What My Parents Taught Me About Fundraising, Part 1

Growing up, we didn’t talk about fundraising at our dinner table, but looking back, I have learned that my parents prepared me for my career by teaching me important lessons. I recently jotted down a few of these lessons to share with you in this and the next few posts.

I need to preface this by saying that I often referred to my mom (not to her face, of course) as “the Slogan Queen.” Certain messages she repeated again and again, much to my irritation. But maybe Mom was on to something.

‘You can’t tear down Schurz.’

I attended Carl Schurz High School, a Chicago public school. When I attended, it was more than 60 years old and only a few years away from being named a Chicago landmark. (Now it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) But all the wonderful history didn’t interest me. My friends who lived in the suburbs were the lucky ones. They attended new, modern school buildings resplendent with all the conveniences. But every time I complained about our “ancient” school building, my mom would say, “You can’t tear down Schurz.”

That sentiment is true in fundraising, too. Sure, there are shiny new objects that appeal far more than the boring fundraising of days gone by. But fundraisers are in the business of raising funds (duh!), and that means we have to do what works even as we test new methods. “Methodology envy” has no place in a fundraiser’s life—but neither does resistance to change. We may not be able to tear down the program that is working, but we can constantly look to refresh it to be even more effective.

‘Don’t cut corners.’

This was a familiar refrain from my father. Sometimes he meant it literally—walking on the grass instead of making the turn on the sidewalk was a serious offense!—but it also was how he performed his work.

Sometimes, as a fundraiser, it’s tempting to take a shortcut and skip some of the groundwork that allows us to ask for the truly transformational gift. It seems prudent to save time and money by cancelling the reporting and newsletter updates so we get right to the next ask. But we’re investing in long-term relationships—and support—from our donors. We need to make sure we are not looking for shortcuts that save time but potentially discourage supporters from continuing to give.

‘Different people spend their money differently.’

This was another quote from “the Slogan Queen.” She usually said it when I complained that our neighbors went to Disney World for spring break when we just visited the grandparents.

In our fundraising programs, we constantly are making choices about how we invest limited budgets. Sometimes, (to quote my dad here) we have Champagne appetites on beer budgets. We get envious of what colleagues in other organizations are doing and forget that we are responsible to make the choices that maximize the portion of our donors’ investments that we are using for additional fundraising. When you aren’t sure if you’re just looking to invest money “differently” instead of better, ask yourself how you would feel explaining the choice you make to your donors. If you feel squeamish, it’s possibly not the best decision and it’s time to look for a different alternative.

‘Say thank you.’

Some of you remember having to write your grandparents a thank-you note for the $1 they sent at your birthday. My mom sat me down at the kitchen table with a pen (or pencil when I was younger) and paper, and wouldn’t let me go out to play until I wrote my thank-you notes. What a chore!

But if you ever have been on the receiving end of a genuine message of gratitude, you know how much it is appreciated. And if you’ve ever felt taken for granted because someone neglected to say “thanks,” you know how irksome that can be. Saying “thank you” to our donors should not be a chore we avoid at all costs. Instead, it should be a task we do gratefully because we know it’s because of our donors’ generosity that we have jobs and that our missions are moving forward.

Perhaps it’s a result of this old dog getting older, but I am reminded frequently how the lessons I chaffed at as a child actually built a solid foundation for my fundraising career. What principles did your parents, a teacher or another caring person instill in you that still impact you today? Let’s celebrate those pithy truths together!

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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