Fundraising and Research: What Truly Drives Philanthropy? It’s Not the Dollars.

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By Karen Smith Cochran

This article was adapted from Karen Smith Cochran’s June 7 talk at the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Planet Philanthropy conference in Orlando.

The most talented development officers are the ones who craft a shared vision and build long-lasting partnerships with their donors.

If you do the right thing, the money will come. After more than 20 years in fundraising, that’s probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.

That’s because philanthropy isn’t about dollars. It’s really about mission, impact and passion—and how well we communicate and cultivate these shared values with our donors.

I’ve sometimes heard people jokingly refer to development officers as matchmakers. In reality, that’s not too far off. Although, I prefer to think of us as emissaries between powerful institutions or influential individuals, families or foundations, carefully building bridges between today and a brighter future made possible through philanthropy. Together, we are impacting countless lives now and for future generations.

With this incredible potential comes the responsibility to do right not just by our donors, but also by the organizations we serve and those who benefit from the dollars we raise.

While it may sound obvious, it’s not as easy as you might think, especially as philanthropy’s role has shifted more this past year from that of funder to social conscience, boldly challenging public health disparities and racial injustice to bring people together and “stimulate the human spirit.”¹

Too often, we assume someone must be wealthy to be philanthropic.

But in reality, everyone can be a philanthropist. And now more than ever, people want to help. That’s why it should come as no surprise that last year’s GivingTuesday saw unprecedented support² in the number of donors and dollars raised. In 2020, 34.8 million people gave $2.47 billion, an increase of half a billion dollars over the previous year.

As fundraisers, it’s our job not only to show people how to give—but to show them why it matters.

This brings me to “doing the right thing” as a fundraiser. Beyond following the Donor Bill of Rights and the Association of Professional Fundraisers’ Code of Ethical Standards, the most successful fundraisers share several traits that stem from a deep understanding of their work and how to connect with people to make positive change.

From my own storied career leading talented teams that have collectively raised more than $1 billion, here are three ways to make sure your heart (and head) are in the right place:

1. Focus on your mission before you ask.

In fundraising, this goes beyond providing a list of programs or funds. It speaks to why you exist in the first place. (As marketing guru and author Simon Sinek says,³ “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”)

Because if you cannot clearly express what you and your organization are trying to accomplish, you will have a hard time inspiring others—much less translating it into impact—and identifying donors whose passions match.

I have seen organizations that were truly saving lives in the medical research field. While their work was extraordinary, their explanations were clinical and often difficult for a non-medical person to understand.

Knowing this challenge, the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center picked a simple yet powerful tagline: “At Duke, there is Hope.” Because when you or a loved one receive a life-threatening brain tumor diagnosis and are told to go home and get your affairs in order, you don’t really care about the science that will save your life. You care that someone thinks you can outlive your prognosis. Often, it’s not until you meet the team at the Tisch Brain Tumor Center that you understand that the science behind their cutting-edge discoveries and treatments is what fuels the hope.

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to serve as the development officer designated to work with some of the world’s wealthiest families. I can tell you that no matter someone’s giving capacity, each person wants to know what difference their gift will make on the mission.

2. Tell stories that show the impact.

Fundraising is both an art and a science. Collecting data outcomes and ROI is important, but many times curating compelling stories is what really resonates.

I can tell you that no matter someone’s giving capacity, each person wants to know what difference their gift will make on the mission.

There’s an art in being able to translate your mission in a way that donors see the impact of their gifts—no matter if you’re a small nonprofit or a multi-million-dollar foundation.

That’s why I remind myself before every gift conversation, “it’s not about the dollars; it’s about what the dollars can do.” That means it’s about the impact your work has on the people you are helping.

There’s a reason we named the University of Central Florida Foundation’s magazine “IMPACT”—to tell the stories of our students and the donors who change their lives.

At UCF where I lead the advancement team, we know that education powers the future. That’s especially true for our first-generation students, who make up about 1 in 5 of our students. These graduates have the potential to earn $1 million more in their lifetimes than their peers who don’t earn college degree.

But even more important is the impact their academic achievement has on the generations who follow, because once a parent earns a degree, their children are more likely to pursue higher education, too. Sometimes, the impact isn’t immediate; you have to take the long view.

That’s why when raising $20 million for a new downtown Orlando campus several years ago, our team didn’t just show prospective donors the economic impact studies or renderings of new buildings. We introduced them to educators, community leaders, and future students—the people whose lives could be transformed because of access to a college degree or workforce training program in their neighborhood.

One of our community partners on the downtown campus used to say, “you cannot be what you cannot see.” Just like these future students, our donors needed to see the possibility to believe in it.

Our team carried this message of impact through to the campus’ groundbreaking, where we celebrated with hundreds of community members, school leaders and public officials. But the star of that day was a high school junior, Porcha Jones, who lived in the historically underserved community nearby and dreamed of becoming a doctor. When she finished speaking about how excited she was to have the campus so close, she was surprised with a tuition check to attend as part of the first class.

Porcha’s story showed just how much this campus mattered for her family and the thousands of future students who would benefit because of others’ generosity and shared vision.

3. Believe in your passion—and others’ potential to see it shine through.

If you don’t believe in the work that you’re doing, how can you expect others to give to it?

I recently had a conversation with the leader of a national nonprofit who remarked, “your passion comes through, and I can tell you work for a purpose.” I thought to myself, ‘that is one of the highest compliments you could have given me.’ You see, our roles are about demonstrating passion for the institutions we serve.

One of my early development roles was with Gallaudet University, the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard of hearing students, located in Washington, D.C. As someone who initially wanted to go into deaf education, this was a dream job.

I remember my first major gift from parents whom I hoped would give $5,000 instead of $1,000—modest by today’s standards, but critical philanthropy that was needed to support the mission. So, I built the case for them through introductions and examples of how the institution was positively impacting the lives of the enrolled students. Like any concerned parents, they wanted to know that their son was not only surviving but thriving. We continued the conversation over several months, both on campus and in their home. What clenched the gift was something that happened quite unexpectedly over a school break.

One morning, the mother awoke to the sounds of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” coming from the family piano. When she walked downstairs, it was her deaf son Billy playing this epic tune. She called to say they would be happy to increase their giving to $5,000, and they would consider ongoing gifts at this level. In the months that followed, they gave both their dollars and their time as leadership volunteers, soliciting other parents to support the great work that was going on at Gallaudet by sharing their own son’s experiences.

Yes, you have to believe in the cause you’re raising money for, but you also have to learn what resonates with the donors whose values align with your organization.

Successful fundraisers know that this is a relationship business. My experience at Gallaudet taught me that passion is also about discipline. To match the right donor with the right opportunity you must ask the right questions, listen to the donor, and be willing to suspend any preconceived notions you may have.

I’m always pleasantly surprised when I leave a donor conversation with a new insight into their interests and giving potential. The truth is, you don’t know what you don’t ask. Every donor is different, and you need to show up for that person and that conversation.

The most talented development officers are the ones who craft a shared vision and build long-lasting partnerships with their donors.

Whether you are asking for your first gift or you’ve raised millions of dollars, the positive change that flows from our work is what we should use when measuring our true worth.

If you like asking for the order, you go into sales. If you want to change the world, you become a fundraiser.

That’s the power of what we do—building lasting and trusting relationships with donors who share a passion for the organizations we serve and the dollars to make a difference.

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