Just Do It: Your Secret to Mastering Major Gift Fundraising
I remember working for a social services agency where the social workers would often say to me, "I could never do what you do." I’d reply, "Back at you!"
Each of us thought the other person’s talent was a mystery because we’d never learned it. And we’d never wanted to learn it.
I also remember board members, sitting in a fundraising training I was facilitating and saying, "I could never ask for a major gift as well as you do." I’d reply: "Oh yes, you can!"
Those unaccustomed to fundraising thought the skill was unattainable because they’d never tried it. And they never wanted to try it.
Here’s the truth: You have to want to do something in order to be able to do it successfully.
All of us are capable when we decide to be.
To master any skill requires a desire to succeed. Because desire is what leads people to put in the time and effort required to achieve mastery. I don’t believe I have more talent asking for gifts than my social worker colleagues or board members. I just practiced a lot.
Malcolm Gladwell talked about this in his book "Outliers," where he discussed ways to make the most of human potential. Talent, he argued, will not alone predict a person’s success. It must be combined with determination, and lots and lots of practice. He described the "10,000-Hour Rule," claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of 10,000 hours.
What’s required to achieve mastery is 'just doing it.'
You probably recognize the "Just Do It" slogan from Nike. It’s an apt catchphrase to apply to athletes, whose success come as much from sheer grit and determination as talent.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth has spent decades studying how high achievers succeed, including successful athletes, artists and businesspeople. The same trait crops up everywhere. It isn't social intelligence. It isn't good looks or physical health. It isn't IQ.
It’s grit—about which Duckworth has written a book and given a TED talk. She debunked our assumption that talent is the primary factor in a person’s success. Instead, it’s passion and perseverance (aka grit).
Talent may be part of achieving mastery, but most of us have many hidden talents we never fully explore. And when we focus too much on talent as an excuse for not pursuing our goals, we miss out on the power of grit to get us where we want to go.
Mastering any new skill, including fundraising, requires a process of commitment, learning and doing.
Successful major gift fundraising relies on passion, perseverance and practice.
Whenever I work with boards around mastering the art of major gift fundraising, I inevitably surprise them by telling them it’s not about what they say as much as how they say it. Are they coming from a place of passion, or a place of panic?
Passion is paramount. Your passion is contagious. It’s why I always tell people the No. 1 thing they need to be an effective fundraiser is getting in touch with their own passions. Harnessing your passion to become an effective major gift solicitor is a simple three-step process:
- Connect with your own passion—why you’re involved with and moved by your cause.
- Enact your passion, passionately.
- Ask others to join you in your passion.
People get fixated on the mechanics of the third step; honestly, it’s the first two steps that are the most important. The third will follow if you get connected to the why of your involvement, and then “just do it” when it comes to personally demonstrating that involvement.
Once you’ve fully and deeply committed, asking others to join you becomes as easy as asking them to go see a movie you love or suggesting they patronize a restaurant you think they might enjoy.
Sometimes the things you’ll recommend to your friends, family and colleagues are a little trickier. Like suggesting they join you in an exercise or diet regime. So, you persevere.
Or sometimes you’ll recommend to your children that they get dressed in the morning. If you’re new at it, you need to learn some techniques. So you read a book that suggests you offer alternatives ("Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue one?") instead of a blanket command ("Please get dressed"), and you practice. Until it becomes second nature.
Falling back on "fundraising doesn’t come naturally to me" as an excuse not to do it is like saying "parenting doesn’t come naturally to me" as an excuse not to persevere until you become good at it. Because your kids’ lives hang in the balance.
Similarly, when it comes to embracing/not embracing fundraising, your nonprofit’s survival hangs in the balance. Nothing worth doing will be mastered without practice.
It takes a lot of grit to be good at anything. You can do it! Contrary to what you may think, your level of grit is not fixed from birth. Duckworth’s research revealed we can all improve how passionate and persevering we are. It’s something Stanford University’s Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset" (she also offers a TED talk)—the belief that ability to learn can change with your effort. (This approach happens to be the centerpiece of my own daughter’s high school educational philosophy, and it’s inspiring to see how the kids embrace it and don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition).
Maybe once you reach a certain age you can’t improve to the extent needed to become a rocket scientist. I firmly believe, however, that everyone can learn enough and persevere enough to become a successful fundraiser—if they commit to work at it.
It’s time to retire the "I’m not good at fundraising" excuse. Even if you were born good at it, you wouldn’t be successful at it unless you committed to doing it and followed through on your commitment.
So, commit. That’s the secret to success. Commit, and follow through. Find your passion and persevere.
Practice, practice, practice.
Keep on keeping on.
Just do it!
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.