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Want to be a fundraiser? Be prepared to wear many hats

April 8, 2021 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose
Fundraising is one of those jobs that you don’t actually understand if you haven’t done it. Most folks, when they think of fundraising, assume that the job is asking wealthy people for money.

Of course, if you’ve done it before or are close with someone who has, you know that fundraising is a whole lot more than that.

We often say we wear a lot of hats in this role, and for a long time I attributed that phrase to the various aspects of fundraising. We run digital campaigns, send mailed campaigns, do prospect research, do stewardship and cultivation activities, plan and execute special events, write grants and file reports, and some of the very luckiest of us also oversee marketing and communications activities.

Regardless of whether you’re a one person shop or a team, the sum of our efforts adds up to a whole lot more than just asking wealthy people for money.

Recently, though, I’ve started to dig a little deeper into our roles as fundraisers, thanks to a conversation with Monique Curry-Mims for our Beyond Philanthropy podcast.

We’re not just the worker bees, ensuring that appeals are mailed on time and grant reports are filed. We are the connective tissue between staff, board, donors, and clients. We’re the middlemen that ensure everyone has what they need, everyone’s on the same page, and everyone’s holding up their ends of the bargain. That’s really what we mean when we say we wear a lot of hats.

We work closely with our executive directors to ensure that our overall fundraising strategy fits the needs of the organization, and represents our core values and beliefs. If there’s a disconnect between our values and our work, it’s on us to find a way to get them connected again or at least make them seem connected for the sake of our organizational communications.

Some EDs have more experience with fundraising than others, but either way we have to establish a trusting relationship that allows us to plan and execute what we know is best for the organization from a fundraising standpoint.

Our boards are integral to our work. They introduce us to potential donors, provide direct monetary support, send their own campaign requests and make their own face-to-face asks, and generally represent the organization out in the community. Yet they can’t do any of that without the tools provided by the fundraiser — the elevator pitch, the proposals, the social media templates, the client stories we develop. And, of course, the inspiration to act on behalf of the organization — sometimes board members are self-motivated, but often they are busy with their other roles and require a lot of reminders.

From our Partners

Speaking of client stories, those don’t appear out of nowhere. But before we can begin to share those stories, we have to first understand what it is our organization does. We shadow, we read, and we learn so that we can articulate our organization’s mission, programs, and activities. We get to know program staff and what they do every day.

Some of us are intentional about building those relationships with staff, though it seems to me there aren’t enough of us doing that. Too often, I’ve started a new role and been told that I’m the first fundraiser to ever take an interest in the program side of things. How on earth can you share your passion for the work with supporters if you don’t even know what that work is? Fundraisers who don’t spend time with programs, I’d love to know how you make that work.

Building that trust with staff is also essential to sharing client stories. If I hid in my office and spent all my time avoiding program staff, I wouldn’t blame them in the slightest for not trusting me with their clients or the stories they may be willing to share. It takes work to promote trust in my ability to ethically share their stories, and I don’t take that lightly.

Once you’ve built trust with staff, you can get to know your clients and begin to share their stories. That comes with its own challenges, as being charged with sharing someone’s story is a big ask.

You have to ensure that you’re honoring their experiences, allowing them the space to tell the story in their own way, keeping the focus not on the savior-style woe-is-me tale of how hard their life was before your organization, but on your client as a whole human being who has accomplished great things and just needed some support along the way, while also promoting your organization’s mission. It’s not easy to get right, and your staff need to know that you take it seriously.

The circle never really ends. You’re back with your ED ensuring that they’re comfortable with the story and how it is presented (and perhaps stating your case for telling the story the way you did). You’re educating your board and donors about ethical storytelling through the sharing of this story. You’re demonstrating to your staff that you understand their role and have communicated it clearly. You’re back with clients to share the results of their storytelling and collect more stories and photos.

And, of course, in this circle you don’t have much power. You’re often managing up and rarely in the decision making seat. You can’t control what information your donors ask for or what the ED thinks is good appeal language. You can provide information, you can educate on best practices or what has worked for you, but at the end of the day you are juggling the needs of a wide array of personalities and experiences.

To say we wear a lot of hats is almost putting it too lightly. We’re the middlemen, the sometimes unseen connective tissue that keep the wheels moving to connect supporters to our mission and keep the doors open. It’s a big job that requires many skills — not always the skills you think you should be pursuing, like grant writing and making the ask.

Our roles also require skills like communication, project management, and leadership. Those skills are harder to develop and it can be harder to find training in those areas, but it makes all the difference.

The more you can embrace the many hats you wear, and the more you can hone your skills at keeping everyone connected and moving in the same direction, the more successful you’ll be.

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