What I Wish I Knew When I Started My Fundraising Career

Walk down Charles Street in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill and you’ll find one of my all-time favorite hang-outs: The Sevens, a local pub blessed with a friendly cast of regulars and arguably the most eclectic jukebox in existence. Before marriage and children, I spent a great deal of time there, consuming pints of beer while listening to that jukebox. For this fundraiser, among the most memorable tracks in its collection was the 1973 hit “Ooh La La,” whose catchy chorus still rings true today.

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger     

Taking a cue from the these lyrics, I’ll share a few lessons I’ve collected throughout the years. Much like a good song, they’ve stayed with me and are worth sharing with others.

Join Colleagues on as Many Donor Meetings as Possible

I still make time to do this and recommend all frontline fundraisers do the same. Why? You’ll learn something that makes you better. Many actors and athletes perform with or compete against exceptional peers because it expands their repertoire and, ultimately, enhances their skills. Take, for example, New England Patriot Julian Edelman, who this October credited former teammate Darrelle Revis, currently of the rival New York Jets, for making him a better wide receiver due to their practice competitions last season.

via Getty Images

Having a colleague present at your own meetings can be valuable, too. Colleagues can help you verify your interpretation of a donor interaction (similar to my strategy of recounting the meeting to your donors) and can ensure that you’re moving gift conversations forward appropriately. Plus, if you’re new to your organization, joint meetings can be a fun, useful way to gain perspective from colleagues and donors about your institution’s work, culture, and history not housed within records. It’ll help you acclimate to your new position and expose you to best practices that can make for a smoother job transition. This leads to my next piece of advice…

Don’t Try Learning Everything About Your Organization at Once

When I worked with scientists, I spent a lot of time at the beginning of my tenure trying to learn every minutiae about their research. Having shared that, I would not recommend the same course of action. Being well versed about your organization is key, but it will happen naturally over time. You should instead focus on your donors and learn what’s relevant to them.

Most donors don’t expect you to have all the answers right away, though I’ve found that they expect you to be resourceful enough to find them. Try looking for alignment between your donor’s interests and your institution’s priorities. Not only is this a more time-efficient method of learning about your organization, but it also builds credibility and trust with your prospective donor and helps move him or her towards a financial commitment.

Let Your Donors Inform Your Case

via Wikipedia

T.S. Eliot once said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” This also holds true for frontline fundraisers in that, sometimes, using a donor’s exact words or language can make for a more persuasive appeal. On many occasions, this approach has helped me foster a more honest dialogue, clarify a donor’s interests, or even secure a gift commitment. Why? It demonstrates to donors that you’re actively listening to what they’re saying and that you have their best interests in mind. In the end, they will be more amenable to your recommendations because they trust you.

Although I wish I had heeded these guidelines during the early stages of my career, they ultimately shaped me into a better fundraiser. Remember these and other lessons you’ve learned along your career, but most importantly, discuss within your organization to see what you and your colleagues can learn from one another. Chances are, you’ll be a better gift officer for doing so.

Enjoyed this article? Check out Patrick’s guidelines for handling a disgruntled donor

Patrick Rooney has worked in development for more than a decade, supporting organizations such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, and, most recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He lives in Boston with his wife, Nicole, and their two children, worships the Red Sox, and is obsessed with the classic movie Jaws. Send your questions, comments, and story ideas to him via LinkedIn or patrickfrooney@gmail.com.

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