What My Parents Taught Me About Fundraising, Part 2
Last week, I mentioned some phrases my parents had said often (it seemed ad nauseam when I was a teen) that, in hindsight, I’ve realized relate to fundraising. Here are a few more “mom-isms” and “dad-isms” that constituted my earliest training in fundraising, whether I knew it then or not.
'When you break two needles, it’s time to stop.'
My mom was a great seamstress, and she taught my sister and me to sew, as well. But even though she seemed to always be up against a deadline, she recognized that sometimes it’s better just to set the project aside for later. When the project involved sewing, her measure was breaking the needle on the sewing machine, often a result of hurrying and trying to cut corners.
Fundraising is a lot like that, I think. We’re always against a deadline, so we rush to the finish line and hope everything ends up right. But that’s too often when mistakes happen. The salutation on the email is blank. There’s an embarrassing typo. We called the donor by the wrong name. And the list goes on. (I’m sure you have your own horror stories to go here.)
Mom was right. Sometimes the best way to finish a fundraising project on time and correctly is to set it aside for a while. Once we can look at it with fresh eyes, we often find that it’s a shorter trip to the finish line than we anticipated.
'When you see work, do it.'
I seriously think it was about equal as to which parent said this the most (and pretending not to see work didn't go over well with either one). In fundraising, there’s always more to be done. We can’t do everything, but if it matters to the relationship we have with a donor, or to the net income of our organization, we need to make it our priority, assign it to someone else or adjust expectations.
Fundraising is a constantly changing set of priorities, and our job is to make sure what matters most isn’t neglected. I admit there are some things I gravitate to first because I enjoy them more. But, sometimes, the ramifications of something not getting done are significant—so that’s what I have to do first.
'You’re crabby. You need sleep.'
Variations: “You’re crabby. Eat an apple.” “You’re crabby. Take a break.” My mom seemed to know my needs for sleep, food and a respite better than I did. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized an uncomfortable truth: Mom was right. I really am a less pleasant person to be around when I am tired, hungry or too close to something to have a healthy perspective.
In the heat of the moment (like right before a gala or at year-end crunch time), stopping for food, sleep or even a 10-minute walk outside seems like a luxury we can postpone. But the time spent recharging can make the remaining hours far more productive (and in my case, more pleasant for others). After years in fundraising I can honestly say that neglecting your own basic needs is one of the worst ways to be an effective fundraiser.
'Give a dollar’s worth of work for a dollar’s worth of pay.'
My first job was pricing merchandise and stocking shelves at a department store. I worked on the floor that sold bedding, towels and curtains. It was not scintillating for a 16-year-old. Added to that, I made minimum wage—and believe me, it was minimum. But I quickly learned that gaming the system and loafing on the job was not a way to earn my dad’s praise.
This dad-ism is a reminder to stay focused on always looking for ways to show the donor how he or she is getting a dollar’s worth of value from a dollar’s worth of a donation. Finding the stories, picking through the data to find the statistic that is going to make a project come alive, requesting a photo that really will paint a thousand words—all that and more helps us give our donors a sense of pride in what they are making possible.
I cringe when I think about what my daughter would say when asked for her mom’s trite sayings. But this old dog has learned that even in the clichés, there are kernels of truth that help shape us into the people—and fundraisers—who are changing the world, one corner at a time.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.