Training for the Future of Fundraising
What skills would you develop today if you want to be marketable in the fundraising profession in 2025? That's the question I found myself pondering when I was at the DMA Nonprofit Federation's 2014 New York Nonprofit Conference on Monday.
Unfortunately, predicting the future has never been my forte. I'm not an early adapter when it comes to technology (though once I adapt, I kick myself for past procrastination). In real estate, I buy high and sell low. I can't even figure out what to have for dinner tonight.
But when it comes to fundraising, I think I have unlocked the secret to the future. Yes, read on and you will know exactly where to invest your limited time and money in training so you are the most relevant, well-equipped fundraiser in the second quarter of the 21st century.
Why am I so sure? Because the skills I believe you will need aren't "rocket science" — they're the same skills that separate the good fundraisers from the great ones even now in boring old 2014.
Tell a story
It's not hard to find an article that reminds us that, as fundraisers, we need to be able to share the stories that bring the facts and statistics about our programs to life. The difficulty is often in how to tell those stories.
Let's face it — some of us are natural-born storytellers. (I used to describe my mom as having the unusual ability to make a long story longer. So I guess my ability to spin a tale is genetic.) Others stick more to the facts and are the ones you want to make your case to the IRS, should you ever find yourself in that unfortunate position.
But if you work for a nonprofit, I believe there must be something about that organization's mission that keeps you committed to the long hours, sometimes low pay and outdated computers. That "something" is the starting point for your story. What is it that excites you? Who is the person you met who (gasp!) made you fight back the tears or swallow the lump in your throat? What was the scene you looked out on that said to you, "This is why we do what we do"?
That's the starting point for your story. Share what you love about the work, and your own passion will compel others to listen, and that in turn will help you branch out to find more stories and make them "yours," too.
In the summer 2014 issue of Advancing Philanthropy, Mary Ellen Collins wrote this about crowdfunding — one of those 21st-century fundraising phenomena that many of us are still trying to get our arms around: "Basic fundraising principles don't go out the door. It's still all about having a compelling story ... "
So start working on your storytelling today — and you'll be relevant far into the future!
Interpret results and act accordingly
The day of going with your gut or expecting someone else to digest the numbers and tell you what they mean seems to be a distant memory for most of us. Downsizing has made more fundraisers "stand-alones," and analytics at the touch of a button on a device smaller than a single volume of the old encyclopedia has removed the shroud of mystery from the art of interpreting results.
Add to that tighter budgets, and we now have to be sure every dollar invested in fundraising yields donors, dollars or at least some actionable learnings. Most nonprofits can't afford too many failures, and eventually your career can suffer if you can't make decisions based on the facts instead of your feelings. The expectation is that fundraisers will test ideas — and then read the results of those tests and act accordingly.
Some of my very favorite fundraising ideas were disasters when it came to net results. And yes, letting go was hard to do. But fundraising is an investment, not a Disney song. Let it go!
Ouch! That seems to be the mantra in fundraising these days. The days of "just trust me" are gone. Funders want to see progress. Regulatory bodies want to see progress. Even fundraisers want to see progress since being able to point to results makes our jobs so much easier.
Most donors know that their $25 aren't going to be the straw that breaks the back of the camel of cancer, finally bringing the cure to light. But they want to know that their $25 are part of an investment your organization is making that is moving step by step toward the day when cancer isn't the threat it still is today. They want to know that another acre of rainforest is forever preserved or a child isn't going to bed tonight with an empty stomach or dread because tomorrow will be just another day of forced labor.
Whatever your cause, be ready to show progress. It may be (often is) slow. It may not be spectacular. It may be kind of hard for the average person to understand. But the fundraiser who succeeds in 2015 and beyond will be the one who can take the small steps of progress and turn them into the confidence a donor needs to continue investing to bring about the next step, and another ... until your organization can say, "Mission accomplished!" and close its door for good.
This old dog will probably hang up her leash sometime during the second half of the 21st century, but I'll be watching. Watching for the men and women who are passionate storytellers. Who read the results and make midcourse corrections. Who convince me that their organization is the one worth investing in because there is progress being made, one step at a time.
And that's where this old dog — and the next generations of philanthropists, as well — will be investing our dollars.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.