Sunday, August 5, 2018

What Makes a Fundraiser Exceptional?

I’ve worked in development for more than 25 years and I have had the distinct privilege and honor of working with hundreds of fundraisers over that time.  I want to emphasize it truly has been an honor.  I have worked with some amazing people and I’ve learned a lot from them.  As a result, I believe I have an informed opinion about what it takes to be a truly great fundraiser.

What I’m about to share is obviously my own personal opinion.  I have very strong convictions about fundraising and you may or may not agree with me.  Please keep in mind this is simply my opinion, based on years of seeing both success and failure and by asking lots of questions along the way. 

For some background, you should know I’ve been a part of two, one billion dollar campaigns.  I’ve worked in healthcare, higher education and a cause specific organization.  All of the fundraisers I’ve worked with have in some way, contributed to my thoughts on fundraising. So with that…

Let me start by saying that finding a truly exceptional fundraiser is hard.  I’m talking about individuals who are truly masters of their craft; individuals who have a knack for being successful to the point where the donor becomes thankful for the opportunity to give. 

So, who are these people?  What attributes to they possess?  What makes them successful?  Let’s see…

It all starts with being a great listener.  I’m talking about having the ability to “be present.”  Good fundraisers listen with the intent to understand and look for ways to engage.  They’re not listening simply for the purpose of responding, they’re listening to truly get to know the person they’re talking to.  It’s never about themselves and it’s always about the prospect or donor.  Being a good listener is about truly being focused on the person you’re talking to, as opposed to thinking about a point you want to make and waiting for a chance to interject. 

Think about that. 

We all do it.  Something someone says triggers a thought in our head and we can’t wait to respond with our own story.  We make it all about us and not them.  Good fundraisers don’t do that.  They remember we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Great fundraisers want to uncover a person’s passion. Their goal is to connect a person’s passion to the right mission.  That’s truly being donor centric.  They’re not there to push their own agenda, they’re there to learn about what the donor wants.

The very best fundraisers are also fabulous story tellers.  Painting a picture with words is an art and a talent that is critical to fundraising.  We’ve all been in the presence of someone who knows how to tell a great story.  They capture our attention, they help us visualize because if we can “see it” we can “believe it” and ultimately be impacted by what we learn.

Good story telling moves us.  It moves us emotionally and intellectually.  It’s not about just stating facts and figures – it’s about making those things come to life.

As an example – statistics about how raising money can boost the number of scholarship opportunities for the under-served isn’t necessarily going to engage someone in and of itself.  Telling a moving story about a specific person and how it changed their life is much more meaningful.  It’s impactful.  It’s tangible.

Great story telling applies to both the spoken and written word.  Great fundraisers are simply terrific communicators as a whole.  They know how to help people dream big and are able to help people focus on what is important to themselves. 

The best fundraisers are relational.  They know how to engage people on a personal level. They know how to be friendly, but they draw the line at becoming an actual friend.

Now I know a lot of fundraisers will disagree with me on this, but I believe this whole-heartedly. 

The best fundraisers I know are very transparent in their efforts to connect a donor with an organization’s mission and not to themselves.  They serve as a conduit and if they leave the organization – the donor’s relationship with the institution is not impacted.  Great fundraisers don’t take donors with them when they leave because that’s not the kind of relationship they have with their donors.

We’ve all heard the phrase “donors don’t give to organizations, they give to people.”  I think that may be true with smaller gifts, but truly transformational giving is about giving to one’s passion and to a mission that is meaningful to one’s self.  The relationship with a fundraiser may be a factor, but I don’t believe it is the driving force in making large major gifts.

It’s one thing to give $50 to a friend who is participating in a walk for a specific cause, but a large donation to an organization requires an investment by the donor and that’s more personal.  

Large gifts are often about making a gift a bit out of one’s comfort zone.  You can scale that a number of ways.  You might have a donor who gives your organization a $1,000 dollars which is a nice gift, but if they’re capable of giving more – they’re only likely to give that larger gift because your organization’s mission aligns with their interests and passion and not because of their relationship with the fundraiser.

Continuing on that thought - there are some donors who can make a $25,000 gift without thinking much about it and if a fundraiser secures a $25,000 gift, their organization may applaud them for it.  A gift that size could very well come as a result of a friendship, but if that $25,000 donor is capable of a seven figure gift – that same fundraiser is unlikely to secure that larger gift. 


Because their relationship with the donor is based on their friendship and not the donor’s level of engagement with the organization they represent.  Who is the donor more committed to?  The fundraiser or the institution’s mission?

I’ve given nice gifts to organizations I knew very little about simply because I knew the person who is asking was passionate about a cause.  I gave the gift because the cause was important to the person I know.  But if that person asked me to give a truly major gift – I wouldn’t be able to do that because the organization’s mission; while important, isn’t something I’m passionate about.

I’m adamant about this. 

I think it really separates the great fundraisers from the rest of the crowd.  There’s a huge difference between friend raising and fundraising and some can’t separate the two.

Great fundraisers can step out of a relationship without jeopardizing the relationship the donor has with the organization.  In my personal example above – I would stop giving to the organization of my friend if they stopped championing the organization’s cause.  I’m really supporting them and not necessarily the cause itself.

Once someone connects to a cause that’s important to them – the fundraiser isn’t going to necessarily factor into future giving.  Good fundraisers understand that. 

I’ve seen this played out many times. 

I understand it is human nature to want to become friends with some donors.  I’m simply stating the great fundraisers I have known – just don’t do that.  They really don’t. 

I’m sure there are examples contrary to all of this, but I strongly believe that isn’t the norm.

The most effective fundraisers I know operate with a certain “ignorance is bliss” attitude.  In other words, they don’t need a lot of research to reach out to a potential donor.  All they need to know is if the constituent is worth their time and the resources of the organization.

A simple summary of their wealth screening and/or modeling results and snap shot of the donor’s history with the organization is all they need to know to get them on the phone or out the door.

As I said earlier, the best fundraisers are relational.  They want to approach donors organically and engage with them naturally.  If I can help tell the fundraiser a bit of the donor’s story – that also helps, but good fundraisers find a way to personalize the approach.

And believe me, it’s all about the approach.

Great fundraisers don’t send out form letters and don’t read from a script when they make calls.  They do a little bit of their own research to find a way to personalize their approach. They call out something that lets the donor know – they’ve taken some time to understand who they are. Nothing about their approach is transactional. 

I once worked with a fundraiser who failed to understand this (actually there have been a few over the years) and as a result wasn’t successful in securing meetings.  Once this person left, I took their portfolio and found personal approaches to the constituents and began reaching out on my own.  As a result, I was able to get meetings. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m a great fundraiser myself.  Ha!  Not at all.  It just goes to show the true value of personalizing the approach.  Great fundraisers do this intuitively. Again, they’re relational (I've said that 3 times now).

The best fundraisers handle rejection well.  They understand the goal is to find philanthropic people whose passions align with their organization’s mission.  When those things don’t match up – they move on.  They know they may have to meet a lot of people before they find those that want to engage and they accept that.  They don’t take it personally. They know they’re providing a donor a unique and personal opportunity, but philanthropy isn’t for everyone.

They also know if they don’t ask, people aren’t going to give or at least give significantly.  They don’t wait for gifts to come in through the mail or magically appear somehow.  They ask and they follow up.

In fact, the most successful fundraisers view receiving an unsolicited gift as a failure.  They know that money is being left on the table when that happens. 

They actually ask. They do so thoughtfully and purposefully, but they ask.  They usually prepare a proposal and deliver it in person.   They don’t ask via the mail or email – unless specifically instructed to do so.  They also don’t just hand over a proposal and leave it up to the donor to read it.  They engage them in an actual conversation about giving.

It’s amazing to me that many of the fundraisers I have worked with, fail to actually ask for a gift. Those fundraisers usually don’t last and jump from organization to organization.  The best fundraisers tend to stay at organizations for a very long time.

Great fundraisers make decisions.  They move on when someone isn’t willing to engage or have a meeting or a conversation.  If they’re not willing to engage, they move on.  Not every wealthy person is a prospect for their organization. They know it’s just as important to disqualify someone as it is to qualify an individual.  They just don’t waste time or resources.

Truly successful fundraisers plan. They map out a course of action on how to move a person to an “ask.”  They remain flexible in the process, but they have an actual written plan.  They figure out who else needs to a part of the process; they collaborate, they converse with the appropriate people and in the end, they also share the credit.

The best fundraisers also keep their prospect development team informed.  They share stories and update the team as they go.  Personally, I love it when a fundraiser calls me after a visit or stops by my office to share how things are going.  It helps keep me engaged and it’s always much appreciated. Most of us in prospect development want to be in a partnership with our fundraisers.  The top fundraisers understand this and help foster the relationship.  They’re not only relational with their donors, they also connect with their development teams.

I have also found that the best fundraisers I know don’t take themselves too seriously.  Most of them are definitely extroverts, but that isn’t always the case.  They treat others well.  They’re accountable.  They’re generally just great people to work with.

I have great admiration for fundraisers.  I know their jobs aren’t easy and they put in long hours.  Most of them have a great work ethic too.  It has been my profound pleasure to work alongside many of them over the years.  It has been my goal to help make each and every one of them more successful and in the process make the organizations we work for a success.

At the end of the day – it’s all about bringing two entities together – the donor and their passion and our organization’s mission.  Great fundraisers bring it all together and in the process are truly making the world a better place.

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