Take Lessons Before You Drive
I was blessed to grow up in Charleston, W. Va.. It was a different time. For an important period of my life I had a best friend. We were similar yet different. He did many things that I didn’t or couldn’t do, and I enjoyed learning from him. He was also four months older than I was and learned to drive earlier than I did. Once he was 16 he began to drive all over the place. Since I could not drive, I rode with him. At some point he gave me lessons behind the wheel, and I began to learn to drive.
My mother was shocked at the fact that when I turned 16 I took and quickly passed my West Virginia driving test. What she did not know until much later was the fact that at 16 I was a seasoned veteran behind the wheel. It helped that my best friend had a car. We drove all over southern West Virginia on double dates. The point is, I was prepared for the ultimate test, and you need to do the same if you want to succeed in your career.
When I took my first development position at the University of Louisville I knew nothing about development. I began to contact other universities and asked for their information. I contacted my peers at other schools and bought them lunch. I was allowed to go to educational conferences both large and small to learn techniques and practices. My marketing background gave me the knowledge to develop systems and processes. In fact, my first assignment was not in fundraising sales. I had to create a booklet on back-room operations.
I learned how direct mail functioned and how records were utilized in computer systems. I also learned about gift clubs and recognition. I studied class agent approaches and how to direct telephone campaigns. I experienced both good and bad special events and what to do and what not to do to achieve success. My boss was not experienced, so one of my greatest sources of education from my first job came from a senior colleague who had worked in the trenches. You have to practice the craft before perfecting the craft in annual program operations.
With respect to major gifts and planned gifts, I also learned by doing. My boss allowed me to go on road trips with senior colleagues. The university was just developing a major gift program. A gift club was established, and I went on the road from time to time with a senior colleague. I was 22 and very green. He was 60 and very smooth. I loved the way he adjusted his presentation in every setting. I was wondering why his donors continued to make increasing multi-year gifts. We visited executives in city towers, plus executives in trailers in the hills of Kentucky. This taught me that I had to learn and earn relationships, plus allow prospects and donors to love the institution, not you.
I understood early in my career you represented the institution for a brief moment in time. Your job was to acquire, maintain and keep donors giving at larger amounts for their lifetime. I also gleaned knowledge of how to perfect a special relationship with planned gift donors. They make legacy gifts and have love and faith that their gifts which they will never see will be put to excellent use after they have passed. What a responsibility we have to nurture them! I also had lessons on how each segment of the donor cycle is different and how you must use tools in your personal tool kit differently based upon each unique interaction.
Have I made mistakes in my past and present? You bet, but I have always cared deeply about each institution and the people I served during my tenure on staff. I constantly try to learn from others, both young and old, to perfect my craft. Nonprofit service is like golf, in the sense that you must constantly practice to become a better player. The dynamics of the nonprofit world are constantly changing and you must adapt and change to be successful. Remember, take lessons before you drive—whether you are in a car or in a development setting.
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-224-1029.