Fundraisers and magicians have nothing in common. Raising money ex nihilo, or “out of nothing” is a prevailing, yet preposterous, expectation of the fundraiser.
Just last week, I received a call from a nonprofit founder whose primary goal was to solicit our help in finding a fundraiser that could raise millions of dollars for an organization three months old. Convinced that the mission was capable of inspiring the generosity of the masses, the founder asked about where a fundraiser could be found capable of raising millions. I wish this was an anomaly.
No doubt, this fresh organization has a strong rationale for existence and I truly believe in its mission. But mission is only a wordy statement without the ability to bring it to institutional fruition. Mission alone does not raise money nor solve problems.
There are a dozen lessons to be learned from this brief story. But it reveals an all too common barrier to the growth of the fundraiser: colossal revenue expectations incentivize unsustainable fundraising practices and derail the fundraiser from maturing in their craft.
What is there to do?
First, let’s explore two primary reasons for this experience:
The Salesman Narrative. Our culture replaces the word “product” with “mission” and “salesperson” with “fundraiser”. The result is an unspoken assumption that fundraising is a transaction of money for mission. But just because currency is distributed doesn’t mean that buying motivations are congruent with giving motivations. This assumption is an absolute fallacy because it suggests that people give for the same reasons as they purchase things and therefore, our tactics should follow. Wrong.
Fundraising as a Means Narrative. Organizational leaders believe program is the “real work” and fundraising is the means. It exists only to fund a more important end. This belief leads to a Machiavellian abuse: it demands everything of the fundraising occupation. Its people and practices must bend to its needs. Fundraising serves no greater purpose than the cause it is employed to fund.
The end result is a deep sense of organizational burden placed on the fundraiser based on an untethered assumption about the daily work. The message is clear: the organization needs the money, you’re responsible for getting it, and it’s the only reason you’re here.
If you find yourself feeling an undue burden, unshared by others, please know that you’re not alone. This experience happens to the best of leaders who passionately adopt the mission and give their work to the service of others. But change is necessary.
Fundraisers must become mindset shifters within our organizations and transform the narratives described above.
First, share with your leadership and team your heart and belief in the intrinsic value of fundraising. When you do so, avoid justifying the work by way of the cause to which you’re employed. Communicate your belief in the inherent value of active generosity and your desire to activate it regardless of the receiving organization. Over time, as you reiterate and demonstrate why you fundraise, the more likely the culture shift will take place.
Second, be a spokesperson against “sales” language. Celebrate acts of true generosity and elevate its importance above sheer revenue achievements. You carry the banner for the value of unconditional giving.
Third, become skilled at articulate planning. You will need to become the voice of data driven, rational strategy that draws dark lines between goals and tactics. Critical thinking is a must skill-set for any fundraiser seeking to form a culture that respects the limitations and opportunities of fundraising.
Last, be honest. Be excited about stretch goals (you should like a challenge!) and verbally caution against goals that only God can achieve. Be clear about the revenue line that you accept and communicate that line graciously and clearly.
By not shifting expectations, the fundraiser, the executive director, and the organization as a whole will be discouraged at best and toxic at worst. The good news is that this can be avoided. Most executive directors want to learn, listen and understand. Assume that misunderstandings will be overcome and engage the work in good faith.
Above all, be aware of how revenue goals are incentivizing your daily practices. Your objective is to become an elite fundraiser and revenue goals can be powerful catalysts for growth or intense discouragement.