The Fundraising Executive

NOBLE OCCUPATION: A Little Bit of Don Quixote in All the Best Fundraisers

By Eddie Thompson | May 11, 2015 | Professional Development

don_quixoteThe Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was published in 1606. The Spanish classic follows the adventures of a nobleman who (under the assumed name, Don Quixote) set out to revive chivalry, bring justice to the oppressed, and right the many wrongs of his day. People typically made fun of Saavedra’s fictional hero because he didn’t see the world as they saw it. Don Quixote perceived himself as a man on a mission, a knightly quest to become the champion and defender of all who were in need.

The most effective nonprofit leaders I’ve known are those who have been able to maintain a kind of romanticized ideal about their occupation.

The most effective nonprofit leaders I’ve known are those who have been able to maintain a kind of romanticized ideal about their occupation. That’s not always easy to do. Contending with unrelenting needs as well as the occasional setback can wear down your enthusiasm over time. Not everyone survives the operation, many at-risk kids are overcome by those risks, and the dreams of promising students don’t always come true. Nonetheless, the best fundraisers somehow have the ability to remain optimistic and idealistic. In other words, the best have a little bit of Don Quixote in them.

Recently, one of our associates told me about a similar individual—a chaplain at a juvenile correctional institution who was one of those irrepressibly optimistic leaders. In contrast, many of the institutional staff had grown cynical after a few years of working with kids with long criminal records and habits that were hard to break. Like Don Quixote’s critics, the correctional officers frequently made fun of the chaplain’s teary-eyed compassion and (what seemed to them) his irrational optimism.

I’ve known a lot great fundraisers over the years. Two from Iowa come to mind.

Charlie Becker founded Camp Courageous, an amazing summer camp near Monticello, Iowa, that serves special-needs children and adults. These individuals and their families face significant challenges every single day. Charlie, now well into his sixties, is as passionate as ever—maybe even more so. Go on a tour with Charlie, and he still tears up telling you about Camp Courageous. It’s hard to resist his passion for the people he serves.

Don Ireland-Schunicht has been at the same children’s hospital in West Des Moines for 37 years. When he starts talking about what they do for patients, you get that same feeling. He’s on a life mission, championing the cause of kids facing serious medical issues. Don tears up too sometimes, but being a great fundraiser is not about tears. These two guys are much more than fundraisers. They’re fully engaged with their own noble causes.

The irony is that these two guys seem to be more focused on the mission than on the money, the result being that donors line up to give generously.

Nonprofit executives (fundraisers in particular) are constantly making the case for their organization’s mission. If you do something enough, it’s hard to keep from becoming quite good at it. However, as a career fundraiser, the first and most important case is the one you make to yourself. Have you convinced yourself of the worthiness of your cause and of your career choice? Do you believe it’s important enough to put yourself out there in the role of a solicitor, constantly asking people for money? If you don’t make that case and win that argument with yourself (and win it convincingly), there will be a ceiling to how successful you can be in this line of work. That’s as true for veterans as it is for rookies.

If you don’t make that case and win that argument with yourself (and win it convincingly), there will be a ceiling to how successful you can be in this line of work.

It’s easy to feel good about yourself when your occupation is being validated by enthusiastic donors throwing money at you. However, somewhere buried in the recesses of your mind, there may be an unresolved issue. Deep down there lurks an image of yourself as a beggar on the street corner with cup in hand. It’s in hard times when that inner image begins to reveal itself—like when your ten best donors are unmoved by your latest appeal and show signs of losing their excitement for your organization. It’s in face of those difficult situations that a weak case for the value of your occupation begins to surface. That’s when you have to fight the battle of self-perception. If that’s your situation, don’t ever give into becoming one of those task-oriented cynics.

If I believe in a cause and have properly cultivated the relationships, I have no hesitation about asking donors to give with extreme generosity. But that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning of my career, it was inconceivable to me that people would make the kind of donations that I now see regularly. With time and experience my confidence grew, and I got much better at asking for money. However, a seminal moment in my own professional development came with the loss of our infant grandson and my own son’s subsequent challenge to me. See SOLICITING MEMORIALS: Understanding the Need to Give in the Wake of Tragedy.

The ordeal and aftermath resulted in a giant leap forward in my self-perception as a fundraiser. I no longer saw myself as simply working in the area of philanthropy, I WAS A PHILANTHROPIST (literally, “lover of mankind”). It wasn’t because I made a donation that put me in an elite category in the donor database. It was the result of a new life orientation—like the balance had suddenly shifted. I began to identify with the mission of that children’s hospital more than I did the process of raising money for it. My personal mission is very much a part of who I am and how I see myself. Fundraising is simply my way of helping.

Our self-perception as career fundraisers has a lot to with our fundraising success. The next time someone asks you what you do, you can say as you always do, “I’m a fundraiser for XYZ nonprofit.” Or you can try this response: “I’m a philanthropist championing causes of people in great need.” I like the sound of that because it fits how I want to see myself as a fundraiser.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson