If Famous Fundraisers Had to Start All Over Again… What They Wish They Had Known

by Joe Garecht

Fundraising Time Machine

Last month while doing a presentation, I got asked an interesting question. “If you had to start all over in fundraising – back in your first fundraising job… what do you wish you had known that would have made you a better fundraiser?”

It’s a great question. I gave it some thought and then gave my answer (which you’ll see below). And since then, I have thought about this question again and again. So often, in fact, that I decided to reach out to some of the best known fundraising consultants, speakers and authors to get their answers as well.

I asked them the same question that was asked of me during that seminar. If you had to start all over again – what do you wish you had known that would have made you a better fundraiser?

Here’s what they said:

“I would tell myself to think BIG. You’re never going to help lots of people if you keep doing the same thing you’ve always done.  Stretch for the stars and at least you won’t come up with a handful of mud.”
– Sandy Rees, Get Fully Funded

I love thinking big. And too few organizations do it. As fundraisers, it’s our job to be thinking big so that the non-profits we work with can help more people. It may be hard to be pushing for big-thinking if you are the newest person on the team, but you can always be thinking big in your own work, vision and goals.

“Always write like you’re in a conversation with the person you are writing to.”
-Tony Martignetti, TonyMartignetti.com

This is great advice for all fundraising communications, including newsletters, e-mails and appeal letters. People don’t want to build a relationship with or donate to a nameless, faceless entity. They want to build a relationship with you!

“Internal politics can make or break you. And… getting out of the office and visiting with donors can actually make you happy!”
– Gail Perry, Fired Up Fundraising

Both of these tips are really great advice. I have found that many folks who work for non-profits think they don’t have to worry about office politics because they don’t work for big corporate entities. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you want to succeed in fundraising, you’re going to need allies all over the office, from the receptionist desk to the program staff and everywhere in between.

And here’s the thing about getting out and meeting with donors face-to-face: not only is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon, but it’s also the single most effective way to build a strong individual giving program!

“I would focus on always investing in and cultivating a core group of true believers. Because they would believe in me and the cause, these group of people would take action when the time was right.”
-Rob Wu, CauseVox

Every non-profit, no matter how small or large, needs a committed core group of donors who are passionate about the cause and enthusiastic about the organization and its staff. Too many non-profits, particularly small ones, are worried about applying for a bazillion grants and spending $10,000 on a flashy website, when what they really need is to engage a group of true believers.

“Set better boundaries. You’ll be a better fundraiser if you accept your human limits.”
-Mazarine Treyz, Wild Woman Fundraising

I can’t tell you how many non-profit fundraisers feel like they have to do it all, because they are the only person on the development staff. Just because your board wants to try 14 different fundraising strategies this year doesn’t mean that it is humanly possible without more manpower.

“I had 4 people’s jobs, when I ended up doing 10 things badly, when I could have done one or two things well,” says Mazarine. “I wish I had better boundaries with my bosses and not treated myself like a robot or a thing. Now I know how important self-care and boundaries are, I will never make that mistake again.”

“I wish I had learned more about how the corporate sector does marketing and customer relations. A lot of what they do can be applied to non-profit fundraising and I think would have further enriched my knowledge and ability to innovate early on in my career.”
– Vanessa Chase, The Storytelling Non-Profit

Vanessa told me that when she first started out, she worked in a large university development office and was surrounded by lots of people with lots of different backgrounds, including corporate marketing. Like me, she believes that we as a sector can learn a lot from our peers in the business world. Not everything is applicable – but a whole lot is!

What I Wish I Had Known…

Ok, at the beginning of this article, I promised to tell you what my answer to the question was. Here’s what I said when I was asked this question at a recent seminar I presented:

What I most wish I would have known when I started out in fundraising is that you have to be an entrepreneur at your non-profit. This means that you have to set big goals, and then take responsibility for making sure that they happen. No one will do it for you. If you want to do something, do it. Give yourself a deadline, take responsibility, and get it done.

It’s the best way to succeed at fundraising, and in life.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock


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claire axelrad September 30, 2014 at 12:40 am

What a great question Joe! I wish I had known ALL these things when I started out. And one other thing: Donors are just people. You don’t need to fear them. Picking up the phone and talking to them… sitting down for a cup of coffee and chatting… that’s the FUN part. Don’t hold donors at arm’s length. Get to know them. Enjoy them. Then, they’re much likely to enjoy you. And when people are happy, that’s when they’re generous.

Joe Garecht September 30, 2014 at 12:59 am

Yes! Thanks Claire! Building relationships is the foundation of fundraising. If you’re stuck in your office, you’re not raising as much money as you could be!

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