"I am a Fundraiser"
Years ago, I worked in public school reform. Talk about fundraising with no constituency, no alumni! It was wonky, full of jargon and hard to explain to the average person. But the organization had a remarkable track record of success in closing the achievement gap and truly moving the needle for student achievement in some of the poorest school districts in California. We used to visit school districts in trouble and give them an assessment of our work, including what it would cost. In this instance, it was a Central Valley school district of poor farm workers, mostly Latinos, in one of the poorest counties in the US. We went through everything and it was clear we could help them, but the cost when everything was counted, required raising a total of $50,000 a year. I had done my homework and knew no foundation gave to this community; in fact, nobody did. So when the question came to me about whether I could raise $50,000 locally to bridge the gap, sadly and honestly I had to say “no”. I felt awful. As we left, I went over my research in my head. As we stepped into the noon day sun and made our goodbyes, a 3 ft tall little girl came over to me and took my hand. She asked me quietly in Spanish..” Estás aquí para ayudarnos?” or “Are you here to help us?”. I was devastated, like someone had socked me in the stomach. Within a second, I knelt down and said “Sí, por supuesto que vamos a ayudar chica, no te preocupes”. “Yes, sweetie we will help you, don’t worry”. I turned to my boss and told her to accept the contract. She was incredulous, but when you have a good boss, she can see your eyes and know you’re dead serious.
Well, through luck, perseverance and some good prospect research, I raised that $50,000 in three months. To outsiders that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but to this town it might as well have been $5 million. The locals did it all - bankers, shop keepers, cattle people gave, and truly cared about their little town. It worked and the school district turned around. It turned in outstanding results three years after that contract started, and became recognized as a distinguished school district. I tell this story not to roll myself in glory but to illustrate something many, many development officers quietly display every day: courage and passion. How many of you have said “yes, we will raise our budget”, and not really know how? How many of you have traveled far from your families because of a passion for our causes? It’s something I think outsiders should see of our profession. Many of you can tell a very similar story. Those stories simply don’t get out there.
Perhaps it looks like bragging. Ours is a profession of high calling, to labor behind the scenes, to produce great things, often allowing others to take credit, and with our work commonly misunderstood. What I want to speak against is when our work and profession are maligned and feared. Fundraisers are heroines and heroes. We are the stuff of action figures. I know that’s funny but forgive my sin of pride. I don’t think our profession has enough. We can be self-deferential to a fault. While others make magazine covers for some new stock deal that enriched them further, or invented some new video game that sold record amounts, or some movie star that has led a life of self-aggrandizement. There are no magazine covers for the Major Gifts Officers, Prospect Researchers and Annual Fund Officers. And that’s Ok. We don’t want all of that, but we want our work honored, respected and not maligned. Our profession being maligned has a terrible byproduct - that is, our relationship with our Boards. The chasm between a nonprofit board and their fundraisers/fundraising staff I believe is one of the most damaging elements in the nonprofit world today.
We want our nonprofit leadership, Board members, Deans, Presidents, and CEOs to understand the work that goes into fundraising. That it’s not a matter of a magic rolodex, just writing a bunch of proposals, or wining and dining with the rich and famous. That it’s about the development cycle: Identification, Qualification, Cultivation, Solicitation, Stewardship. That everyone can have a role in fundraising, and that it doesn’t always require asking for money. Only when Board members, CEOs, EDs and Presidents truly understand fundraising today can they honor the profession. The version of fundraising so commonly held is one of twisting arms, guilt, pressure, burning relationships. We know that’s not our work, but that false view lives on and on.
Fundraisers need to educate nonprofit leadership about our work. It’s not some dry set of calculations and steps. This work isn’t embarrassing or even shameful but quite the opposite. We have all seen the Hollywood version of the fundraiser. They are usually slimy, two-faced or they fundraise for all the wrong reasons. Prospect Researchers don’t even get that level of attention but the occasional misinformed newspaper reporter doing an “expose” on the dirty secrets of fundraising.
We have all encountered the situation where we introduce ourselves and when asked what we do for a living, we get that response. The other person is mildly shocked, thinks it’s funny or a few are even disgusted. My mother-in-law still gives it to me. “Oh I could never do that”! As if I was a pole dancer. How often when you say you’re a Development Officer or as I say “fundraiser” does someone look you in the eye and say “Wow that’s great” or “what an awesome career”? I am not looking for a collective whine or a round of complaining. I want to ask people to start standing up for our profession every appropriate instance you have.
1. Promote it as a career: Let’s pry some talent away from the for-profit industry. I especially push for young talent to consider the personal rewards.
2. Introduce yourself unabashedly as a fundraiser. I always call myself that regardless of reaction. I work to clear up misinformation out there.
3. Make sure your Board and Leadership understand the WORK behind the gifts. Orient new Leadership staff. When you have new staff or Board members, do you host an orientation for them? Introduce them to your stewardship, prospect management, prospect research, annual fund staff, etc? Show them inside the black box. Bust the myth of the one guy in a suit with a rolodex. Show them the team and the resources needed to bring in real philanthropy.
4. When you see negative and inaccurate depictions of fundraising in the media, including Prospect Research, write in and set them straight. I write to TV shows when they depict fundraisers as misguided naïve do-gooders or slimy networkers.
I don’t think any of us should wait for stamps with our pictures on it, but the real mission here is to bridge that chasm that is so common nationally. That we have talked about quietly for years as a profession. The chasm between Boards, Non-Profit leadership and their fundraisers/fundraising. Many organizations have done this, so it’s not impossible.
Dan Palotta’s recent TEDx talk really hit the nail on the head when he confronted the contradiction. Our shame about money is only found in the nonprofit world, not the for-profit world. We honor and enshrine many who raise money in our country in business, even those doing it in ethically questionable ways, and yet feel ashamed about those raising money for altruistic purposes. Before we educate our Boards and leadership about fundraising, we need to recognize the elephant in the room. We need to ask them to think about this contradiction and personally challenge it.
As fundraisers, we need to be proud of our profession without arrogance. Only in this way will they see that our fundraising is both ethical and righteous. Imagine what sort of growth our organizations could achieve if we had unity of spirit and actions around fundraising. Imagine the children saved, seniors cared for, research funded and lives transformed.
Reproduction Rights By Permission of Armando Zumaya