Are You an Accidental Fundraiser?
How did you get your start in nonprofit work?
I always trace my start in the nonprofit world to my first job working for a wonderful private family foundation. I got married, moved to Philadelphia, had two children and was looking for a part-time job that would still allow me to be at home with my daughters for a few days of the week. The foundation was established during the 1950s, but only recently begun to establish formal grant policies and procedures. My experiences with that grant-making foundation were wonderful in many respects and exposed me to all the marvelous work being done by nonprofit organizations all over the city, leading me eventually to the world of nonprofit fundraising.
But the truth is, I always wanted to make a difference.
As a teenager, I volunteered for George McGovern’s campaign (yes, I am really dating myself). I went door-to-door (and often getting them slammed in my face). Later on, I worked for the Michigan State Legislature—both in the House and the Senate—on issues ranging from social services to mental health to corrections.
We’re all doing what we do because we want to make a difference.
Yet there really isn’t anything that quite prepares you for working in nonprofit development. My first job after spending nearly 7 years in the relatively cushy foundation world was as a 15-hour-per-week—yes, $15 an hour—development director for a community agency with a $3 million budget.
After a week or so foraging through existing files and talking to everyone and anyone who would sit down with me, I came to the conclusion that nothing had been done for the past 5 years (not since a very successful capital campaign had ended).
No follow-up grant proposals to those generous funders of the capital campaign were written.
The annual membership campaign was farmed out to three separate direct-mail companies—with disastrous results. Donors were angry. Records were missing. Key community contacts had lapsed.
I thought I’d taken on much more than I could handle and had no idea where to turn first.
Thank heavens for my mentor. When I went to him overwhelmed and nearly in tears. He said, “Hey, this is great! How many people get to create their own job?!” Once I changed my perspective, I started establishing some areas I wanted to focus on. I didn’t have the time or money for any courses, but I had worked in advertising sales.
In fact, for 2 years I was the top display advertising salesperson at the small weekly newspaper in the Detroit area. I started out abysmally in sales and nearly quit. Those who know me well know that I’ve battled shyness all my life. Fortunately, instead of quitting, I took the time to study marketing and read books by folks like Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill.
The marketing techniques that I learned, as well as time-management skills from working in a commission-based environment, stood me in good stead. Within a year, our organization’s membership had increased by 25 percent, we raised over $150,000 in grants alone, we had our first website up and running (this was in 2001) and our organization was well on its way back to enjoying the beloved status within the community it had once known—thanks to a weekly column in our local paper and associations with the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.
In fact, when the budget went up substantially the following year and we were allotted funds for training, I took my first grant-writing class. After the class they asked me if I would be interested in teaching it.
Since then, I’ve taken any number of classes and read untold books on the topic of marketing and nonprofit development. I’ve taken the Benevon “Raising More Money” training, Kim Klein’s classes and a seminar from Penelope Burk, author of “Donor-Centered Fundraising”—a book I constantly reference.
And, frankly, for every great seminar or course I’ve attended, I’ve attended five that were worthless.
More often than not, I’ve spent my own money for training and books (nonprofit organizations are notoriously reluctant to spend money on training—for shame!). Regular readers know, too, that I am a huge fan of SOFII.org—the fundraiser’s swipe file (check it out if you haven’t visited it or made a donation).
Yet, despite all of the classes and coursework I’ve completed, I’m so very grateful for that earlier sales and marketing training and believe that it has been the real catalyst to my successful career in development. Truly understanding what goes on in the mind of your prospective donor and what they respond to is at the core of all great development work.
We’re all in this kind of work to make a real difference. After over 16 years working in the nonprofit development arena, though, I’ve learned that to be genuinely effective—to really make a difference—organizations need to be just as committed to funding their missions as they are to their mission. There is simply no way to ever not pay a price.
How did you get your start in nonprofit development work?
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.