31 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Fundraising Career

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by Rachel Muir

I’ve spent my entire career in fundraising and learned many lessons the hard way. Here are 31 things I wish I had known when I was just starting out in my fundraising career:

  1. You will never make everyone happy all the time. You may be too much for some people. That’s okay – those aren’t your people. Accept this and don’t let detractors, email unsubscribes, or lapsed donors get you down. This is part of the job.
  2. To get through, one email (or phone call or voice mail) WILL NOT DO. It will take MANY messages to get through (as many as seven to ten, or more even) so don’t give up! Donors do not read all of your email messages.
  3. Your passion for the cause is infectious so don’t be shy about sharing your enthusiasm. Embrace it and be yourself (everyone else is taken).
  4. The interesting life you lead is precisely what makes you fascinating to your donors so take time off to go have adventures and do what gives you joy.
  5. Not every donor will want to have a deeper relationship with you and that’s okay. Find the ones who do and don’t waste time lamenting those who don’t.
  6. Your donor database is only as good as what you put into it so keep good records.
  7. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Realize we never climb to the top of fundraising mountain and shout down to the people below, “I made it, I’m here!” You might raise $500,000 one day but you are going to have to wake up tomorrow to raise more money.
  8. Realize there may come a time when you need to push back if a donor has an unrealistic request or demand. Accept this and realize not only will you survive it, but your donor may respect you more for having boundaries.
  9. Join colleague or mentors on as many donor meetings as you possibly can.
  10. Celebrate your successes and those of your colleagues.
  11. Find yourself a fundraising mentor. Realize that many people may say no if you ask them directly to mentor you because they may worry it would be too big a time commitment. You can cultivate great mentors with a “formal” arrangement – these could be professionals you admire that you call from time to time for advice.
  12. Don’t forget to be a mentor yourself!
  13. When you fail, and you will, ask yourself what can I learn from this? As painful as our mistakes are, they can be our greatest teachers if we stop to reflect on what we learned from them. Skip over that and you may doom yourself to repeat the same mistake again.
  14. Nurture yourself. Fundraising is not for the faint of heart, it’s for the full of heart. Take care of your body, mind and spirit. Whether it’s positive affirmations or tracking your accomplishments, make sure you’re feeding yourself the good stuff. If you don’t take care of yourself who will?
  15. Surround yourself with good people in your professional and personal life.
  16. Engage beyond your own nonprofit walls by donating, volunteering and serving on the board to causes you are passionate about. These experiences can be infinitely fulfilling, teach you invaluable skills and build important relationships that can lead to your next career opportunity.
  17. The best medicine to prepare for a donor ask or recover from a rough day is reminding yourself why you got into this work in the first place.
  18. Role play donor solicitations to prepare. Even the best fundraisers rehearse and reenact role plays.
  19. Your curiosity about your donors is an asset. Use it to learn more about them before your visit and ask great questions during your time together.
  20. It’s not about you, it’s about your donor. People think they need to share their own organizational story to win over a prospective donor, but the truth is people like talking about themselves. To be successful focus on listening. By having a conversation where you do less of the talking and instead try look for ways you can help or offer resources to the person you are talking to, you build the relationship and add value.
  21. Practice public speaking.
  22. Know that recruiting, managing and leading a board is the hardest part of running a nonprofit.
  23. It’s lonely at the top. You can feel very companionless as an Executive Director so find a Facebook group of other ED’s so you have a support network.
  24. Every moment with a donor is a chance to do really great discovery. Always be prepared with good discovery questions. Download this cheat sheet of great ones if you need ideas!
  25. You are always the face of the organization, even after hours.
  26. If you network with intention it isn’t idle chit-chat. Done correctly it’s important relationship building.
  27. Fundraising is a learned skill and investing in professional development reaps financial rewards. According to research by Adrian Sargeant each additional form of training is associated with an increase of $37,000 in income. Even on a shoestring budget you can find educational opportunities to advance your fundraising knowledge, such as Bloomerang’s weekly free webinars.
  28. Be prepared to make the ask at ANY time.
  29. There is no magic formula to how many visits before an ask.
  30. Listening is the most important job of all.
  31. Continually search for barriers you may be putting in front of donors trying to give. Is it a clunky path to your donation form? Is it not thanking them properly or reporting back to them on how their gift made an impact? 

Rachel Muir, CFRE transforms individuals into confident, successful fundraisers. When she was 26 years old, Rachel Muir launched Girlstart, a non-profit organization to empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology in the living room of her apartment with $500 and a credit card. Several years later she had raised over 10 million dollars and was featured on Oprah, CNN, and the Today show.

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