Top 10 Qualities of a Successful Fundraiser

resolutions for fundraisers

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Many individuals entering the profession for the first time and those hiring their first development staff person are often not certain what qualities to look for in a development professional.

Often one hears that development is really just sales or marketing. The individual or organization about to embark into the world of development needs to understand that it is a profession in its own right.

Being a good salesperson or a good marketer may be helpful in fundraising, but there is far more to the career than sales and marketing. In his book, Born to Raise, Jerold Panas lists the top ten qualities of a successful fundraiser as:

  1. Impeccable integrity
  2. Good listener
  3. Ability to motivate
  4. Hard worker
  5. Concern for people
  6. High expectations
  7. Love the work
  8. High energy
  9. Perseverance
  10. Presence

This is a tall order—what if you feel you do not have these qualities? Can they be learned? If so, how can you learn to cultivate them? Let’s look at each one and see if there are things that can be done to cultivate what might seem, at first glance, like innate qualities.

1. Impeccable Integrity

Although professional integrity seems to be a quality that one either has or doesn’t have, there are things you can do to help develop your personal integrity. First know, understand, and support the AFP Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Practice. These documents will provide guidelines about what is ethical in the field of fundraising. Adherence to the Donor Bill of Rights is another step in assuring that the organization holds the donor’s interests above its own, and that you, the professional, hold the interests of the donor first, the organization second, and yourself last.

If you have a faith system in which you believe, it can be a help in developing your sense of morality and ethics. Every major religious belief holds certain moral principles which can help its members make sound ethical judgments.

You can also enroll in a class in ethics and attend AFP programs on ethics. AFP also has an ethics board that can answer questions about ethical issues. So although integrity might seem to be an inborn quality, it can be developed by understanding ethics, morals and donors’ rights.

Free White Paper on Fundraising Ethics – It is essential that all fundraising practitioners should develop an awareness of potential ethical conflicts and dilemmas. Find out how here >>

2. Good Listener

Good listening is definitely a quality that can be learned. A class in communications can help emphasize that listening is the most important part of good communication skills. (There may be a very good reason why human beings were created with one mouth and two ears!)

Active listening is important to good donor relations. Often a major gift can be secured by a solicitor whose listening skills have been honed. Listening for what the donor’s interests are is even more important than being able to persuasively explain the organization’s case. Practice making “the ask” and truly listening to the donor through role playing with colleagues or by attending courses in making the ask.

3. Ability to Motivate

The ability to motivate donors, volunteers and staff is a critical key for success. Motivating donors goes back to the integrity section. Putting the donor’s interest first and foremost will make it easier for you to motivate donors. Motivating donors does not mean persuading donors to do something that they don’t want to do or that is not in their best interest. Motivating donors comes through understanding that philanthropy brings joy to the donor and that if the donor really believes in the mission, motivation is simply a tool to bring about the donor’s wishes. Learning the case for support and having passion for the mission of the organization for which one works, is the best way to successfully motivate another person to share that passion.

It is also important for you to understand the psychology of philanthropy. There are many motivating factors that prompt an individual to contribute to a nonprofit organization. Each donor will have different motivating factors that influence a decision to give or not give. Listening to the donor is a critical skill which can help you understand how to motivate donors.

Volunteers, likewise, can be motivated only if the volunteers and the fundraising staff share a passion for the mission of the organization. Again, a good course in communication will help you learn how to speak and write with enthusiasm and passion that will motivate others.

Motivating the staff of the organization is also important. This starts with having respect and concern for other staff members. Staff members will be motivated by the good example set by the chief development officer. Involving staff in the development planning process is a good way to motivate them to help implement the plan.

Regular staff meetings that include an educational segment about some facet of fundraising and occasionally a motivational or inspirational guest speaker, in addition to staff updates on current projects, can help motivate staff to greatness.

4. Hard Worker

One thing you need to understand going into this profession is that it is definitely not a 9 to 5 job. Often you may be on the job as early as 7 a.m. meeting with volunteers, attending breakfast meetings, or just getting into the office early to organize your day before the phone calls and emails start arriving. You may easily be at work at 7 or 9 p.m. attending after-hours events, meeting with volunteers, or working at a phonathon. The key is to work hard, but take good care of yourself at the same time. Eating healthy, getting regular exercise, having a hobby or interests outside of work, and taking a vacation or several mini vacations each year will keep you mentally and physically healthy even though the hours of your job may be demanding.

And, working hard does not mean you need to be “wired in” 24/7. Leave work at work, do not take it home or on vacation unless it is extremely critical. In some cases, it might be better to answer emails while on vacation rather than becoming stressed out by the sheer volume of email waiting at the office on your first day back at work. But, as a true professional be careful to avoid thinking that you are indispensable and that you have to stay connected to the office at all times. You aren’t, and you don’t!

5. Concern for People

Again, this may seem like an innate quality that one either has or doesn’t, but there are some things you can do to cultivate concern. First, working for an organization about which you care deeply is one way that you can feel concern for the organization’s clients. Many professionals gravitate to an organization that may have helped them or a loved one and these individuals will usually be empathetic with the organization’s clients. Another tool that can help is to get out and about within the organization, the old “management by walking around” theory. Talk to the people who use your organization’s services, find out their stories, and talk to them about their hopes and desires for the future. It will make fundraising easier and allow you to speak in a compelling fashion about your organization’s mission and can also help you build empathy and concern.

Concern for people goes beyond caring about the donors and the clients, but extends as well into concern for the staff. Taking time to listen to the concerns of other staff people, your colleagues in the development office and others in the organization, can help the development professional build a concern for people.

6. High Expectations

As a development professional, you should have high expectations not only for yourself, but for your organization and for your coworkers. Often it is the development professional that “leads from the middle” and inspires the organization to greatness. Cultivating donors who have vision is one way to lead the organization to a higher level of performance. Also, some board members can have a great effect on the vision of the organization, so as a development professional, you should have input into the selection of new board members who can help transform the organization into bigger and better things. However, this does not mean setting unrealistic goals or having expectations that are so demanding that the staff gets frustrated.

Expecting the best from the development staff and other staff within the organization is critical as well. Development professionals who have a staff reporting to them should allow the staff members to set their own goals and provide them with the tools to do their job. Having a once-a-year staff retreat for the development office members in addition to regular staff meetings can be a good way to empower staff.

7. Love the Work

Not only do you need to love the organization you work for, you need to love the work of development! Loving this career often starts with volunteering in the area of development. If you do not enjoy volunteer fundraising, you probably won’t love it as a career. So if you are thinking about entering the profession, you may want to begin by volunteering to work on a special event, a phonathon, or a corporate appeal for a few nonprofits and see if you really do love fundraising.

As with anything the more knowledgeable you become in an area, the more likely it is you will enjoy doing it. Who can say they love knitting if they don’t know how to knit, or cooking if they have never learned how to cook, or skiing if they haven’t taken a ski lesson? The same is true with development. You will need to learn as much as you can about the profession by taking classes, reading books, attending workshops. If you find a particular aspect of fundraising that really appeals to you, such as planned giving, major gifts, or grant writing, you should pursue that area. If you prefer being a generalist you should look for a position as a development director in a small shop where you will get to do a variety of fundraising tasks. Finding your niche is critical to loving the work. It also means that if you become frustrated, worn out, or just bored, you may need to think about moving on.

8. High Energy

Having high energy seems like a natural for some people, whereas for others, it may require some work. But energy can be built by following some of the advice mentioned earlier. Eating right, exercising and relieving stress by taking time off can help boost your energy.

Using artificial stimulants like caffeine does not really give you a high energy level and may, in fact, cause the opposite when the temporary effects of caffeine wear off. A good herbal tea that relaxes may actually do more to boost your energy. Getting enough sleep at night also helps raise your energy levels during the day. Simple things like having nice artwork or a scented candle or oil in your office, or taking time off work to get a pedicure, can help build energy.

Loving the work will also help you have the high energy needed to work long hours; motivate donors, volunteers and staff; and meet the expectations you have set for yourself or others have set for you.

9. Perseverance

One thing that senior development professionals have learned is that perseverance is a highly needed quality. Major and planned gifts, in particular, require building long term relationships; perseverance pays off. If donors think the organization has forgotten about them they may just move on to the next organization.

If your development office needs to undergo a computer conversion, perseverance is definitely going to be required! This is a tedious and frustrating process and one that never seems to be completed in the expected timeframe.

So how do you cultivate perseverance? Part of the secret to perseverance is setting goals and realistic benchmarks to measure success. This will keep you from wanting to throw in the towel when the going gets tough. Strategic planning is one way to develop reasonable timelines for yourself, and help you understand that often good things take time. CEOs and development officers are often under a great deal of pressure to raise money quickly. Entrepreneurial board members who are shrewd business people are often accustomed to working on the basis of instant decisions, and may want the development office to just “go out and do it” without adequate planning. Be careful not to get so caught up in keeping your head above water that you do not have the time to plan. A recent survey asking development professionals what their biggest challenge is shows that lack of time for planning as the leading challenge listed.

Working on long-term goals for a specific amount of time each day can help. And understanding that you should focus 90-95 percent of your time on the 5-10 percent of donors who account for 90-95 percent of all the gifts your organization will receive helps as well.

Of course sometimes the organization itself needs to cultivate patience and persistence, so helping to build a philanthropic culture within the organization is a big part of your role. At the end of this chapter, there is a quick and easy assessment to help determine the organization’s commitment to building a philanthropic culture. One of your major tasks may be helping your board and executive staff understand that fundraising is all about building relationships and that if you persevere in this relationship building, your organization will benefit tremendously. If you can impart this knowledge to your organization’s leaders, you will rise to the top of your field. You must take the time to plan strategically; otherwise your organization will be left behind in the dynamic and ever-evolving world of the nonprofit sector. Leadership should look at the return on investment of careful, strategic planning.

10. Presence

This may be the hardest to define and the hardest to cultivate in a development professional. Perhaps the closest thing to this may be a “perception of poise.” A more contemporary definition may be closer to “positioning yourself.” Presence can also be described as the ability to command attention and being respected as a professional.

So what can you do to develop a sense of presence?

First, look and act professional at all times. Development professionals, especially when meeting with donors or potential donors (which may be all of the time) should wear a suit and tie, or for women, a suit, nice dress or pant suit. Although some nonprofits adopt a more casual atmosphere, dressing for success is important for the development professional because you will be very visible in the community. And of course, you never know when that million dollar donor may walk in the front door! Being well dressed and well groomed will give you a sense of pride and confidence that is necessary for a sense of presence. This does not necessarily mean that you need to spend a lot of money on clothes and new car, but looking good and driving a respectable looking car can help add a sense of presence. Good posture, an open and welcoming facial expression can be very meaningful, especially when you remember that you only have one opportunity to make a first impression!

Of course, presence is about much more than just looking good. Knowing the job will make you appear more confident and knowledgeable, adding to the presence factor. So, not to belabor the point, education and training are critical. Read, attend workshops, and join a professional organization such as AFP!

Some practical tips to help you become successful at fundraising:

  • Make a conscious decision to work only for organizations whose mission you feel passionate about. Remember the adage—“do what you love and the money will follow.”
  • Strive to be a change agent within the organization for which you work. Develop a plan to educate the organization’s leadership about philanthropy.
  • Remember that the donor’s interest is always the foremost consideration in any decisions involving fundraising.

There are several key traits that successful fundraisers have in common. These traits include impeccable integrity; being a good listener; the ability to motivate staff, volunteers and donors; being a hard worker; a true concern for people; having high expectations for yourself, your organization and other people including staff, volunteers and donors; perseverance; and presence. While some of these might seem to be innate qualities, there are things you can do to develop these qualities.

Success is measured in many ways—financial success, personal growth, happiness and a feeling of doing a job well, making a difference. How do you measure success?

This article is an excerpt from Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE’s book, Fundraising as a Career: What, Are You Crazy? To order the book at a 15 percent discount, visit http://www.lindalysakowski.com/from-lindas-library and use the special discount code linda2014books.

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Linda Lysakowski

Linda Lysakowski

Author, Editor, Consultant
Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE has authored more than a dozen books, including Fundraising for the GENIUS, now in its second edition, and serves as Acquisitions Editor for CharityChannel Press and For the GENIUS Press. She has over 20 years experience as a philanthropic consultant and is one of fewer than 100 professionals worldwide to hold the Advanced Certified Fund Raising Executive designation.
Linda Lysakowski
By |2019-08-21T14:13:05-04:00July 24th, 2014|Nonprofit Management|

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