Glass door on a sliding house

9 things I wish I had known early in my fundraising career

I’ve been working in fundraising for a long time. As a result, sometimes, I think things that are common sense – simply because I’ve been at this for a while – are not common at all. I was reminded of this a few years ago when friends helped my partner and I re-side an extension on our house. It was humbling and an important lesson. In the arrogant way that only a complete naïve can offer, I said, “It’s a little extension. How hard can it be to re-side?” I have not yet lived down those words.
Glass door on a sliding house
My very experienced friends could not believe that I couldn’t hammer a nail in straight. After lots of head shakes from my friends, sore muscles and a smashed fingertip or two, the extension was finished.

That got me thinking about “common sense’ and how it’s relative and depends on how much you know about a particular subject. So, I hopped on LinkedIn and asked fundraisers – new and experienced – what advice they would give their younger fundraising selves. I WAS BLOWN AWAY BY THE INSIGHTFUL AND SOMETIMES PROFOUND OBSERVATIONS.

I didn’t want all of those great comments to sit idly in my LinkedIn feed only to be seen by a few folks. So, I’ve compiled the answers here in this article so readers can see it and refer to it whenever they like. My thanks to everyone who shared their words of wisdom.

First out of the gate was Ligia Peña, who had already written her own blog post about this. Here is the link to Ligia’s blog. https://globetrottingfundraiser.com/2019/03/12/message-to-my-younger-self/ Take a look. It’s a great list.

I’m going to summarize some of the comments from others, for the sake of brevity, but here are the key points I think are really worth considering. There were 9 themes that emerged:

1. IN A CLASS OF ITS OWN: I want to start with this one because it’s just so lovely. It kind of blew me away. What a beautiful way to think about our work!

Klementina X. Sula: I took a class on Jewish philanthropy this semester at the University of Michigan. I learned that in the Torah, the fundraiser is compared to the heavens and stars because they have infinite opportunities to make a difference – by connecting donors to needs. Because living with purpose means being of service to others. I found this to be truly inspiring and I wish I would have taken this class as an undergrad or that I had this exposure early on in my career. It’s inspiring! There’s a lot of stigma about fundraising/being a fundraiser – we have to help shift the conversation: we don’t ask for money; we give people opportunities to live with purpose and make a difference.

2. BE PROACTIVE AND BELIEVE IN YOURSELF

Juniper Locilento, MPNL, CFRE: Don’t wait for permission. Take ownership of your career and create opportunities for yourself instead of waiting for invitations.

Angela Nelson-Heesch: I second this one. Ask for what you want and be direct about it. We spend so much time perfecting our asks but we shy away from doing it for ourselves.

Susan Mullin: Just do it. It’s never going to be perfect. Donors don’t give because you have an awesome website or because you have a “great” gift acceptance policy. They give because you talk to them and inspire them to invest in something that is important to them.

JoAnna Black: As someone newer to the fundraising world – similar to knowing your worth and value, is understanding that a lot of people have imposter syndrome too, not just you! You were hired for a reason, someone saw potential in you, don’t throw that away by insecure.

3. DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE ACCEPTING A JOB

Maryann Kerr: Don’t take at face value everything you see or read or are told in interviews about an organization’s supposed values and guiding principles…Do a deeper dive on culture and leadership style by asking folks who work in the organization or recently left.

Andy Donovan, CFRE: Do your due diligence to uncover whether there is a true culture of philanthropy at play. Don’t panic and feel compelled to jump at the first opportunity without knowing full on what you are getting yourself, your organization, team and most importantly donors/volunteers into.

Ann Rosenfield, MBA, CFRE: Before you accept a job, know your worth. There is a real, persistent wage gap for women, people of colour, and other people in groups that tend to experience wage discrimination. Research the charity on the CRA website to know their internal salary range. Look at the relevant salary surveys – AFP, Charity Village, Boland – to have timely information on appropriate salaries for your sector and experience level. Get coaching on how to negotiate salary. The career centre at your college or university can help. AFP will be offering this as a member benefit soon. Be prepared to walk away from a job offer if it’s not right for you. If you settle for a lower salary early, it casts a huge shadow on your earnings over time. (Italics and bold mine because I think it’s worth reinforcing.)

Jeanette Hepburn, CFRE: Research the organization’s board and governance, meet with board members. Find and ask volunteers & donors why they support the organization – is it compelling, is there passion? Give a test gift online, see what happens next – does the communication and next engagement match what you would expect from the organization? Think carefully about your interview questions and what you need – you want to be as successful as the organization wants you to be!

4. BE AUTHENTIC AND TRUE TO YOUR WORD

Christine Pellerin, MPNL, CFRE: Be yourself! Donors respond to genuine passion and authenticity. I started having better conversations with donors when I allowed myself to be, well, myself!

Paul Lethbridge: Be authentic and be bold. Tell people what you think and not what they want to hear.

Debbie Kesheshian, CFRE: Your integrity is all you have. Stay true to your word and always be completely upfront with your donors. They will forgive your mistake but if you lose their trust you don’t deserve them. Donors first!

5. KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO LEAVE

Sylvie Labrosse, CFRE: If it’s not working out – don’t be afraid to re-assess and leave.

Gillian Doucet Campbell CFRE: Stay curious – about your craft and about people. Be kind to yourself. Trust your instincts – the books/gurus aren’t always right every time. Stick with organizations you can be passionate about. It’s ok to leave the cause you’re passionate about when the leader/management is not the right fit for you or a place where you can be your best.

6. ADOPT A LEARNING MINDSET, SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE AND FIND A MENTOR

Seerat Siddique: Be a sponge – seek out learning wherever you go and when you find mentors/teachers/leaders/coaches who are eager to share knowledge and expertise that you gain value from – thank them for it and say “I’d really like it if we can keep doing this”. Good coaches who care about your development and give tough feedback are invaluable. Surround yourself with people who nurture a growth mindset.

Lynne H.: Go with the conviction of getting your CFRE. Keep it on your radar as you progress through your career and make sure you fill in the blanks as you take on new roles.

Melanie Lovering: Every stage of your career will provide you with valuable learning opportunities. When times get tough, step back and ponder “what can I learn from this for next time, or when my comes to lead?” Whether you stay or leave, the greatest personal and professional growth often comes from adversity.

Boyd McBride: What comes to mind for me is the importance of surrounding yourself with good people – joining or helping build a team that inspires the best in you, networking out thru professional association(s) and colleagues in other organizations, and, as someone already mentioned, cultivating a few mentors and protégés.

Ingrid Gingras: Work closely with your marcomm team. There’s often a wealth of information there and collaboration is key. Listen to their ideas and find new and creative ways that you can delight your donor/prospect while working together.

Andrea Simpson, CFRE: Find great Mentors! Then, once you’ve found them, don’t forget to be a great Mentor to someone else.

7. KNOW THE POWER OF SILENCE AND LISTENING

jennifer gibbs: Listen listen listen, your donors tell you everything you need to know: how, when, and what to ask for…

Eric Lindberg: Make the ask, then shut up!!!

8. WORK LIFE BALANCE

Emma Groia: Learn to create work/life boundaries early. Junior fundraisers often act as the “jack of all trades” for an organization and scope crawl was a serious problem I faced.

Jack Silverstein: Make sure you have a good work/life balance. You will never get back all of those extra hours and people won’t remember your dedication years later But your kids will definitely remember that you weren’t there

9. REMEMBER WHY YOU GOT INTO THIS WORK – a great message to end on

Chris Carter: Never forget the reason you decided to work for the non-profit sector: to make the world a better place.

I hope you find some lessons or reminders in this shared collective wisdom.

Cathy Mann is President at Cathy Mann & Associates, author, podcaster (check out It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask podcast) and sometimes plays her ukulele in public.

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