• Dan Reed

How will fundraising change you?


Photo by Andrew Bertram on Unsplash

Fundraising will change you. But will it be for the better?

the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task.” – David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea

The result of a day’s work is not only in what we accomplish externally. The result of a day’s work is as much the traits and characteristics that we adopt into our being through the process.

So how can fundraising shape us?


Fundraisers are focused on the external fruit of their labor: retention rates, average gift amounts, proposals submitted, money raised. It isn’t often that we consider the impact of the work on our own character, our soul.


Self-Importance or Humility.

When I first joined Morris Animal Foundation in 2009, I had the good fortune of receiving some early wins; a few large, generous corporate partnerships. I was soon relied upon to come through for the organization in other ways. I was given the important prospects, more revenue responsibility, and multiple promotions.


It all went to my head. I grew an exaggerated sense of my own value and my character followed. I’ll never forget the moment when I realized my ego had gone too far. Our development assistant walked into my office and as we’re prioritizing projects, I noticed he didn’t bring a notebook. Without hesitation, I quipped “are you going to get something to write with or are you wasting my time?” Yikes. I had arrived in territory somewhere between Don Draper and Frances Underwood; not the man I want to be.


In the fundraising world, it’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond. If you make a splash, you’re praised quickly, promoted prematurely, and handed the keys to the development kingdom. Inflated ego ensues. And when our ego runs wild, we treat others poorly, think only of ourselves, and sacrifice the wrong things (and people) to retain our status. I wish I had been more aware of the impact the work had on my character at the time because I didn’t like who I’d become.

Instead of allowing success to produce a sense of self-importance, consider an alternate outcome: humility.


Fundraising is an occupation best filled by people with a heart for the backstage, the critical yet behind-the-scenes work of donor connection. Success in fundraising is an interesting phenomenon. In interviews, we ask about a fundraiser’s largest gift, lifetime raise, exceeding goals, etc. as if the fundraiser is in control of giving outcomes.


This is false thinking. Generosity is in the hands of the donor. You may be the vital catalyst and steward but the definitive act of giving is not yours. Elite fundraisers don’t earn their gifts.

The reality is that successful fundraisers are elite listeners, storytellers, and stewards. They do the daily work of donor connection. But in the end, we are fortunate and blessed to have stewarded donors with hearts for giving, listened to stories of pain and joy, and worked with an organization capable enough to turn a gift into impact.


Go backstage. Stop describing your work in titles and gift amounts. Internalize the reality of our work: we are both vital and not the point.


Is your success affecting your ego? Do you feel your sense of importance creeping upward? Are you treating people differently? What trait do you want to develop through your success?


Compassion or Cynicism.

Fundraisers are constantly interacting with, and at best, forming meaningful relationships with donors. These interactions have a broad range of possibilities, from instant chemistry to painstaking conversation. But one thing is true: all donors have a story.


You’ll hear stories of regret, family estrangement, righteous indignation, broken relationships, family wealth, financial blessings, joyful generosity, guilt-driven generosity, still-developing passions, childhood memories, burgeoning faith, unfulfilled lives…the list goes on.


It’s easy to romanticize the idea of stories, their meaning and richness. But the reality is that we react to stories and not always well. Some stories confront our own beliefs about politics, money, family, relationships, justice, nature, and faith.


Over time, the practice of story-listening can produce one of two traits. First, we can become condemnatory in our heart. Our first reaction to donors can be judgmental and disapproving. Perhaps it’s how a donor spends money or their line of work or their perceived lack of generosity or their political views. So often we allow our first reaction to be our last reaction and cynicism becomes our modus operandi.


Compassion is the other option. When confronted with challenging stories and opinions, we should intentionally reflect more empathetically on a donor’s circumstance. How do they see the world? What has shaped them? How would you feel in the same situation? What do they face that we can’t understand? Reflecting on a donor’s story is an elite practice that produces compassion and kindness over time.


Do you set time aside to reflect on your donors? Have you ever been quick to judge a donor? Do you feel yourself becoming more cynical or more compassionate because of your work?


Presence or Restlessness.

The daily work of fundraising can be so frenzied. There’s almost always more work to do than time to do it. Add the normal pressures that come with revenue goals along with the often-disruptive schedule and fundraisers can lead frantic lives.


Gone unchecked, our organizational environments can instill in us a sense of ongoing restlessness. We feel it in our bones on Friday afternoons when our actions haven’t been recorded in the database. We feel it in December when revenue reports seem to come out on a daily basis. We feel it the month before our signature event when everything hinges on a single night.


With that said, the same activity that causes a frenzied life can be the tool that sharpens our capacity for presence. And as we discuss in our Seed courses, presence is a hallmark trait of an elite fundraiser.


Handwritten thank you notes are a wonderful tool in this regard. Sitting quietly, immersed in a simple act of fundraising, fundraisers begin to develop an important skill: being present in the moment.


Of course, presence is not just a means to avoid burnout. It’s a requirement for establishing deep donor relationships. The irony is that the very skill necessary to be good at our work is the very skill that our work makes so difficult to attain. The small, seemingly inconsequential tasks can create in us, if we allow them, a real ability for abiding presence; a virtue indeed.


Do you submit yourself to small acts of fundraising? Does your organization’s culture feel frenzied? Are you giving yourself space and time for stillness? Do you feel present in your daily work? Or distressed?


Of course, there are more character traits than these that are shaped by our work. In 2019, how will you allow the work of fundraising to shape you? Will you be aware of the impact fundraising has on your character? Will service, compassion, and presence be your defining qualities?

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