So ... You're a Fundraiser!
The first three months are crucial in a new job. You are under intense scrutiny to perform, especially if you have a boss who doesn’t understand development. Square your shoulders, take a deep breath and learn to manage expectations.
First of all, get confident. Remember your skills stories. You are talented! You are a fast learner! You can do this! You can learn as quickly as you can by tapping in to organizational memory and finding development mentors. Get an early win. Under-promise and over-deliver. Talk with your boss about each aspect of your job, priorities and the resources you need. Get together a team of volunteers, interns and, if possible, other development professionals.
Then, get organized. You got the job — now there’s work to do! A lot of times there is so much to do, it’s hard to know where to begin. The book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen is a good resource to start clearing the mental and physical clutter.
Tired of coming to the end of the day and feeling like you didn’t accomplish anything? Here’s how to ensure you manage your day as it progresses. Write the answers to these questions each morning before you begin work.
- What will I concentrate on today?
- What must I do today?
- How can I make this easier for myself?
- What needs to come first?
- What next?
- What events might prevent me from doing this?
- How can I best anticipate these?
- What else?
You can also make a diagram, like the one shown to the right. What is urgent and important? What is important but not urgent? Unimportant and urgent? Not urgent and not important? Separate out your tasks.
- Write down all of the things you have to do. Everything. Even nonwork-related things. Just get it all out on paper.
- Separate personal and work-related to-dos into two lists.
- Separate specific actions and projects (requiring three or more specific actions).
- Using the principle of the assembly line, divide your work so it can all be accomplished with the least amount of distraction and highest efficiency.
- Break up your day into five mini-days. For example:
- 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.: Write marketing copy for appeal letters, website or other PR tools.
- 10 a.m. to noon: Make phone calls to donors.
- Noon to 2 p.m.: Lunch and meet with colleagues/mentors.
- 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Research grants.
- 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.: Answer e-mails.
What do you need?
Figure out what you need to be successful. This is the beginning of your development plan. Do you need a second person to help you? Do you need an events consultant? Do you need an approved marketing budget? Do you need more priorities set from your boss? Do you need a higher ratio of compliments to criticisms? Do you need your boss to meet with you weekly? Monthly? What’s your communication style? Do you prefer e-mail? Telephone? In-person?
Figure out what motivates you the best. Is it compensation? Compliments? Little thank-you notes from your boss? Find out a way to communicate this in one of your first meetings.
5 conversations to have with your boss
You need to have several conversations with your boss.
- Have a conversation about how your boss wants you to communicate. Does she prefer e-mail? Phone? What’s your communication style? How can you sync up with your boss? Where are the potential disconnects? What can the two of you agree to do to head off communication issues?
- Have a conversation where you ask what the situation is this week. What is the highest priority, what is second and so on?
- Have a conversation about what your boss’s expectations are for fundraising.
- Have a conversation where you explain to your boss what you need, what resources you require. You probably want to explain your budget for marketing, events, etc., and talk about why you need more staff and specifically what you need the staff to do.
- Have a conversation about how you can advance in the organization. You can make more money, sure, but what else? Could you get a change in title? Who will provide mentoring for you? Would you like to create organizational procedures around specific tasks? Would you like to streamline the identification and cultivation process for donors?
It’s also important to find out the answers to these questions:
- Who was in the fundraising position before? How many people have been in the position in the last five years? If you didn’t already ask this in the interview, it’s good to find this out.
- Look at the 990 forms and old budgets. How has the development department performed in the past? And how do your co-workers and boss feel it performed?
- How did goals get set? Were these goals realistic? What were the benchmarks?
- What happened when goals were not met?
- Who has tried to change the organization? Were they successful?
- What is the focus and vision of the organization?
- Who is trustworthy in your organization?
- Who can actually do their jobs? Who is burned out? Who is overwhelmed?
- Who has influence with the executive director and board? What can you learn from them?
- Where can you get some early wins? (Appeals? Events? Marketing?)
- What needs to go into the development plan?
- What are some ways to ensure communication keeps happening within your organization?
If you see something being done inefficiently, ask what may appear to be “dumb” questions. Why is this done this way? What’s another way to do this?
Once you get the answers you need, focus on being a motivating factor. Motivating others is your first step to being a true development professional. Even if you don’t personally supervise anyone, you can play a role in motivating the board, volunteers and interns, as well as motivating people to give through speaking engagements.
Fundraising is everybody’s responsibility. But don’t frame it this way. When you talk with staff, instead of pointing your finger and demanding help, frame it as, “Your programs are incredible, and I’d love to highlight them. Will you help me?” Don’t frame it as obligation, but as highlighting your co-workers’ hard work and showing off their achievements. The more people you have giving you ideas, supporting you, understanding what you do and helping out, the better.
Your fundraising plan
You have to have enough money coming in the door to carry out the work you do. So do a fiscal checkup with your accountant and board treasurer. Where is your nonprofit? What are your receivables? What are your payables? How fast are you burning cash? How can you cut costs and make sure your nonprofit is stable?
Once you do this, you can start to look at how to keep money flowing in smoothly without a lot of effort. Here are some ideas.
1. Create a fundraising plan and communications calendar so you can plan backward for each event, appeal letter, e-newsletter and piece of your fundraising strategy for the whole year.
2. Have weekly check-ins with the board and volunteers where you start and end with what is going right at your nonprofit. If you want to learn more about solutions-focused meetings and questions, check out this post about Alan Kay’s book, “Fry the Monkeys.”
3. Make sure your communications flow smoothly, including between you and your board, and you and the rest of the volunteers. Give lots of opportunities for people to ask questions. It’s important that they know what your priorities are and in what order. Likewise, you need to tell them what you need to be successful, push back on unrealistic expectations and know when things are coming up.
4. Hold regular conference calls with major donors and stakeholders to check in about issues with your agency, fundraising, programs and to also appreciate those who are doing a good job. If you communicate about what you need, you’re more likely to get it.
5. Be open about your mistakes. This makes people trust you more.
6. Focus on vision. It’s up to you to uphold the vision of the nonprofit. If you’re the sole staff person, you need to keep clear on the long-term vision as well as the short-term vision. What needs to get done right now? What about down the road?
7. Get help. This means one-off help with virtual assistants as well as longer-term interns or volunteer help. Recruit volunteers with idealist.org, volunteermatch.org and corporate volunteers. Here’s more about how to find volunteers.
8. Start a monthly giving program.
9. Get more donors and board members by doing speaking engagements. Once you connect with a corporation, you have to get in front of potential donors and board members. Ask to speak to their marketing director, corporate responsibility officer or brand manager. Ask them if you could come in and speak about your organization, or do a performance for their employees during their lunch hour.
This is how we got our foot in the door for a small nonprofit I worked for, and it really works. You don’t want to just ask for something straight off the bat. You want to show them what you’re about. Big corporations are full of people who are craving deeper meaning and deeper experiences in their lives, and your nonprofit can offer that.
10. When you go for your performance or speaking engagement with them, ask them if anyone would be interested in volunteering, serving on your gala committee or even just coming to your next event.
While you’re there, stop by the human resources office and ask if employee volunteerism is compensated by the company. Also ask if there’s a group of employees who like to volunteer or if they’re looking for new projects to volunteer on.
11. Send out an e-newsletter at least once a month.
12. Cut down on the number of events you have. No more than two events a year.
13. Start a major-gifts program, name it and brand it. Show major donors that you care with appreciation events.
14. Look through your database and see who could be re-engaged as a donor or volunteer.
15. Ask your volunteers for donations.
Have you mastered fundraising?
I was recently reading a book called “Mastery” by Robert Greene, and it struck me that it could be applied to fundraising. How do you know you’ve mastered fundraising? Well, you never really know. There’s always something more to learn. Maybe you’ve done grants your whole life and you don’t know about appeal letters. Or you’ve been in a big shop and only done planned giving, or you’ve been in a small shop and had to do a little appeal letter, a little grantwriting but then never got to learn how to do a capital campaign. There are so many holes in our knowledge. We have to do better. I know, it’s worked so far, but it hasn’t worked as well as we’d like it to.
“Mastery” talks about the different kinds of learners:
- Dabblers: Dabblers get frustrated quickly and give up, then try something else. A dabbler reads a book on karate, goes to a couple of classes and drops out. Then he decides to try Indonesian stick-fighting, goes to a couple of classes and drops out. Then decides to learn Japanese, picks up a book, practices for a week and then drops it. Know anyone like that?
- Obsessives: These folks obsessively try to go make the biggest splash they can right off the bat. They try very, very hard for a while, then get burned out and never come back. Obsessives don’t want to be on a plateau. They fear the plateau. Oh man, I am such an obsessive!
- Hackers: Hackers learn just enough to get by, stay on a plateau for awhile, then bump up a bit as they have to learn something new. And then stay on that plateau indefinitely. Maybe this person just had to learn how to enter donations. Then she learns how to run events — because she has to. And that’s all she ever learns. Nonprofit marketing, grantwriting, planned giving — none of that interests her. She thinks, “Why bother?” She won’t get promoted. She’ll stay on her plateau.
Mastery is learning to recognize when you are on a plateau and working hard to love that plateau while forming a community with others to learn, improve yourself and then slowly work toward the next level of mastery. It’s a tricky balancing act because you can’t go after mastery too hard. If you do, you become an obsessive.
You just have to make slow and steady progress every day. But you also need to keep learning. And you need to see what success looks like. What are you shooting for? Is it the development director role? The chief development officer role? Your own consulting firm? What do you need to know to get there?
How do you attain fundraising mastery? Love the plateaus, and continually strive to be better through:
1. Instruction: This means reading blogs, books, and attending webinars and workshops to succeed. What was the last workshop or webinar you attended? What did your last conference teach you? What was the last fundraising book you read? What was the best fundraising book you read recently? And if you can’t remember the last fundraising book you read, the last workshop or the last webinar, it’s probably time to learn again.
2. Practice: This means going back and applying what you learned as quickly as you can — even volunteering with another nonprofit if your current one doesn’t let you do everything that you’d like to try.
3. Surrender: Know that you’re not going to get it right the first time or even the first 10 times. You need to just love the process. Everybody fails, even big shots. You never really stop failing. Your failures are part of your learning. If your boss or your team can’t accept that, they need to read this book.
4. Intentionality: Visualize yourself succeeding. Visualize your appeal letter making $30,000 or a sum that’s significant for your organization. Visualize yourself writing that winning grant. Visualize people opening your e-newsletter and donating $1,000 on the spot.
5. The edge: Work on getting better and better. But what does that look like? Is it trying a new area of fundraising? Working on social-media communications instead of direct-mail campaigns? Working on planned giving instead of capital campaigns? Working on grants instead of database management? Whatever it is, there are so many fields of fundraising out there that it’s impossible to ever be a master of them all. But that’s the fun part, right? You never have to worry about running out of things to learn! And the more you learn and practice, the more valuable you are to any employer.
What are some tools for mastery?
1. Recognize that you are going to resist the changes. You are going to want to slide back into the old ways of doing things. People around you are also going to resist it when you try to do things differently. This is normal and expected. Learning something new about fundraising and then applying it is a lot like starting a new workout routine. It takes time to get into that groove until it’s ingrained in your body and mind. It takes time to persuade everyone to create a culture of philanthropy at your nonprofit.
2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance. What does that mean? Acknowledge that you’re in resistance. You get out of bed in the morning and know you should go for a run, but you just want to fall back into bed. OK, you don’t feel like going hard today. So go most of the distance, and come back. You don’t have to power through it at full speed.
3. Develop a support system. This means a group of people around you who want to support you and your efforts.
4. Follow a regular practice. This means every day, going in, sitting down, and saying, “OK, what can I do that must be done today, and what is something less pressing but just as important that I need to get done? And what can I do today to advance myself in the field of fundraising? How can I help someone else just starting out? And how can I build my own personal board of directors to help myself succeed?”
5. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. Don’t just read blogs. Take a fundraising webinar. Take a fundraising workshop. Get a fundraising coach. Join a membership site where you can find community, learning and coaching. Find the right teacher for you. There are many out there.
Mazarine Treyz is author of "The Wild Woman's Guide to Fundraising," "The Wild Woman's Guide to Social Media" and "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide," as well as the Wild Woman Fundraising blog. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org