When you get started in fundraising, you’re excited, a little nervous, and totally in love with your cause. You’re ready to champion animal rights, end domestic violence, feed the hungry, and get seniors citizens to their medical appointments on time. You are flattered that your ED has given you the responsibility to keep the mission going. You are revved up and ready to give a speech to Rotary, win over donors’ hearts at dinner, write poignant newsletter articles, and pick the perfect shade of winter-white napkins for the gala. And that’s just the first 48 hours!
So, go on, Superstar… go on… raise the money …bring home the bacon!
Here’s the rub. It takes time to figure out what’s a priority, what’s a possibility, and what’s… eh, maybe good idea. It takes at least a year to learn the unique fundraising life cycle of your organization. But, by that time you might be so burned out and pulled in so many directions that you are already looking for the exit. (Research tells us that the average fundraiser leaves after only 16 months on the job.)
That’s not good for you. That’s not good for your donors. That’s not good for your beneficiaries. And it’s not good for your organization. It’s really a call for the nonprofit industry to change our perceptions of fundraising (but that’s another post for another day).
Wouldn’t it be great to know what seasoned professionals know? The ones who’ve been around? The ones who get the big gifts? Yeah! I asked high-performing development officers and consultants to share their best advice for fundraisers who are new to the field.
Here’s their “if-I-only-knew-then-what-I-know-now” insights to help keep you sane, focused, and inspired by the big picture.
Be an information sponge.
Learn, learn, and learn some more. Learn as much as you can about your organization so that you know your product inside and out. Find a mentor within your organization, get to know established fundraising professionals – and learn from them, and observe them. Be open to constructive criticism. Research and read up on existing information about fundraising.
“There’s a body of knowledge out there about issues like relationship building, soliciting, ethics, accountability, prospect research, donor-centered communication, psychology, what causes [donor] loyalty, etc.,” said one expert. “You MUST know this body of knowledge – or learn it – if you are a fundraiser.”
Want to know a great place to start? Check out the Association of Fundraising Professionals. We represent 30,000 development professionals all over the world. Our whole mission is to advance ethical and effective fundraising.
Focus on relationships.
“It's not rocket science – it’s relationships; it's everyday stuff; it's meeting a person and being friendly,” said a development officer. Get out of your office and go be with people – start building those relationships with your donors and potential donors.
Put yourself in the donors’ shoes. How would you feel if you were the donor? What type of fundraiser would you want talking to you? How would you want to be asked for a gift? What would make you uncomfortable if you were a donor?
“It’s all about the relationships. Have focused visits [with people] based on why they love your institution, and the best will come,” said a VP of Fundraising.
Communicate with your boss.
Have open, honest conversations with your boss. Schedule weekly one-on-one meetings with your boss to lay out every single thing that you are doing. Share your concerns and questions with your boss, and make sure you understand what your boss expects of you.
Here’s why: There’s a really, really good chance that your boss doesn’t know the “body of knowledge” about fundraising (see tip 1). In fact, I would place a hefty bet on it. And so, even though it isn’t in your job description, you have the AWESOME responsibility of teaching your boss about that “body of knowledge.” And then you get to help her teach her boss(es). But in the mean time you need to understand and implement your boss(es)’ priorities too.
Need help getting everyone on the same page? Check out DonorPath. It's an affordable online platform that aggregates your donor data into easily understandable visuals and reports AND it connects you with an expert coach (like me) to interpret the data, set goals, and keep you all accountable.
Be professional – always.
Remember: you are always representing your organization! Don’t drink too much or swear at work-related social events, and NEVER talk about politics or religion (unless you are raising money for those causes). NEVER badmouth your organization—even when talking with dissatisfied donors. “It’s hard not to want to side with the donor, because you want to be seen as empathetic, but you have to avoid the temptation,” said one fundraiser. You are the customer service representative. You're the one to blame, and you're the one to fix the problem.
This one might go without saying, but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and work really hard – even though you might not get a lot of praise or a big raise right away. “Just jump in and do your best, get in and do your absolute best,” said a healthcare foundation president.
At the end of the day, it’s not about you. It’s about the cause that you love.
And… if you stick with it, you’ll understand that this profession will challenge you to learn a body of knowledge and be confident in what you know. It will introduce you to exciting people and help you to travel (possibly) to amazing locations. It will bring you so much happiness to see your donors’ dreams fulfilled. And it will bring you peace and inspiration to use your talents to save and change lives.
Share your best “if-I-only-knew-then-what-I-know-now” advice in the comments below!