Whenever people ask me what I do and I say that I’m a fundraiser, they typically respond, “That must be a really tough job. I could never do it.”
With National Philanthropy Day — a special day to recognize all those who contribute invaluable gifts of time and money to lift the lot of others — on November 15, this is a fitting time to explain what a fundraiser does. The main reason many people think that they could never ask someone they know for a gift is fear of the unknown. So few people have directly been asked for a gift, and those who have asked have typically done so in a passive manner; not with a face-to-face ask, but by initiating a gift to a website or at an in-person community event.
The first thing to understand is that the “ask” is just a single moment in a comprehensive fundraising continuum that begins with “hello” and culminates in “thank you for your gift.” So much needs to happen before and after the solicitation.
We refer to four phases in fundraising: discovery, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. Each is essential.
We’re all responsible for fundraising success
Working for three institutions of higher education, and now as a consultant/trainer working with a broad range of professional and volunteer nonprofit leaders across the country, I am keenly aware that staff, board members, and volunteers can contribute mightily to fundraising success without ever having to ask for the gift. They can play huge roles in breaking the ice and introducing contacts from their personal, professional, and civic networks to the missions of their favorite nonprofit causes and/or expressing gratitude to donors for their gifts of time, talent, and treasure. When the time is right, others — such as professional staff or experienced board members — can step in to solicit the gift.
In a real sense, the fundraiser orchestrates the actions of all those advancing the mission to obtain gifts. That’s one of the many joys of being a fundraiser — you interact with so many others with a shared vision both inside and outside your organization to champion good works.
If there was ever a process improvement ranking, fundraising would have to be close to the top of the list. You learn from every solicitation, whether the response is favorable, negative, or “I need more time.”
The responsibilities are entrepreneurial in spirit. It’s no stretch of imagination to declare that every donor is different with varying backgrounds, giving capacities, motivations, and priorities. The common denominator is the desire to make a difference in touching, improving, and saving more lives.
The many donors I’ve known are far from perfect people. But when I get to collaborate with them on their philanthropic vision, I see them at their best.
Don’t let the fear of rejection keep you from spreading joy
It’s common to hear that rejection is the scariest part of asking for gifts. Absolutely, rejections will be experienced, but it’s hard to think of any areas of life in which we don’t hear “no.” Besides, the ask is not to benefit you personally, but to advance a cause that is grander than yourself and has many beneficiaries. And a “yes” produces a profound win-win-win for solicitor, donor, and beneficiaries alike.
One of my heroes, President John F. Kennedy, defined happiness in 1963 as “the full use of your powers, along the lines of excellence.” Not to lose perspective, but in many ways, fundraisers are lifted up every day by experiencing that noble sentiment.
On National Philanthropy Day, and every other day of the year, I salute all who, either in professional or volunteer roles, go out there with no guarantees and assurances of the outcome. All who tell the stories of their nonprofits, take questions, invite prospective donors to see their organizations in action, and — without fear, hesitation or anxiety — ask for support for causes that improve the world in an infinite variety of ways.