Impresario fundraising

It’s very easy for fundraisers to forget that they have a superpower.

The best fundraisers are network hubs, people who build strong relationships and who make change happen by connected trusted people to meaningful opportunities to do good in the world.

And yet many fundraisers feel stuck. Stuck in a role that they might like (or that they are good at) but that feels too narrow. Stuck in a career path that doesn’t obviously lead to the top. Stuck hearing an unspoken story that the people who “really” do the work are someone other than them.

Here’s a playbook to get unstuck.

Recognize that the relationship currency you have invested in and built is an underutilized asset.

See that the funders you know and trust – and who know and trust you – nearly always feel like there’s more they could be doing in addition giving money.

Also see that there’s an important new set of things your organization could be doing if it had the right kind of capital to make that happen.

And realize, most importantly, that the story that’s been handed to you about what your organization is, and the boundaries around what it does and does not do in the world, is just that: a story.

Your opportunity is to reconfigure these resources in a new way. And it is YOUR opportunity because the hardest-to-acquire and most important pieces of this puzzle are the trust and relationship currency you and only you have with funders.

This is a trust that you can translate into a conversation that pulls together all of these pieces in new ways: trust that will get 10 funders into a room for a real brainstorming conversation; trust that gives you license to talk to folks internally about what they could do if they had new, different, more ambitious funders; trust that allows you to dream of new products that people could invest in, new structures that would allow you to take on more risk, new stories that could make sense of what your organization is and does, and new relationships that could actually change all of those things for the better.

Great new things happen because an existing set of relationships and ideas are brought together in new ways; because we discard old stories (of self, of our organizations, of how these pieces fit together) and dare to write new ones together.

The fundraising impresario is the person who picks herself, who sees the unique role she can play in painting a new picture of what is possible, and who takes the first steps to reassemble the puzzle pieces. She is a person who is willing to go out on a limb to host and curate the conversations that make crazy, new, important things happen. And she is the person who discovers, the moment she gets out on that limb, all the people who thank her and say, “finally, here’s something we can all get excited about!”

Fundraisers in the Digital Age

One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.

It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.

But it’s a mistake to stop there.

We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.

The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium.  If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.

This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.

Put the gloves down

What does it mean to say that real fundraising is about building long-term partnership?

It means that some of the most important meetings you have with long-term funders are the ones that cover topics that don’t require their funding support:

The amazing, fully funded project that you’re just kicking off with a few other partners.

The great piece of work that you both know is outside of their formal strategy that you’re really excited about.

The new initiative where you’d value their experience and input.

Some funders are so used to – and so tired of – being pitched constantly that they end up behaving protectively, as if the only thought running through their head is, “how many times will I have to say ‘no’ in this meeting?”  I’ve had funders start sentence after sentence with, “we’re not doing any new funding this cycle” long before I’ve asked for anything. There’s no hope of building a relationship if someone has their gloves up protecting themselves from an onslaught of asks.

Fundraisers can be part of the problem, acting as if that every meeting should include a financial ask, and fearing that they’ve made a mistake if they don’t ask for money each time.

Every meeting should help deepen the relationship and, even better, should give everyone around the table the chance to contribute meaningfully to making positive change happen. Often that’s not about money.

Taking a stance that you’re not constantly, desperately on the lookout for funding is one of the best ways to allow the partners you hope to work with to put down their gloves and actually listen.

How philanthropists really decide where to give

The natural place to start, as a fundraiser, is at your desk. You judiciously read every webpage, article and report about a potential funder’s strategy in search of the best fit between a donor and the work you are doing.

And then, research completed and grant application submitted, you’re surprised to figure out that the fit isn’t there after all. The pieces don’t snap together cleanly, your proposal has been turned down. Then what?

Perplexed, you may head back to your desk to do a little more research.

Please don’t, because the answer you’re looking for is not somewhere on the screen or hidden away in a Google cache.

Philanthropy – whether a $25 donation to an Indiegogo campaign or a multimillion dollar grant from a huge foundation – is always personal. The published philanthropy strategies you are researching are a sensible narrative that pulls together a bunch of threads, but they are not the whole truth. Far from it.

Think of it from the other side: there simply is no such thing as the best place to give a donation (heck, there’s no such thing as a best car) so there’s no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer no matter how much they spent trying to figure out the problem.

All the best philanthropists I know have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, courage, and, and, and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping track, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO.  Not by a long shot).

Getting through the troughs

I was talking to a nonprofit Executive Director last week about fundraising. We spent most of our time unpacking the heart of every fundraising meeting: the energy you bring into the room.

It’s not just important, it is everything. No matter the words you say, if you say them without the other person being able to feel them then the meeting has already failed.

But what do you do if you’ve had a bad run and you’re not feeling the mojo? Maybe it’s been a tough month or quarter and you can’t seem to put a smile on your face and “stay positive?”

My take is: don’t try to fake it.

Of course you have to be professional, and fundamentally you have to retain your long-term optimism and your deep belief that you’ll get big things done—if you don’t believe in you, no one will. But overly polishing and buffing your delivery will fail most of the time.

Inauthenticity is like a single poisonous drop that contaminates the entire cup of water. Rather than slap on a can-do attitude, bring your truth in that moment into the room. Be willing to lay it bare.

If things are hard, if you are feeling frustrated, if you don’t know how you’re going to storm the next hill, don’t complain, but don’t hide that away. Show faith and trust in the person you’re speaking with; have the confidence to share the real.

Sharing this truth might help you discover what’s really going on, and it will certainly communicate that you need actual help and that this meeting isn’t just another meeting. That’s an honest ask for support that, at a minimum, will be met with humanity and, in most cases, action.

People are craving this sort of connection, and they are more likely to help if they understand that they can, actually, help. Seeing your willingness to be authentic lets them understand the kind of partner you’ll be to them in the long haul—especially when the chips are down.

A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.

INSTEAD or AND philanthropy

This is the age-old cannibalization question, the sleeping giant we are terrified to wake. It’s the specific story, the individual program that connects with a donor in a deeper way BUT might pull them away from precious, scarce, unrestricted support.

Do we, in telling that story, lose the donor forever to the cause as a whole?

I don’t think so. Not most donors, not most of the time. But it is a risk.

It boils down to a question of share of philanthropic pocket and share of philanthropic mind.

Most of the time, for most of our funders, we are a small portion of their philanthropic mindshare and their philanthropic pocket. This is because most of our donors are under-engaged, because they are busy and because, for most of them, we show up when it’s time to ask for something and then we disappear. Shame on us.

The more specific story – or more specific program – is powerful because it’s usually more visceral and it feels more real. In telling that story in the right way, we have the opportunity to create a deeper connection. And, when we do it right, we will tell the specific story as an illustration of the whole, and ask for funding for the whole. This is the best way to fundraise, and it requires passion, discipline and practice to get it right.

But that won’t work for everyone. Some funders – either because that’s their mindset or because that’s where they are in their philanthropic journey with your organization – want the more specific. That’s OK too if the more specific will ignite their passion, will enable their deeper connection to their work, and will transform them from passive to active supporters. Even if the dollar amount of their support remains unchanged, a wildly passionate supporter is worth ten times (a hundred?) an unengaged but consistent supporter.

If you succeed (yes, succeed, because it’s a win) in generating this sort of shift, your job is to recognize it and invite that person fully over to your side of the table, to take their newfound passion and energy, along with your much-clearer understanding of how you can truly partner with them, and enlist them in the countless ways they can help: to improve your thinking, bring other resources to the table, help spread your story…whatever else they can do beyond writing a check that will really help the cause.

While all this is true, it’s also true that sometimes this is a tradeoff – an INSTEAD rather than an AND.

Some funders are engaged and care already and are giving significantly, and then they hear a particular new story and they will choose to trade between the broad (or unrestricted) and the narrow – at least for now. That’s OK too. In this case, the only thing to do is to have a clear conversation about what’s going on, and, if there’s space for it, to ask whether they would consider an AND rather than an INSTEAD donation for that new program. Even when you do this all perfectly, don’t forget that sometimes resources (time and money) are finite, which means that sometimes one thing gets traded for another.

I believe that this last case is the rarest, and that even when it happens it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because this is a long-term game, and ultimately our job is to build an army of supporters who care deeply and are with us for the long haul, not an army of check writers who care a little.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot of nuance here, and a huge amount of space between “support the whole cause” (which is wonderful, powerful, and is the way we hope all philanthropy will happen, but is hard to sustain) and “we have 18 programs you can support and if you support just that we’ll run out of operating money in 6 months.”

It’s up to us to manage this gray area with grace, clarity, and love.

(Oh, and in case you haven’t yet been a passionate, engaged, connected reader of this blog, you can still spread the word to your NYC friends about the Catalyst for Change event this Thursday at 7pm where I’ll be speaking.)