What is Fundraising?

I started my Course in Exponential Fundraising at Harvard last week standing at a big white board, marker at the ready, and asked the class this simple question:  “What is fundraising?”

The group shouted out answers like: directing resources to things that urgently need to be done on the planet; listening to people’s passions and translating those into action; joining together around shared values and a common goal; and many more. I drew a line down the center of the board and asked another question: “Those all seem like really good and important things. So why is fundraising so hard?”  The answers were the usual suspects:  fear of rejection; feeling subservient; beliefs around money; fear of seeming weak or needy; and so on.

I do this same exercise in every class I teach and in every class I see the same thing: a disconnect between the possibility of what fundraising can be and the limited way in which it is often experienced and practiced.

Fundraising, when stripped of all the barriers we put up around it, is about discovering meaning and how to translate that meaning into action.  Meaning, of course, cannot be taught. It can only be discovered. Or, perhaps, simply remembered.  And we can only guide others to remember it when we remember it in ourselves.


Who should go on a first visit?

Recently, an Executive Director asked me if he should bring his Chief Development Officer, an accomplished, seasoned fundraiser, with him on first visits with new prospective partners or wait until he’s established a relationship first and then introduce her. He said he sees the pros and cons to both approaches.

My answer, while perhaps not as definitive as he’d hoped for, directed him to begin at the end: with the goal. The goal is for all of your donors to be full partners with both you, the Executive Director, AND your CDO.

So given that, under what scenario will you be able to most quickly develop an authentic partnership like this?  How you achieve that must be thought through on a case by case basis and developed with your own style and comfort level.

I, for example, am almost always more effective when I go on a first visit alone, where I can more deeply and genuinely connect with the other person (in a previous blog: this first visit is more effective when you don’t meet in an office). I can then naturally, as a next step, weave the Executive Director and/or other key Board members into the relationship.  At the same time, there have been many instances in my career where the Executive Director had a solo meeting first and introduced me into the equation as a follow-up step or the two of us will go together for the first meeting. There is no one right answer, except to be aware of how you are setting the conditions for partnerships to fully blossom with each member of the team.  I understand that Bain Consulting actually conducts an in-house strategy session prior to taking any first meeting to determine who is the right person or people to meet with their new prospect. It’s that important.

One important caveat:  if you are introducing your CDO after a first-meeting, the key to successfully passing this baton, of course, is that he/she should not be introduced as “the money person,” but as a full partner on this journey.   He/she must be positioned as a peer, who is equally passionate about your shared commitment to the project and who has unique and vital dimensions of the partnership equation to share.

So as with this question and all others,  keep your goal clearly in mind and the right answer for what to do in any situation always presents itself.



The fundraiser’s journey

I carry this on a piece of paper in my wallet: “More than anything, the art of living is about recognizing our power to make a difference in someone else’s life.”  This insight has been a beacon. This fundamental truth is a refreshing reminder when I feel burned out or cynical.

What I have only recently begun to discover, though, is how the art of living is equally tied to allowing others to make a difference in my own life.  As fundraisers or CEOs, we are often very good at being present for others, listening to them fully, guiding them on their philanthropic journey. But we are not always equally good at letting ourselves be open to the same growth through the relationship.  I suppose it is in part a power dynamic and in part because we are afraid if we let our guard down we will somehow appear weak and consequently be less effective.

The most important, deepest partnerships in my life are the ones that also hold up a mirror to me so that I can learn more about myself – my vulnerabilities and my strengths – and understand what I have to offer to both the relationship and the world around me.

This sounds obvious and easy, but take a moment and reflect on some of your recent conversations with your board members or others.  Because we are so focused on our philanthropic partner’s journey, we miss that this work is also about our own growth and discovery. When we bring our full selves to the relationship there is the possibility for real transformation.