If I Had to Do It All Over Again …

Michelle, one of the regular readers of Today in Fundraising, recently asked me some questions that have been great thought-provokers for me. No, I am not ignoring you, Michelle — but I decided to answer a few of your questions via this column. After all, there probably are a few more people out there asking the same things (or maybe they should be)!

First, just a bit of context. Michelle did her first fundraising event in high school and is now in her first development job after completing college. So, early in her career, she’s wisely thinking maybe she could pick the brain of an old dog like me and avoid a few of the dumb mistakes I’ve made along the way. Or just maybe, I will have a bit of insight to guide her as she follows her own heart as a fundraiser. So, Michelle and everyone else, let’s jump in!

No. 1: What are five things you would tell fledgling development professionals?
First, fundraising is a never-ending job. You can always review copy one more time, make another call, go over the details of an event yet again, etc. So you have to learn when to let it go. Sometimes (and I hate to say this, but it’s true), good enough is good enough.

Secondly, choose your battles. You won’t prevail on everything, so decide what really matters and fight for that — and let the rest go. Otherwise you’ll burn out and leave the development profession altogether. You can do so much good if you learn where your energy is best invested.

Third, try new things on your own; don’t wait to be sent to training or to be coached. Nonprofits often have small to nonexistent training budgets and little time to cross-train; if you wait, you will stagnate.

I learned to write direct mail when our writer resigned and someone asked, “Can you write a direct-mail letter?” I answered, “Sure!” and then ran to the library (this was pre-Internet) and found books that helped me. (This is a true story; I was young and fearless!) I’m sure my first effort wasn’t terrific, but the organization did raise money and I like to think I have improved since those early days.

Michelle, I’ll save the other two for you. (Or anyone else who would like to leave a comment with the best bits of advice they would give a newbie fundraiser.)

No. 2: When finding a development position, do you go with what lights your passion on fire or the higher salary?
As I said earlier, fundraising is never-ending — and it’s truly hard work. If you aren’t passionate about the mission, why bother? Family activities that involved hand-inserting the year-end mailing, long road trips through West Texas to visit a donor, middle-of-the-night press checks — trust me, only passion could have made me do those!

But all things being equal, I will admit it — sometimes necessity can make you choose the higher salary. But make sure you have enough passion for the cause or your work will be less than stellar, and both you and the nonprofit will suffer.

One more reason to consider accepting a job (assuming you also care about the mission): Can you learn something there that will deepen your knowledge base? For example, if you want to become stronger at events, you may choose a job that does a lot of event funding. Opportunities to grow your skills on a job can be a great motivator.

But the bottom line is, passion for the cause is what makes good fundraisers great.

No. 3: If you could do your career over again, what would you do differently? Would you stay in fundraising and development?

Here’s where I did the most thinking. If the slate were wiped clean, I was once again 20 and holding a shiny, new college degree, would I let myself stumble into fundraising like I did three-plus decades ago?

Yes, I would. I have had some remarkable experiences as a fundraiser and have seen more of the country — and the world — than I ever would have on my own. I have met amazing people and forged some lifelong friendships. I have never stopped learning.

And most importantly, I have, in some small way, made the world a better place. I haven’t fixed it all, but somewhere there is a young adult in Africa who is alive because I helped raise money to teach his mom how to grow crops. There is a high schooler who has a great future ahead because I helped raise money so she could attend a private school for at-risk students. There is an elderly person who has enough to eat, medicine and warm clothing to wear because I helped raise money to provide these necessities.

And you, too, are making a difference. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it really is true. We may not always see the end results, but someone or something is better because we threw our hearts and our energies into the practice of fundraising. And for this old dog, that makes looking back on the years a joy — and looking forward to the next however many years — a reason to get up every morning and get to work. We fundraisers are so blessed!

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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