What Are the Attributes of a Successful Fundraiser?

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By Jim Eskin

It takes a combination of many special attributes to be a successful fundraiser. But if I was forced to single out one above all others, I would pick the capacity to believe and the capacity to persuade others to believe.

Fundraisers unconditionally believe in the following:

  • The nobility of the missions of the nonprofits they serve.
  • The cumulative power of their family of co-workers, board members, volunteers and donors to continually aim and reach higher.
  • The generous nature of the American people to voluntarily share time, talent and treasure, especially in response to urgent crises.
  • The efficacy of fundraising principles, strategies and best practices that, when consistently applied, will produce positive results over and over again.
  • And finally, they believe in themselves to do the right thing for the right reasons.

To understand the motivation behind the dogged determination of fundraisers to apply themselves to work hard and work smart, let’s take a closer look at each of these spheres of conviction.

Believing in Their Nonprofits

The philanthropic landscape is vast and competitive. In the U.S. today, there are over 1.5 million nonprofits addressing a wide range of effective ways to touch, improve and save more lives. This means donors are forced to choose not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the good. Fundraisers passionately and creatively must convey what makes their organizations stand out and be worthy of those precious gifts of time and money.

Believing in Their Colleagues

Fundraisers need to motivate and support all members of their organizations — regardless of titles and roles — to contribute to telling the story and impact of their respective missions. In essence, every moment and every action the nonprofit takes is a potential cultivation opportunity to forge a personal and emotional bond with prospective donors.

Nonprofits that expect directors of development to be solely responsible for raising money are doomed to failure. Instead, they should be viewed as designated drivers with the right skills and aptitude to move resource development efforts forward and harness contributions from everyone else devoted to the mission. The end result is a culture of philanthropy that celebrates gifts of all amounts.

Believing in Compassion

Final data for 2020 isn’t available yet, but the Fundraising Effectiveness Project indicates that giving during the first nine months of the year was up 7.6% over 2019. Donors come from all different socioeconomic backgrounds. Last year, more than half of American households made charitable gifts, averaging more than $2,500 each.

Looking ahead to 2021, the outlook for philanthropy to remain robust is encouraging, buttressed by a robust stock market.

Believing in the Fundraising Process

The truth is that too many people are terrified of asking for gifts. This is actually caused by fear of the unknown, and we, as fundraising practitioners, can demystify and help them overcome that fear. We like to teach that fundraising is organized around four distinct parts:

  • Discovery: What are donor/prospect’s values, priorities and interests?
  • Cultivation: What are we doing to forge a personal and emotional bond?
  • Solicitation: When, how much and for what are we asking?
  • Stewardship: What are we doing to thank donors for the last gift?

One truth that merits being repeated over and over again is that board members, volunteers and friends can contribute mightily to resource development results without ever having to ask for gifts themselves. They can play huge roles by breaking the ice and introducing contacts from their personal, professional and civic networks to the nonprofit. When it is time to solicit, staff or board members who are comfortable with asking can step in.

Believing in Themselves

The late Jerold Panas, who was read, listened to and followed by millions for his inspiring wisdom, called for professional and volunteer fundraisers to have “outsized optimism.”

Fundraisers realize that they’re in a unique position to initiate a wondrous philanthropic loop in which everyone — solicitor, donor and beneficiaries — comes out ahead. When you’ve been in the business long enough, you realize that typically it’s the donors who derive the most satisfaction. By calling upon the better angels of their nature, fundraisers actualize the potential to turn donors into better people who lead longer, healthier and happier lives. Fundraisers enjoy the enormous pleasure of spinning the beautiful philanthropic loop to a happy conclusion. They believe that more is possible because they see it happen every day.

I’m proud to be one of those believers. Moreover, I fervently believe and have seen successful asks by many people who had been previously scared of fundraising. Add some training to their already knowing head and honest heart for the causes they care about, and staff and board members can develop into believers who contribute much needed resources to fuel the good works of nonprofits.

Could we classify fundraising as a calling? By all means, I believe so. Then again, as a fundraising practitioner turned trainer, I’m in the business of believing.

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