them all the way through. And, just as important for me, Karen does it by being herself — no pretense or artifice.
My second role model is Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center. I’ve gotten to watch Reynold work a bit because his wife, Elizabeth, is on our board and chair of our development committee. Anyone can see that Reynold has brought together a dozen separate organizations to conduct a breathtakingly successful billion-dollar-plus campaign goal. But what amazes me is that no matter how busy he is with his enormously complex challenge, he makes sure to write personal, heartfelt thank-you notes the day he receives a new gift. If Reynold can manage to do that at his level, then the rest of us have no excuses.
Why did you choose fundraising as a career: Like most fundraisers, I fell into it. The nonprofit I worked for 20 years ago needed money, and we couldn’t afford to hire this thing called a “development director” because they demanded obscenely high salaries in the area of $35,000. So I volunteered to take on that responsibility, at a significantly lower salary, and then scrambled to figure out how to do it. What I quickly realized was that I loved pursuing money — I think that’s human nature. And I’ve never gotten tired of the thrill of finding the money to make important work possible.
Your greatest fundraising challenges: The biggest hurdle is moving from the process of asking for money to the process of orchestrating others to ask for money. Asking for money directly — whether it’s of foundations or corporations or through direct-response mechanisms — is relatively easy. (Getting the money isn’t easy, but asking is.) But building a team of volunteers who will enthusiastically and assertively seek new gifts requires a careful balance of patience and diligence.
Keys to success (in life): For me, the main keys are: 1) knowing what you really want; and 2) making the proactive decision to go get it, even when no one is encouraging, let alone inviting, you to do so. Andy Warhol said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” For most of us, you have to do everything yourself.
Keys to success (in fundraising): Fundraising is a mirror of life. The main key is to raise money for a cause truly worthy of support. Then we have to figure out how to make it fun and fulfilling for donors to participate. And we have to do it all in a highly energized, organized and business-like manner.
Fundraising accomplishment of which you are most proud: We launched a Patrons Circle at El Museo three years ago. Though it is (so far) much less lucrative than many other things I’ve been involved with in my career, I’m proud that I was able to shepherd it from an abstract idea to an ongoing part of the fundraising mix at our museum. Now it is taken for granted as an essential part of what we do, which feels great.
How would your co-workers describe you: I’m not sure — but I’d love to know! I think they’d say that I’m funny and a little obsessed with my kids, and that I never stop asking for things.
Greatest lesson ever learned: This is a hard question, and it actually inspired a recent post in my blog. But more succinctly, and specifically in terms of fundraising, I think I learned an important fundraising lesson back in my first job, when I was organizing my first revenue-generating special event. We were featuring Ralph Nader (long before he became a pariah because of the Al Gore campaign). Nevertheless, we were struggling to sell tickets, and we were sure that the key to success would be aggressive and comprehensive follow-up with our membership base. But no one, and I mean no one, was buying tickets. And I began to believe that the whole concept of the event must be terrible, and that I was not cut out for fundraising, and our organization wasn’t cut out for prosperity. Then someone put a tiny ad in the back of The Village Voice, and the phones started ringing off the hook. We had simply been asking the wrong people.
But more important than simply a lesson in lists, that experience taught me not to draw cosmic conclusions (i.e., this event is destined to fail) from specific evidence (i.e., our membership isn’t responding). There was an enormously successful event just waiting to happen, and if we’d insisted on focusing exclusively on our nonresponsive list, we would have missed it.
In fundraising, and in life, there are countless many paths to success, but they are often obscured by many more paths to failure. With enough creativity and a good flashlight you can find the right path — but you first have to believe in your heart that it might be there.
(Matt offers a course called the Three Day Fundraising Intensive. Interested readers can sign up at http://tacticalfundraising.eventbrite.com/. Use the discount code FundraisingSuccess and receive $400 off.)