Advice to My Younger Fundraising Self
If you’re like me, you didn’t start out intending to be a fundraiser.
Some people start out in the Peace Corps. Some were sentenced to community service. Some began in volunteering. In all of these cases, people see fundraising as an extension of their past experiences. But I think it’s fair to say that most of us fell into fundraising by chance. I did. These days, I fondly think of my “falling into fundraising” as fate. Sheer luck. Kismet.
So how did I end up here? Well, I stumbled into fundraising more than 16 years ago when I transitioned from working for a regional grant-making foundation to my first development director job—and it was love at first sight. You see, I’d had the desire to make a difference all of my life, but I lacked the wherewithal to do it. I knew myself, and I knew that I was too thin-skinned for social work and other occupations that would really put me in the thick of things.
So, with me being me, fundraising turned out to be the perfect career path. And, blessed with a background in sales, marketing and even tech, I experienced crazy success right out of the gate. That, along with some moxie, persistence, and a great mission, helped me create some amazing change in a relatively short period of time.
How much change?
In less than two short years into my first job, I increased foundation grant funding by more than 90 percent, developed a regular column in our weekly community newspaper, single-handedly learned Dreamweaver and launched our website (complete with online giving back in, yes, 2001!), spearheaded the founding of a nonprofit roundtable with the local Chamber of Commerce, launched a local health initiative, held several successful community events, and established relationships with the Rotary and area businesses. Whew.
What’s more, our organization’s once disastrous membership campaign had grown by huge leaps and bounds.
The icing on the cake was all of the love I had for the position and everything about it. I loved my coworkers, I loved our volunteers, and I loved my work. It was the perfect scenario, and it was mine.
I loved my job. And I’d finally found my passion!
But after two short years, I walked out the door.
Why did I leave? And what can you learn from my departure from what remains, to this day, one of my favorite jobs?
For almost two years, I had experienced virtual autonomy, thanks to an executive director who was thrilled to defer the fundraising aspect of the organization to someone who knew what she was doing. The board of directors asked questions, and was thoughtful and attentive during meetings—but the board members didn’t interfere. What’s more, they dutifully put in appearances at events and helped when they were asked to help. I confess that I didn’t ask often.
So what went wrong? A major change rolled on in.
A new executive director arrived on the scene.
One who didn’t take too kindly to the postscripts in my annual appeal letters or the handwritten notes scribbled in the margins. One who didn’t understand the concept of persuasive copy or the art of communicating directly with the donor. One who insisted on eliminating contractions, along with any type of writing that she termed “salesy.” A woman who couldn’t understand why we needed to be paying extra to segment and personalize our mailings, and wanted to know why one “dear friend” letter couldn’t suffice for all of them.
And her attitudes, which dramatically changed the work environment I’d grown to love, came despite the awesome results we’d been getting.
Look, I can handle constructive criticism, and I welcome it with an open mind. What I can’t handle are clueless people telling me how to do my job. No one should have to put up with that.
Since I’d already picked up a few consulting clients of my own, I boxed up my office, said, “sayonara,” and walked out of there.
I suspect what happened around me isn’t an isolated occurrence. In fact, it probably is often the case with fundraising professionals, particularly in small shops, where limited staff is overworked, underpaid and wearing far too many hats.
In fact, the CompassPoint report, “Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” indicated that 57 percent of development directors working at organizations with budgets of less than $1 million plan to leave their organizations within one year, compared to 38 percent of development directors working at organizations with budgets of more than $10 million.
My next confession may surprise you, though. The new executive director didn’t “make” me leave. The truth is, I probably would have left even if she’d never come onto the scene. Regardless of how much we love the work that we do in fundraising, we only can do it all for so long before we feel ourselves cracking under the pressure.
And while I loved the utter autonomy of my job, I was wrong in thinking that I could do it all.
In the years that have followed, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the importance of having everyone on board, working together. The life and culture of the organization depends on it. As a consultant, I’ve been brought on for one-hour board trainings where it quickly became apparent to me that the organization lacked a consistent culture of philanthropy, and the board was tapped warily for fundraising once or twice a year. Sometimes, I’ve thought back to my position and how I underutilized the organization’s board. I’ve learned from that mistake, and I’m glad that I did.
Have you ever been hired by an organization as its fifth development director in two years? I have. I know it all too well, and maybe you do, too. You’re expected to write that $1 million grant that’s going to save everyone’s hide, or miraculously acquire a major gift from a donor who has been ignored for five years straight, or grab the attention of that ultra-rich and famous philanthropist with no connection to your organization whatsoever. The expectations are stacked high, and so is the general idea that fundraising is somehow dirty and the rest of the organization is glad that you’re on board so it can wash its hands of fundraising. History is doomed to repeat itself.
Frankly, I see it in virtually every single organization where fundraising isn’t viewed as an integral part of the mission. It’s at the heart of the matter—your core. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed how this kind of disconnect prevents organizations from truly excelling in fundraising.
My advice to my younger self?
I would have told myself to understand that everyone in the organization plays a part in the fundraising process and that I was not built to do it all by myself. I would have to understand the importance of leading with my actions and attitude. I would have to involve those board members and get them—along with everyone else—revved up and excited to fundraise. I would have to involve our volunteers, board and, yes, even the executive director—of course, the executive director! Had I done this, I not only would have alleviated some of my stress, but I would have set the rest of the organization on the path to long-term, sustainable fundraising success.
That’s what I learned—and then some. I have no regrets, and neither should you. Without this invaluable experience, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.
So I’ll leave you with this: Understand completely, and respect that everyone in your organization plays a crucial role in fundraising success. Step up and be the one to hammer that point home to everyone else.
“But I’m not a fundraiser!” is a cop-out; I’ve heard it many times. It couldn’t be further from the truth. You need every member of your team on board because that collective passion, enthusiasm and drive is essential to your fundraising success. When each of the machine’s parts is running at optimal capacity, the machine runs smoothly. It knows how to handle the bumps in the road.
Because here’s the thing: If you’re not committed to funding your mission, you’re not committed to your mission, period.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.