Chief cook and bottle washer is a dated phrase that means a person with many jobs. I have been thinking about the phrase recently because I run into so many fundraisers in small organizations are frustrated by the variety of different jobs they have. Fundraising involves five very different skill sets.
Event planner. Dealing with groups, creating inspiration in a roomful of people.
Major gifts officer. Dealing with individuals, being a good listener, being trustworthy.
Grantwriter, & direct mail manager. Writing persuasively
Director. Planning, budgeting, evaluating
Database manager. Dealing with systems & processes, which might be broken and chaotic.
Common sense tells us that that it’s a challenge to do five very different tasks well, even if you are a multi-skilled person. And here’s an additional challenge. Dealing with individual major donors is – in most cases -- the area with the highest long term growth potential. And it’s the area that most people will avoid if they can, because of very reasonable hesitations. And there is no more effective avoidance technique than doing important things. So what should be the highest priority gets shuffled to the bottom of the to do list.
Here is a simple quiz:
Is major gift fundraising you most important responsibility? [Yes] [ No]
Do you spend less time than you should on major gifts fundraising? [Yes] [No]
If you answered yes to both questions, you are in the middle of a quandary that vexes most fundraisers. And if you have other duties in addition to the five tasks of fundraising, the vexations are multiplied.
Here are some things you can do to liberate more of your attention for relationships with your top donors and prospects:
Understand the challenges of upward management In a major gifts environment, “fundraising” often means “facilitating the fundraising work of other people.” In most cases, those people are your executive director and board members. The people you work for. It flips the traditional organization chart on its head, and the better you are at it, the more successful you will be.
Make nebulous responsibilities concrete If you “need more major donors,” that’s hard to pursue. It’s too amorphous. But your top gifts next year are likely to come from people who are either already donors, already volunteers, already patrons. Or who are associates of board members and donors. Figure out the individuals are who are capable of writing big checks, and think about how to increase their level of engagement with the organization.
Be comfortable with uncertainty As much as you can create systems, major donor cultivation will always operating with limited information. This is a challenge, especially for people accustomed to grantwring, and other checklist-and-calendar driven responsibilities.
Set reasonable intermediate goals You may not get big gifts in the first year of your major gifts initiative. But maybe you can persuade one board member to host a house party, and another to organize a tour. You can define what $1,000 + giving circles look like, and get all your top prospects on one list. I would call that good success.
Set up a buddy system Major gifts fundraising is a team sport. Do you have people you can strategize with, share wild ideas with, vent with? It makes a world of difference.
Carve out time when you think about nothing else Strengthening relationships requires quiet time. Time when you are calm and creative. So carve out the part of the day or the week when you are at your best and don’t let anything distract you from working your prospect list.
Start with a reasonable prospect list Many organization have too many prospects to pursue with the available staff time. So limit your list for the time being to the people most likely to make the largest gifts in the next 18 months. A list of 20-30 is a good number is you have lots of other things on your plate.
Remember: it’s about people. Major gifts fundraising puts you eyeball to eyeball with people who care about your organization. These are people who want to share the organization’s successes. If you view them as ATMs, they will go away quickly. If you view them as partners, they will probably stick around.
Ruthlessly minimize distractions. Does your organization host a golf tournament that doesn’t draw people closer to your mission, and raises less money than you invest in staff time? Be bold. Cancel it. Even if you’ve been doing it for years. Even if there are volunteers who enjoy working on it. Even if you are known in the community for your golf tournament. If you are going to succeed in major gifts fundraising in a multi-task universe, you have to be willing to stop doing some habitual things.
You can be successful in building relationships with your organization’s top donors and prospects. It takes some energy. But the rewards, for the organization and for you, will be huge. You can keep juggling. But remember that one of the things you are juggling is golden. Make sure it stays in the air.
Paul Jolly launched Jump Start Growth, Inc. in December, 2008, because he wanted to share the most sophisticated techniques of major gifts fund raising with organizations outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His clients include advocacy and religious organizations, social services, community arts and education non profits. He has lead workshops that have garnered top evaluations at the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, Maryland Nonprofits, various chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professional, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, and the Philadelphia Foundation.