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May 9, 2018
Posted Under: President's letter

Last week I had two inspiring and unexpected conversations. The first went something like this:

“I love meeting one on one with donors and showing them the results of their investment .It is just so much fun.”

The other one was:

“It is so much fun to connect with potential donors who care so much about mission and help them connect the dots with their philanthropy.”

What was interesting about these comments is that one of these people has been in this work for over 30 years and one is a month into the work. And, what they both know is that fundraising is fun.

Consider now your own experience. Make a mental list of all the things you think are fun in the nonprofit sector and chances are that fundraising is not at the top of the list for many of you. Besides the fact that F, U, and N are the first three letters in fundraising, why is it that this important job doesn’t always (or maybe never) feel like fun?

First, let me say that fun does not have to include cheerleading pompoms or cake, and it certainly does not exclude incredibly hard work. Fun is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but for many fundraising doesn’t even come close to “fine” let alone fun.

I have spent a career being excited about fund development and the philanthropy that follows. Along the way I have seen a few things that may be contributing to the lack of fun. Tell me if you notice any of these things happening for you or your team.

  1. Expectations vs action: If there is one thing that gets us squarely in the “not fun” category it is the feeling that other people are letting us down or not doing what they are “supposed to do.” This seems like a daily occurrence when it comes to what staff think board members should be doing about fundraising and what is actually happening. One reason is that many board members are recruited with a set of verbal and sometimes written expectations (often known as job descriptions). These expectations usually outline some version of 100% board participation in raising money and 100% of the board making individual annual financial contributions. What these job descriptions and conversations don’t do is move from expectation to action. Expecting 100% board giving and never asking gets you – well, failed expectations. Expecting 100% participation but never providing a plan or a specific request to act gets you – well, no action. Moving away from failed expectations to successful action means we have to be clear and be specific in our follow-through. Also remember that follow through should focus on short, achievable tasks that can be accomplished by board members within their level of comfort and time availability. There is no “one size fits all” approach, so customizing plans is essential. Moving ahead in this way connects our expectations to our actions and will put us back on track to find the fun in the team sport called fundraising.
  2. Training vs osmosis: Have you ever tried to be really good at something by just hoping you would be good at it? How about expecting it to be effortless? For some of us, fun is found in doing something well, without too much struggle and just enough challenge. Fundraising can be this combination because it’s a science. Really. You can get a PhD in it. Some of us have made it a career. I have often said this work is about 70% science and 30% art. The art is about being values driven and donor focused and that is hard to teach. But the science can be learned. Still, that is not how we set up most of our teams. Instead we expect that they are magically experts in the science because they are on a board and the nonprofit needs them to be good at it – TODAY. This is clearly a recipe for low fun and high failure. And it happens EVERY SINGLE DAY in nonprofits big and small, mature, and new. Fun and success go hand-in-hand. Commit to getting your team the training they need and make sure it is both motivational and grounded to your mission and values, and that it is rooted in the science of the work in front of them.
  3. Opportunity vs obligation: As adults it seems safe to say that we are less inclined toward fun in a “have to” situation and instead we veer toward “want to” or “get to” opportunities. Fundraising can and often does get placed in the “have to” category. How often have you found yourself feeling cajoled into asking friends and family for money who in turn give because they feel obligated? Unfortunately, this is a regular occurrence. Imagine instead creating opportunities for donors to make choices about how they want to connect, donate, or respond. See yourself as the catalyst for the donor to support a mission they care about. Doing this you create meaningful opportunities that are mission connected and donor focused. Remember, your role as board or staff is not to convince anyone to care, it is finding the people who already care. This approach may help you more easily shift your language, your approach, and your follow through with a donor or potential donor to create opportunities without guilt, or quid pro quo, or any other feelings of obligation – it might be easier than you think.
  4. Negative language vs core values: How is it that we have developed so much negative language around a word that means love of humankind? Philanthropy is about joy and connection, opportunity and investment, and change. It is not about, nor was it ever about, “hitting people up” or “twisting their arm,” or “giving until it hurts,” or even “targeting our donors.” When we combine something that has the potential to be so joyful with words that are layered with harmful connotations, we say much about the way we approach our work. The path from negative language back to fun starts with how we think about this work and then what we say about it. Donors want to connect to the causes and missions they care about. Leading with our core values is a way of making that connection and regaining our sense of joy in the work. We can find opportunities that are mutually beneficial and moments of true understanding. This becomes possible when both our language and actions express our values. Then, selecting tools and tactics becomes easy.
  5. Tactics without a plan: I have said this before, but this list would be incomplete without saying it again. Fundraising without a plan ensures a lot of energy expended for little result. It means a few people doing a lot of work instead of creating a team and working together. It means lots of tactics with no strategy. It means low donor retention and lots of entry level gifts. It means low success and, yes, it means no fun. Plans don’t have to be complicated or complex but they do have to generate energy, engage the team, and be deeply rooted in values. And the best of our plans are building fun into every major step. (To learn more about a fundraising planning click here).

I’ve just outlined five ways – but there are more – to shift our work toward generating the fun in fundraising. In each of these experiences there’s opportunity to shift and reframe our approach. The time could not be better to bring our team together, focus on mid-level, major, and planned gift donors, and perfect our recognition and stewardship plans. Finding our fun means starting with ourselves. As a CEO it means instilling a positive culture of philanthropy throughout the organization and in each and every donor engagement. As development staff it means ensuring the approach has as much “why” as it does “what” and “how,” and that it means bringing small and manageable options for success to the rest of the team. As a board member it means getting the skills, finding your comfort zone, committing to values, and focusing on donor relationships. For all of us it is a reminder that while we may each define fun in our own way, together we can create a space where donors find meaning and the possibilities are endless.