Observations From the Bottom of the Pool
Regular readers of this column have heard me mention swimming from time to time. That's the one exercise I enjoy, so I try to get to the pool three times a week and swim for an hour.
It is great exercise and it's renewing for me, but truth be told — it's boring. Looking at the bottom of a pool over and over and over again isn't the scintillating stuff good columns are made of.
Maybe that's how you feel about your fundraising job. Back when you started, you were excited. But now you can't figure out how to say — for the 10,000th time — "We need money to do our good work so please give." But as I contemplated the bottom of the pool recently, I started to see a comparison to my swimming and keeping the joy of fundraising alive.
I always get into the pool knowing how many laps I'm going to swim. When my shoulder is aching or my legs are tired of kicking, I keep going — because I hate to not achieve my goal! Think about goals beyond what is in your annual budget on your last performance review. Then set some personal goals that are all about beating "you." Last year, your year-end appeal did X; this year, determine to go for more responses, a higher average gift or some other metric. Then figure out all the ways you might be able to make that happen. Same on your e-newsletter. Can you improve your open rate by having a more enticing subject line? Work on beating your own personal best.
When I swim, I wear a lap counter and meticulously monitor my progress. I even figure out from time to time how close I am to my goal. It's easier to stick with it when you see the finish line — albeit way in the distance sometimes. As a fundraiser, knowing your results also means knowing what is and isn't working.
Stick with what works
For me in the pool, that's the front crawl. I simply lack the coordination for more complicated strokes. I am not arguing against trying new things. Rather, keep doing what's working while you try new fundraising methods. As long as your "boring" core fundraising programs are bringing in money and your control letter is securing new donors, stick with them while you innovate with new opportunities.
My swimming journey has to start with my getting in the pool and taking my first stroke. So too with our fundraising — we have to repeat our message over and over. Donors have to be reminded yet again that their gifts can do such-and-such. And they have to be thanked and reassured that they made a wise choice when they gave. It can take time for your supporters to build new habits like opening your e-appeals and giving to your cause. Don't give up.
Don't take yourself too seriously
Fundraising is not a matter of inserting tab A into slot B if you want to achieve the desired outcome. If you're stretching and trying a new program or working to learn a new skill in fundraising, you're going to make a mistake from time to time. Trust me — the U.S. Olympic Committee isn't ever going to come and try to recruit me for the 2016 swim team. But even knowing that, I still get in the pool and start swimming. What do you need to try today in your fundraising program, even if at first (or maybe ever) you won't be a rock star?
Don't be jealous of someone bigger and/or better
I've noticed that a lot of my fellow swimmers are younger, leaner and much better swimmers. And unless you are No. 1 on the Chronicle of Philanthropy 400 listing, some nonprofit is bigger than you. Some organization is having a more successful event. Someone is getting more press. Don't let that discourage you into stopping or even slowing down. What you're doing matters, so don't quit.
Make it fun
My favorite swimming "tool" is my SwimP3 — a nifty little gadget that lets me listen to my favorite songs as I stare at that uninspiring pool bottom. Learn to laugh at work if you aren't already doing so. Celebrate small victories, and be your own best cheerleader. Remember that fundraising starts with "fun." No matter how serious your mission, having fun at your work is allowed.
Whether you're dog-paddling in your fundraising career, a gold-medal fundraiser or somewhere in between like this old dog, enjoy your work today. It truly does matter.