If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “I could NEVER do your job!” I wouldn’t need a job.... Like most fundraisers, I stumbled into fundraising as a fresh-faced 22-year-old event planner at the University of Texas.
One day early in my tenure, I was thrilled when the new boss-lady (and UT’s most successful fundraiser) sat down with me at the dingy little lunch table in the kitchen. A few minutes into our conversation, she said she had an opening on her team and asked me if I wanted to join.
My mouth got ahead of my brain, and the conversation went something like this:
Lauren: “Oh no, I can’t ask people for money! We don’t even talk about money in my family! I couldn’t make that my job.”
UT’s best fundraiser: “Lauren, I’ve never asked anyone for money.”
UT’s best fundraiser: “My donors are savvy. They understand my job. All I do is get to know their passions and sort through the university to find something that matches their passions.”
Which brings me to my first (and most important) lesson of many in fundraising…
1. FUNDRAISERS ARE MATCHMAKERS, NOT SALESPEOPLE.
Donors WANT to have an impact. It’s your job to help them make a difference in the best way possible. If a donor isn’t interested in the work my organization is doing, it is not my job to squeeze money out of them. That is an unsustainable and unproductive approach.
2. DONOR FIRST. ALWAYS.
Fundraising professionals can be very territorial. Turf wars and possessive behavior are short-sighted. High-level donors are sophisticated. They give to multiple organizations and causes. As fundraisers, we need to rise to their level.
My decision tree is this:
Is it ethical?
Is it good for the donor?
Is it good for the organization?
Is it good for me?
In that order.
If you can answer “yes” to the first three questions, whatever you are doing will automatically be good for your career. I’ve worked at huge institutions with countless opportunities to give. While working for a children’s hospital in a major university, I would happily connect my hospital donors to the athletics department or another college. It went a long way to prove to my donors I prioritized their interests over my metrics. This strengthened their trust in me, and over the years, led to better, more fruitful relationships.
3. BE AUTHENTIC
High-powered, well-known donors are surrounded by people who want something from them… be it a job, a donation, or simply to bask in the glow of “celebrity.” Humans are wired to sense inauthenticity. If you can relate to your donors as successful, caring individuals who want to have an impact, rather than viewing them as a bank account or celebrity, you will form a relationship based on substance rather than a transaction. This will serve you (and them) well in the long run.
4. MIND YOUR BOUNDARIES.
The trickiest part of donor relations is knowing where to draw the line between professional and personal. The nature of our business is highly personal; it’s like walking a tightrope. It is our job as fundraisers to form authentic, meaningful relationships, but the key word in that sentence is JOB. It is easy to truly connect and care about your donors, and sometimes the lines get blurred and friendships blossom out of a business-based relationship. There is a clear code of conduct for development professionals. Each relationship is different, but be mindful of personal boundaries.
5. INTEGRITY IS EVERYTHING.
Be honest and act with integrity, even when it’s uncomfortable… especially when it’s uncomfortable. Philanthropic relationships are built on trust. Donors work hard for their money. It takes great trust to hand over cold hard cash to someone and believe that they’re going to use it properly to affect change. Keep your word. If you’ve promised something and can’t deliver, have the hard conversation. You wouldn’t believe some of the tough conversations I’ve had. Surprisingly, every one wound up strengthening my relationships with my donors, because they understood I was being honest, even if it didn’t shine the best light on me or the organization. Mistakes happen, approach them honestly and with a “we’re going to fix this” attitude, and you can’t go wrong.
In my role with DreamLarge, I incorporate all of these lessons, and many more learned over 15 years as a fundraising professional. Benefit corporations are a powerful new tool to affect change, and Millennials are using them more and more frequently to accomplish their philanthropic work.
There are no roadmaps for this next chapter of giving back, but we do have a long history of knowing what works when engaging donors in meaningful work, whatever the vehicle or cause.