What Makes a Great Fundraiser?

What makes a good fundraiser?

Wait a minute, let’s raise the bar: What makes a great fundraiser?

For the sake of this discussion, we will focus on those in the profession who are on the front lines of making one-on-one solicitations. They’re raising support from the individual philanthropists who account for about 70% of America’s nearly $500 billion annual philanthropic enterprises. No matter the title — development director, development officer, major gift officer, rainmaker, etc., they share skill sets, passion, and grit that culminate in the development of significant sums of private resources.

While not exhaustive, here are some traits I believe make a successful fundraiser:

  •  Humility
  •  Enthusiasm for every ask
  •  Excellent skills in oral and written communication and active listening
  •  A broad set of interests
  •  Moxie

Before we dig deeper into these characteristics, let’s provide context on the talent drain and shortages facing nonprofits.

We’re Churning and Burning

According to an Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) study, half of the development directors expect to leave their current jobs in less than two years. As many as 30% are not sure they will remain in the profession.

A simple explanation: Too much aggravation and stress for too little reward. The smaller the nonprofit, the greater the pressure and the less the reward. Don’t forget that the overwhelming majority of America’s 1.5 million nonprofits are smaller. 88% have annual budgets of $500,000 or less. In an environment where the rich get richer — both staff-wise and organization-wise — there is a significant demand for proven development professionals, particularly major gift officers who have shown results in securing leadership gifts of five-, six- and seven-digits. The larger nonprofits can pay handsomely and do land such talented individuals. 

Let’s take a closer look at the five qualities of a great fundraiser: 

Humility: This is the foundation of realizing that no one knows it all. There are self-improvement opportunities all around us. Fundraising is the ultimate continuous improvement process. Whether the responses are yes,   no, or maybe, each solicitation has a genuine learning opportunity. Fundraisers are keenly aware of the need to keep their egos in check.

Enthusiasm for every askLet’s consider fundraisers as social entrepreneurs who live with the reality that reward comes with risk. In a genuine sense, the capacity to ask is like exercising a muscle. Do it regularly and well, and the muscle grows, don’t do it often, and the muscle trophies.

Great oral and written communication skills and active listening: Many people — especially those outside the nonprofit sector — mistakenly assume that live fundraisers can talk/persuade donors into making a gift. Not true. Laura Fredericks, the Expert on THE ASK, reminds us that during a productive meeting, the donor talks 75% of the time, while the nonprofit representative talks the other 25%. But they know how to make every second of their 25% count. Guide the discussion and ask the right questions; the donor prospect will tell you when, how much, and for what purpose they want to support.

A broad set of interests: People outside the sector also mistakenly think fundraisers are workaholics consumed by their work. That would work against them. Enjoying hobbies, culture, entertainment, and life, in general, empowers the fundraiser to relate more effectively to the donor prospect, no matter their age and walk of life. It also helps to read regularly and keep up with the news, which puts you in a position to have lively conversations and bond with others. (Be sure to avoid controversial subjects, such as politics.}

Moxie: Coming from Boston and being old enough, I remember drinking Moxie (one of the first mass-produced soft drinks) with an acquired taste. It is labeled “distinctly different.” Moxie also implies the admirable characteristics of courage, guts, and the belief that more is possible. It’s diplomatically asking and reminding influential people to take action and schedule essential appointments with donor prospects. Successful fundraisers aren’t afraid to dream big dreams. They believe every solicitation is a possible success, and you have a personal responsibility to give it your all-out best try.

How do we help them stick around?

Now that we’ve tried to define the DNA of great fundraisers, how do we keep them at our nonprofits longer than 18 to 24 months (an average tenure for the development officer)? 

For sure, salaries must be competitive, but the same AFP research indicates that this isn’t just about the money.

There are several non-financial factors at play: 

(a) Strong two-way communication. Fundraisers know they are heard and recognized for their accomplishments and invited to provide input on areas outside of fundraising. 

(b) Work-life balance has evolved into work-life integration since the beginning of the pandemic, with so many of us working remotely from our homes. Fundraisers often have events claiming their evenings and weekends and deserve the flexibility to meet the needs of loved ones that might come up during the traditional work week.

(c) Heart-to-heart discussion on a career path and growth opportunities. Professional development and robust interaction with peers are strongly supported. What are the options to move up? I am far from unbiased, but I fiercely believe that with some management training, development officers are well-suited to take on CEO or Executive Director’s responsibilities.

In Closing…

Losing a good fundraiser doesn’t make any sense. Experts estimate the cost of replacing, training, and transitioning new staff is well above the $100,000 level. Even more severe is the loss of relationship capital. Your top donors enjoy working with people that thoroughly know and appreciate their stories, preferences, and interests. Working with a new staff member can be a disappointment and loosen the emotional bond with the nonprofit.

Search and recruit development officers with a heightened sense of purpose. Work hard to orient them to the organizational culture and make every effort to keep them on board. Do all these steps with spirit, and the return on investment for your cause will be better than ever.

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