6 Habits of Fundraising Excellence

As a lifelong learner as well as a fundraising instructor at two universities, I am a huge proponent of formal education in fundraising. After all, in whatever career we choose, being the very best we can possibly be is a worthy goal. But some things just can’t be taught, no matter which textbook you read or how experienced the teacher is.

That’s because knowledge matters in fundraising, but that’s not all. What each of us brings to the job matters, and I am convinced that a daily commitment to these six habits is critical to be excellent fundraisers.


What will happen if … ? What if this changes? What does that mean? Fundraising has some “rules” — things that have been proved over and over — and we violate them only after careful thought. But there are many areas of fundraising that we ought to test. We must be willing to try something new. Fundraising breakthroughs aren’t everyday occurrences, but they happen when we ask questions and figure out a way to find the answers (without sinking the ship, so to speak). Those breakthroughs may not be huge for the entire industry, but even small breakthroughs that make your own efforts more fruitful are important.

Curiosity also extends to a desire to learn more. What’s multivariant testing? What’s a CRT? What do I need to know to build a major donor program? “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” —Albert Einstein

Appreciation of people

As noted above, fundraising has some rules — but at the core of fundraising are people. People choose to donate for reasons that are often entirely personal to them. You can send them beautifully written appeals and show them highly compelling photos (and you should). But you can’t force an individual to give or to give to the project you are describing.

I’ve heard donors referred to as “giving units.” Others view them as records in a database or “problems” to be handled. But to be successful in fundraising, I believe you have to truly appreciate the people who contribute, choose not to contribute, tell you why they stopped contributing, ask others to join them in contributing or in any other way respond to your fundraising. If you appreciate your paycheck, you should appreciate the people who make it possible for you to receive that payment — your donors.

Ability to apply information

There is a lot of information available to fundraisers, nonprofit leadership, board members and everyone else who is curious enough to seek it out. To make that information more than just white noise, an excellent fundraiser needs to look for patterns. Are giving trends pointing to a need to revitalize your own fundraising program? Are nonprofits doing X now finding better success with Y or Z? Simply reading (or scanning) a lot of articles isn’t helpful. Each of us needs to ask, “What — if anything — should I do/say/think differently because of this information?”

Passion to learn

Have you ever worked with the person who stopped learning a decade or two earlier — and is proud of it? Vow to never be that person. You may not become an expert in everything, but having a working knowledge of many fundraising tools can help you bring the right people on board to complement your skills, give you fresh ideas to implement and simply make your work more enjoyable.

Willingness to submerge your own feelings

I suspect this will be carved on my tombstone, but it’s true — I am not the target audience. “But I don’t like it” (spoken or unspoken) is not a reason to not try something in fundraising. This doesn’t mean anything goes; common sense (that rare commodity, it sometimes seems) must have a starring role in your decision-making. But only doing things that you like will make your fundraising program less effective to a broader audience. If excellence is your goal, not making every decision all about you is a requirement.

Commitment to the highest ethics

As fundraisers, we are entrusted with knowledge that people might not want made public. Giving histories are obvious, but we also hear stories from donors about family struggles, passions, future goals and more. Treating all information with the highest respect is critical. But we also need to do what’s right when it comes to raising money — and what’s right may not always be what is expected to have the best ROI. Sometimes saying “no” to a fundraising strategy is the only right thing to do.

This old dog can look back on my career to date and see some great successes — and yes, some embarrassing failures. I have from time to time achieved excellence. But I want excellence to be my goal every day until I hang up my fundraising shingle. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Let’s make our fundraising excellent; the great missions of our organizations deserve no less.

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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