, I said that I would spend some time exploring questions that to my mind are important to fundraisers from both the charity and the education sectors. I introduced a series of loaded questions from a colleague of mine about the challenges of fundraising in the midst of the difficulties most of us face with the economy.
This week I want to offer some ways to overcome these challenges and to turn some difficulty situations back into fundraising prospects.
So in answer to the question, “Is fundraising more difficult now than ever before?” I suppose the answer is this:
It is if you are looking in the wrong place.
What, then, is the right place to look for donations?
As a major gift fundraiser, I have always had the orientation of 1) looking for individuals with the capacity to give and 2) not making assumptions. Within the usual ethical limits common to all fundraisers, I look for donations wherever there is capacity to give.
- I do not assume that individuals do or do not want to give.
- I do not assume that they have any affiliation to my organization. Even if I do know of an affiliation, I do not assume that the affiliation continues in the same form today. People change, and their affiliations with them.
- I do assume that my first job is to engage donors and potential donors in a conversation about their interests, and to listen to what they have to say. If there is no clear affiliation, I work to create an acquaintance, then a relationship that results in a feeling of close affiliation.
Flashback: I remember very clearly a situation in which an individual was assumed not only to have virtually no affiliation to my organization; but even more important, to have virtually no interest in supporting my organization. Looking back, were I of less substantial fundraising stuff (where perserverence is definitely a virtue) I may well have been dissuaded from seeking a relationship with this person when she said, “My friends and I are just big targets for charity!” Yet, today this person is one of the organization’s strongest supporters, giving her own major gift as well as encouraging others to give.
Looking back, I think that my demonstrated desire to really listen to this individual and her needs enabled me to think creatively. I continued to invite this individual to events. At those events, I continued to introduce this individual to people whom I thought might interest her, both personally and professionally. I continued to ensure that she received all of the most important updates about the organization. Really listening for this individual’s responses, both verbal and non-verbal, allowed me to do more of what the individual liked, and less (if any) of what she didn’t. Over time, I found that a well-timed, well-placed question could result in as much information as a longer conversation.
I am grateful for this donor, who taught me the valuable lesson that the refusal to make assumptions, combined with the subtle talent of listening, is the most important tool a fundraiser might ever possess.
So to answer my friend’s question:
Fundraising is always hard. A seasoned fundraiser expects to hear many “no”’s before one obtains a single “yes”. For this reason alone, seasoned fundraisers know (like they know their own birthday, like they know their own name) that it is good listening, not good talking, and certainly not the perfect solicitation speech (though that always helps), that will actually lead to the major gift.
Looking for individuals with a strong capacity to give, combined with a refusal to make assumptions is where good listening, and by extension, creative thinking, begins.
Susan Emfinger is currently Assistant Vice President, Alumni Relations and Development at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She can be reached at susanlar2 @ AOL dot com.