The Fundraising Executive

The Greatest Fundraiser of All

By Eddie Thompson | May 13, 2011 | Donor Communications

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is . . .

Lucky for me, the most important lesson I’ve learned in my thirty years of fundraising and charitable estate planning came near the very beginning. And through all these years, that lesson has never left me. I have come to believe no other concept has a greater impact on the careers of non-profit professionals—how far they will go and to what extent they will make a difference in the world.

THE GREAT EMBARRASSMENT — The organization for which I began working as the Director of Planned Giving purchased one of first copies of Crescendo Interactive, Inc.’s Total Planned Giving Solutions software. The salesman made a point of letting me know that as one of Crescendo’s early users, I would be way ahead of all the “competition.” Fired up about my new gift planning software and continuous-feed dot matrix printer, I was ready to set appointments, make presentations, and close the deal on some major gifts.

I believed in the mission of the organization I represented and really wanted to help them make a difference. To be quite honest, I was also motivated by my own interests. Naturally, as a rookie fundraiser I wanted to prove my worth—to others and to myself. So off I went to talk planned giving with one of our major donors.

On this second meeting with Mr. Y, I came armed with a customized estate-planning proposal. We both sat down on his couch, I placed the 90-page printout on the coffee table, and we began going through it. I was so excited about the plan Crescendo and I had formulated that I barely noticed as Mr. Y leaned back on the sofa, no longer following along with my presentation. I forged ahead, explaining how the assortment of charitable trusts would work. He had lost interest several pages back and was just sitting there looking at me. Finally, Mr. Y got my attention by simply tapping me on the shoulder.

“Eddie,” he said, “the only thing you are interested in is my money.”

People with significant giving capacity, who have been solicited for gifts hundreds of times, have so finely tuned their sensitivity that there is little you can do to hide your true motivations.

I had rehearsed answers to all kinds of questions about the presentation… but not that one. Mr. Y’s comment struck me like a hammer to the head because even in all my enthusiasm, I knew instantly that he was dead-on correct. I was ashamed and embarrassed.

People in general are able to detect the level of sincerity in those who are pitching a product or a proposal. People with significant giving capacity, who have been solicited for gifts hundreds of times, have so finely tuned their sensitivity that there is little you can do to hide your true motivations. Though many are too gracious to point it out, they can read the motivations of a fundraiser pretty well.

Rather than defend myself, I replied, “You know, Mr. Y, you’re exactly right. But, I promise you this: I will never come back with any kind of proposal or request until I can figure out how it will benefit you and your family.” That was probably the most important lesson I have ever learned in fundraising.

There’s nothing like a straightforward rebuke by one of the organization’s most generous donors to cause a fired up, young fundraiser to take a long hard look at himself. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” he/she might ask, “who is the greatest fundraiser of all?” The answer is a profound paradox. The best fundraisers of all are the ones who do not focus primarily on money, on the organizational needs, or even on the organizational story. They are primarily tuned into the needs, desires, and values of the donors. Being donor-focused is a minimum requirement for charitable estate planning. You have to work with the donors’ wishes. But that attitude is just as important in every other aspect of donor development—more significant than one might imagine.

It is easy to aim at being donor-focused but not easy to consistently pull it off—no matter how well intended. See if you can relate to the following description of a non-profit executive.

FRED, THE KIND-HEARTED — Fred started out as a volunteer reading to kids in an after-school program. Over time he also became a donor, advocate, networker, major donor, and board member. Eventually, he was asked to accept the position of CEO. Now in his new role, Fred has to focus on budgets, government regulations, hiring and firing, human resources’ issues, programming, technology, upcoming events, board members meddling in operations—and donors.

It is a very different set of concerns from when he began as a volunteer. Fred loves those inner city kids and feels a burden for their needs more than ever. He works 60 hours a week with the operations, while the board is demanding more and more reports. Fred is staying awake at night wondering how he is going to make payroll and how he is going to deal with the latest crisis in some kid’s life. He squeezes in time to meet with a multi-millionaire who gives $100 per month. Fred is trying to gear up to focus on that donor’s needs, but shifting those gears is not an easy thing to do.

Fred is an example of a non-profit executive consumed with the needs of his organization and the people it serves. On the other hand, I have come across my share of non-profit leaders who were pretty much focused on their own careers. Not so long ago almost all non-profit leaders arrived at their positions from business pursuits; being led into charitable work by their passions or their compassion. However, in the current non-profit environment (particularly large institutions), executive leadership is a primary career track with advanced degree programs, headhunters, and corporate-level compensation packages. Nothing necessarily wrong with any of those things, but the point is that the attraction to non-profit service can be more career path than personal passion for the cause.

In either case, whether consumed by the organizational needs or focused on a personal career path, day-to-day pressures make it difficult to be continually donor-focused—unless, you are absolutely committed to the idea.

The greatest fundraiser of all is one who has been able to step up to a place of leadership. He or she is able to the see whole picture—the organization, the people or the cause being served, the staff, the donors, and the community. Not only does this kind of leader have a much broader focus, he/she has the capacity to authentically care about all of it. “Authentically” is the key word because people will eventually figure out if all the caring is sincere or just a sales pitch for his/her true concerns. Mr. Y figured me out pretty quickly.

LEADERSHIP ON DISPLAY — One the greatest development professionals I have every known is Dr. G. He reluctantly assumed the presidency of a small private college at the most tumultuous point in its history. Staff, students, faculty, donors, and even board members were abandoning ship. But Dr. G was more than a fundraiser, administrator, or CEO. He was a phenomenal leader who viewed staff as being more than workers, students as more than customers, faculty as more than programs, donors as more than a financial resource, and the community as more than the place they happened to be.

Though advanced in age, Dr. G worked tirelessly for a year—meeting, talking, and listening to that entire college community. I supposed that it was his genuine concern for them all that made it seem as if he enjoyed every minute of it. By the end of that first year, everyone involved had become a raving fan of Dr. G; ready to do anything they could to make the college a success. It was both the greatest example of leadership and the greatest institutional turnaround I have ever seen.

THE GREATEST FUNDRAISER — So who is the greatest fundraiser? It is not the person consumed with his/her organization or consumed with his/her career. The greatest fundraiser is the leader with a vision to perceive the needs in a much bigger picture and the heart to authentically care about it all. It’s not the person who can close the deal on a gift the donor has no intention of giving. It is more likely to be the person others seek out about their giving decisions, about their kids, and even about their gifts to other organizations.

The greatest fundraiser is the leader with a vision to perceive the needs in a much bigger picture and the heart to authentically care about it all. 

You don’t create that kind of leadership profile overnight, and it doesn’t happen automatically. The pressing needs of a typical non-profit and/or a non-profit career will consistently fight against this kind of donor-focused approach. To get there requires a life-long pursuit of personal growth, along with a clear vision and consistent commitment to be that leader. Nonetheless, I’ve seen non-profit leaders in their 30’s who have it as well as retiring executives who never figured it out.

Like the old saying goes, “People (especially donors) don’t care how much you know, they just want to know if you really care.”

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

copyright 2011, Eddie Thompson