There are many different reasons to pursue a job in fundraising. Love of people is certainly one, as is passion for a mission. Some reasons seem less “lofty.” For example, I started in fundraising on the production side and simply loved the logistics of taking a mailing from creative brainstorming through analysis of the results.
But when fundraising becomes our career, we often find out that it’s a bit like an onion; we discover more that matters as we peel back the layers and look deeper. Fundraising involves caring about people, being a storyteller, using words effectively, understanding financial reports, becoming at least passable in explaining the specifics of your organization’s work, and much more.
For whatever reason you became a fundraiser, if you want to grow in the field you’re going to end up doing more and learning more than you ever thought you wanted to do and learn. You may not have signed up for these things, but they can help make you a better fundraiser. For example …
Know what others are doing. Your email, letters, events, press releases and everything else you do are not happening in a vacuum. Many of your donors give to and/or volunteer at more than one nonprofit organization. Being aware of what other nonprofits — those in your niche and those that have a large footprint regardless of their niche — are doing is essential because you also need to …
Be committed to differentiation. Sadly for us, too many donors don’t really know why Organization A is different than Organization B. Some of that is because of similarity in names or missions. But it is also exacerbated by organizations that don’t take the time to clearly define their distinctives. As a fundraiser, make it your passion to understand what about your organization is unique, and then find better ways to explain that in words, pictures, videos — anything other than just expecting the donor or prospect to figure it out.
Stay aware of external factors that may derail your organization. You may not have signed up to be a lawyer, tax accountant, lobbyist or politician, but knowing what is happening in those realms can help you stay one step ahead of a potential landmine. While panicking over every proposed change in accounting practices or laws is counterproductive, ignoring them keeps you from occasionally thinking through some “what if?” scenarios and making sure you know the facts and can make course corrections if needed.
Keep an eye on the environment. No, this isn’t about global warming; it’s about the environment in which we work. What’s happening on Wall Street? Even if most of your donors don’t have money invested in stock, my experience is that negative financial news can make them more cautious about giving to charity. The same is true when there is a scandal; your organization may be perfectly above-board, but it can be hurt by publicity about someone else’s misdeeds. It’s not fair, but we know it’s often the sad reality. Staying attuned to what’s being talked about on the news and by your donors can impact your messaging. While you won’t come right out and say, “Well, we would never do anything like such-and-such an organization did!” you might slip in some information about your last audit, your board’s integrity policies, or something else that responds to what a donor may be thinking but not saying.
Whatever drew you to fundraising — a desire to help a cause you believe in, a passion for building relationships with people or anything else — you do your organization and your career a disservice when you forget to look at the bigger picture in which you are working. When reading an article, ask yourself what (if anything) you need to do differently as a result of the information. When receiving a communication from another nonprofit, take a few minutes to look it over and learn. When you don’t really understand what makes your organization different from Organization X, Y or Z, be relentless is searching for the answer and then make sure that’s being communicated to your donors.
You may not have signed up for the extra assignments, but they often are what turn “doing my job” into “changing the world.” This old dog cringes every time I see someone simply going through the paces of fundraising. We aren’t always going to get it right, but let’s go down fighting!
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.