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The Joy of Fundraising

Fundraising—I often tell people—is the best career I’ve ever had. Most often, I make that statement in response to an assertion like, “How can you stand to do fundraising? It’s so unpleasant!”

Fundraising offers us a tremendous opportunity to make the world a better place, while creating a deeply satisfying experience. In short, the work I’m doing makes me proud: I’m supporting a cause I’m personally committed to, and helping like-minded donors do the same.

That said, I can understand why fundraising has become grist for the cartoonist’s mill, and why so many people seem to hate it. For many people—board members, for example, and even some executive directors and development professionals—fundraising feels like begging, and a “no” feels like the most likely outcome.

When I began fundraising, I was told to expect a 25 percent closing rate—one in four—with my major gift prospects. What I learned was that you can do far better than that. If you’ve done your homework, people say “yes” more often than not.

Through personal experience and close observation of good (and not-so-good) practices, I’ve learned a few things about being effective and comfortable as a fundraising leader. Here are my top five:

It’s not about you.

Fundraising shouldn’t be about you person­ally, or even your institution. It should be about what your organization can do in the world, in partnership with a donor.

Everyone’s a fundraiser.

Your organization, top to bottom, is a sales team. Because donor interactions can be­gin with anyone, every staff member and volunteer must believe in your mission, and feel like a part of fundraising efforts.

You’re the model.

Look at your own attitudes and behaviors, because people are taking their cues from you. Remember: a leader is someone people want to follow.

To be good leader, listen.

That holds especially true for donor inter­actions. I like how my grandmother put it: “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.”

It should be fun!

If it isn’t, you’re playing the wrong role, or not getting the help you need. For instance: I have a phobia of cold calls; my colleagues understand this, and provide me with lots of prospect information.

Done right, fundraising can be tremendously satisfying for everyone involved— especially for you, as the fundraiser who gets a resounding “yes” and the start of a long term relationship from a brand new donor, and renewed and increased commitments from your existing donors.

Howard Stevenson is an entrepreneur, professor, and author, whose positions at nonprofit institutions have included vice provost of Harvard University, senior associate dean of Harvard Business School, chair of the Harvard Business School Press, and chair of National Public Radio. He has been a donor and a fundraiser for most of his life.

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