Cover Story: The Art and Science of Fundraising
There’s a gleam in Vaneeda Bennett’s eye that borders on mischievous and a lingering quality to her laugh that makes you wonder what she’s up to. What she’s been up to — for the past nine years, at least — is a major upheaval of the thinking in the development office at the American Diabetes Association. An upheaval that’s lead to a 100 percent cumulative increase across four development areas at the national, Virginia-based organization over the past eight years.
The folks who work with Bennett, the ADA’s chief development officer, call her a “powerhouse,” a one-woman show who single-handedly spearheaded the growth. (The numbers, by the way, read like this: Over the past five years, ADA experienced a 35 percent increase in direct mail contributions; 65 percent in major gifts; 100 percent in corporate support; and 38 percent in special events.)
Still, Bennett is quick to point out that she’s more of an orchestra leader who surrounds herself with the best “musicians” she can find. She throws the pros together in the pit, waves her baton and waits to hear the music.
“I set the direction and strategy, but not in isolation,” she says. “It would be stupid to do it in isolation. My staff is a bunch of pros; I make it a point to hire people who I believe are better than I am. Experts in their field. The synergy is incredible.”
She’s also a painter. (This one’s no metaphor; Bennett’s office walls are adorned with her watercolors). As such, she acknowledges that for all the metrics and analytics that can be applied to it, fundraising is, at its heart, a fine art rife with subtleties and ironically delicate shades that hit hardest when they’re the least obvious.
“Fundraising is an art that doesn’t turn its back to scientific principals,” Bennett says. “If you don’t make X number of calls, you’re not going to get results. If you don’t have X number of prospects, you’re not going to reach your goal. But it’s an art because you can’t treat everyone the same.”