This Is Your Brain … on Fundraising

By Terri Shoemaker

One thing that I think surprises new fundraisers is how mentally challenging the job can be. From a pure science perspective, this makes perfect sense.

On the one hand, you must engage your left brain in tasks such as data analysis, budget projections and donation letter strategy. Story sourcing and writing live on this side of your brain as well. Remember, the left brain is associated with things like logic, analysis and language. 

On the other hand, you use your right brain when you think about visual layout, creative hooks that will spur donors to action and how different parts of a campaign will combine to create a larger effect. That is because the right brain controls creativity, holistic thinking, visualization and feelings. 

You’re ‘brained’ and you can do this

A lot of us buy into the myth that we’re either right brained or left brained. But my secret celebrity boyfriend, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, says that’s an oversimplification of the science:

“I’m disappointed with some aspects of civilization,” Tyson told Fast Company. “One is our unending urge to bypass subtlety of character, thought expression and just categorize people.

“I’m brained. Not right brained or left brained. I have a brain," he said.

And so do you. That doesn’t mean that you have to love – or even be good at – every aspect of the job. But to be successful, you do have to make sure someone (not necessarily you) pays attention to both the analytical, left-brain stuff (data cleanup, anyone?) and the creative, right-brain work. 

(Sorry Dr. Tyson, it just makes it easier to talk about dividing this stuff up to break it down like this.)

When two (or more) brains are better

The most successful nonprofits can afford a team where individuals balance each other out. It’s great if this is an in-house team. 

My first hires would be a communicator who is in love with telling stories and a database admin to make sure those stories are told to the right people at the right time. 

But in most small nonprofits, it’s up to you to convince the boss that you need some outside muscle, either in the form of contractors or an agency. Here’s how to go about that and not get burned:

  • Rock and a hard place argument: Tell your boss that every day you make bad choices that could compromise revenue. When I first made the case for a major gifts officer to be added to a team, I went to my boss and said, “I can either call major donors and thank them for their gifts, or I can get the next mailing out. I don’t have time to do both, so which should I do?” When management sees you thinking about not only current, but future revenue, the conversation changes.

  • Temporary sanity saver: If you know that adding staff is no-go for now, ask for temporary help. Play to your skills. Are you doing data entry when you should be writing? Are you writing when you should be planning your next mailing? Put together a proposal to bring someone in on a limited basis and keep them busy. This makes the case longer term for additional staff, and is a sanity saver in the short term.

  • Add it all up: For those of you who work at bigger orgs, it may be time to outsource significantly. Think of all of the money (and time!) you spend on contractors and staff to put together just one mailing, or one email. With agencies, you’re paying a fraction of the price for expertise you would never be able to afford. This can be big and scary (not to mention budget bending), so start with part of your fundraising program that needs some TLC. Haven’t concentrated on recruiting monthly donors? Have an agency start there. Do a quarterly newsletter that’s a pain to keep on time and pull together? See if someone else will do that work.

Here’s something you really need to hear. I KNOW YOU ADD VALUE TO ALL OF THESE PROJECTS NOW.

But let’s face it, dearest. You are going to burn out, and it’s only a matter of time. If you outsource you not only buy expertise, you buy stability for your organization if you win the lottery and quit. Or just quit. Or if you stay and build the organization’s most successful fundraising operation ever.

Left brain, right brain, whole brain – research says whole brain is the way to go. One thing I know for sure is that no matter what part, sometimes you need more than one brain on the case.   

Terri Shoemaker is Chief Strategy Officer of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising support firm that helps nonprofits create reliable revenue. A professional fundraiser, Terri has raised millions of dollars for nonprofit and higher education institutions. Read more from Terri.