35 Years … and Still Learning Fundraising
After 35 years (so far) in fundraising, I can honestly say that I am still learning. I am not ashamed of this. In fact, I am a bit proud. You see, if I had decided I "knew everything" a decade or two ago, I would be totally ignorant today of online fundraising, text-to-give, crowdfunding and so much more. I would be the Brachiosaurus of fundraising—tall and small-brained.
The practice of fundraising is constantly changing to take advantage of new technologies, shifts in donors' preferences, lower-cost options, and so much more that affects the way we do business as fundraisers. Each time I teach a course in fundraising, I am reminded of the very thin line between what I can teach from years and years of solid experience—and what I teach based heavily on what I have read, heard and to a lesser degree, done.
In other words, if you're skimming this article and thinking, "I just don't know enough about fundraising; I hope I can find some help here," you're not alone. I do the same thing every weekday with this e-newsletter and a half-dozen others I receive. And can I let you in on a secret? I think the truly smart people are those who know they don't know everything and are constantly seeking out new knowledge.
So, my smart readers, here are some ways I keep learning fundraising. Feel free to use them, adapt them or replace them with your own thoughts. Just—don't stop learning! That's when you may as well turn your fundraising work over to someone who is hungrier to learn, regardless of whether they are 62 or 22.
Read all you can. Yes, you're reading this, so obviously you have this one figured out. But, do you really? In the old days, most of us had a folder where we inserted articles or even magazines that we wanted to read; this was faithfully taken along on business trips where we wiled away the long hours on the plane and in the hotel room catching up on the accumulation of reading we'd set aside for just this opportunity. After all, the Internet was not there to tempt us with all its time-consuming treasures. But today, there is much more about fundraising to read, online and offline. And much of it is free, so we no longer have to get our money's worth from a subscription that came out of an already-stretched budget.
You're going to have to come up with your own strategy for flagging things to retrieve for later reading, but make sure you are giving yourself a diet that reflects variety. My favorite part of fundraising is direct mail (weird, I know), so I have to read more about planned giving, major donors and search engine maximization, to name just a few topics, to remain relevant.
I also recommend setting up a way to actually retrieve information when you need it. Personally, I have a folder on my computer that contains 69 sub-folders, ranging from "990s" to "Who's Mailing What." Some of the contents (articles, studies, downloads) date back 10 or more years; a few are actually scans of articles I tore out of magazines early in my career. The bottom line is, whatever system you use or set up now, make sure you can actually find information when you need it. It won't do you any good if you can't find it, or have to spend precious time to locate something you vaguely remember reading once upon a time.
Cultivate friendships with fundraisers with different expertise. As I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy direct mail. But I routinely have lunch with a friend who is fantastic at major gift fundraising and capital campaigns. I talk often with others who are great in online fundraising, and specifically driving traffic to a website. If I have a planned giving question, there's someone I can call, or if I am not sure about membership programs, I can ask yet another person.
It's always tempting when I attend a conference to go to sessions that cover topics that I feel most comfortable with. After all, I don't want to look stupid. But I have to remind myself that professional conferences aren't third grade; no one is going to call on me and embarrass me because I don't know the right answer. When I stretch myself going to a conference that offers new information, I learn—and I often meet people who become resources for the future.
Invest in formal education. This isn't for everyone, I know, but if you can still think about school without breaking out in a cold sweat, you may be a good candidate for one of the many formal educational programs in fundraising that have sprung up in the last two decades. These range from what I consider the granddaddy of them all, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, to courses at a community college or university extension program. These are often online; for example, I teach for the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension in its fundraising certification program. Right now, I am teaching a class on campus, but in the summer, I'll be teaching the same course online. The hardest part now is not finding a program, but finding the one that will give you the most value based on what you want to get from it.
Obviously, time and money are the main barriers to getting formal or informal education in fundraising, and completing a program or reading everything imaginable is not a guarantee that you will be a better fundraiser. So this old dog offers all these suggestions with a caveat: If you truly want to learn to be the best possible fundraiser, just do it. Don't say no to opportunities to work on something outside your expertise; say, "Sure, I'll do it!" and then work like crazy to learn (from articles and reports you've saved and from acquaintances with that particular expertise).
Just don't stop learning. You'll be a better fundraiser, but you'll also have more fun as a fundraiser when you are trying new things, having success in an area that you've never tried before, and having other fundraisers call or email you when they are looking to learn from the expert you have become.
Make sure you have a system to find information that you set aside for later use.
Step out of your comfort zone at conferences so you learn new information and make new acquaintances that can be resources in those topics.
Never stop learning; create a continuing education program (formal or informal) that is focused on gaps in your knowledge, and grade yourself by what you learn