How to Love a Fundraiser


Strengthen Fundraising-Communications Ties for Better Results

I didn’t set out to fall in love with a fundraiser. It just … happened.

In fact, as a communications director I was convinced that all of them were crazy. They’d demand that my entire staff drop everything to create a presentation for a single donor, our editorial calendar and program priorities be damned. Or I’d get pressured to pitch events with zero news value to our hard-earned media contacts. Giant check presentation, anyone?

Not crazy enough? How about having to interview and write a story about a donor who extolled the virtues of eugenics? Or photographing and getting cat-called by the drunken host of a gala … on a live mic while his arm was around a priest?

Yep, these were the kind of “experiences” that fundraisers brought to my door. So I did everything I could to ignore them. After all, most fundraisers today stay in their jobs about 16 months. I could outlast them.

When it’s “The One,” you just know

I realize now this was very wrong thinking. But I never would have known that until I met “The One.” It was love at first sight.

The One treated me differently. In her eyes, I wasn’t just a vending machine with buttons to push for writing, design, websites and video production. I was someone with which she could plan and build a lasting fundraising program. She respected me.

It was a natural fit, really. It’s amazing I didn’t see it before.

You see, I have an insatiable desire to tell stories. I want to do it 24/7 in writing, photos, video games, the sides of buses, you name it!

But I don’t always know if those stories are inspiring people to act in meaningful ways. This is what I need most as a communicator. It gives my work life purpose.

The One understood this about me and, better yet, she let me know she needed me. And she didn’t ask me to change up my routine, like so many others. All I had to do was be on the lookout for things that donors like. And she knew exactly what those things were because … (how do I put this?) she was a bit of a data freak.

But good fundraisers come with baggage

There’s an old Duke Ellington standard called, I’m Beginning to See the Light, and it perfectly sums up how The One lit a spark in me that grew into Beezable by Abeja Solutions.

But I’ve got to tell you, The One brought her own baggage to our relationship. You see, she’d been in her fair share of abusive relationships at nonprofits. A few issues all-too-common to fundraisers I’ve known:

  • A study by CompassPoint found that 1 in 4 nonprofit executives says they lack the skills and knowledge to fundraise, yet nearly 1 in 3 is dissatisfied with the performance of their fundraising directors. There’s a huge disconnect here.

  • At the team level, it’s easy for fundraisers to be jealous of their peers in marketing and communications. Why? While our budgets grow, fundraisers get reminded of “the ratio.”

  • There also can be goal inequality. A communications team might get by with mere vanity metrics like impressions and story counts, while the fundraiser has to produce more and more cold hard cash.

  • And we shouldn’t forget how easy it is for a fundraiser to feel isolated from the rest of the organization. A majority of them feels they have little to moderate influence over getting other staff members involved in fundraising and in setting organizational budgets.

The bottom line is that half of fundraising directors believe they’ll leave their jobs in two years, and 40 percent think they might leave development altogether! Talk about commitment issues.

I also can attest that, as someone who loves a fundraiser, burnout is a very real thing. How does this happen?

It starts with having a successful fundraising year, maybe even your best yet! But do you take a real amount of time to celebrate at the end of the fiscal year? Does the organization acknowledge all the hard work that went into that number? Does the fundraiser at least get an extra day off (or two!) without having to check their phone and email?

Nope. Maybe there’s a bit of polite clapping at a staff meeting, and within seconds you move on to the next agenda item: Increasing next year’s fundraising goal. In the fundraiser’s mind, their best is never enough.

3 little ways to say “you’re special”

How do you fix this? How do you learn to love a fundraiser, too?

  1. Just stop for a moment, and sincerely recognize their contribution. And don’t think of it purely in terms of the amount raised. Ask yourself: What value did all those hours of work (including all those appeal revisions) bring to your organization as a whole? Everything from making payroll to expanding services to the communities you serve. That’s huge!

  2. Then ask, '“When was the last time our fundraiser took a few truly unplugged days off?” How can you make that happen for her or him?

  3. Finally, pay your fundraiser a salary that’s compatible with the current market. Isn’t that what you’d want for yourself?

    And forget commissions. The Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Council of Nonprofits consider it unethical and there’s no real comparison between development folks and salespeople. Trust me, as a longtime communicator I’ve had work relationships with both.

They say true love happens when you least expect it. If you’re lucky, you’ll be mature enough to invest in that relationship, and keep it going for you (and your donors) for years to come.

Laura Ingalls is CEO of Abeja Solutions and co-creator of Beezable, a tool that automates direct mail fundraising. She’s produced for CNN, served as a humanitarian spokesperson in Iraq and led award-winning nonprofit and corporate communications teams. Read more from Laura.

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