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What Makes a Great Fundraiser Great? Five Key Attributes

What Makes a Great Fundraiser Great? Five Key AttributesHand me a pen and in 30 seconds I could scribble a lengthy list of attributes important to every fundraiser. Narrowing the list to five is next to impossible for someone like me who has decades of experience working with professionals of all kinds.

So forgive me if I stop short of saying the following five are categorically the most important, but certainly these exemplify today’s successful fundraiser. For a fuller description of all 29 attributes, please consult my new book, The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick: Sizing Up the Attributes Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Cultivate to Secure Major Gifts.

1. A gift for selling the dream

Management guru Peter Drucker stressed that the responsibility of a skilled fundraiser, whether staff or volunteer, is thinking through the organization’s mission, defining it clearly, and then communicating the vision and dream.

Elie Wiesel writes, “God made human beings because God loves stories. And our lives are the stories He tells.” In your role as fundraiser, you’re a storyteller, too. Donors want to know why they should give, and especially why should they give now, and why have you chosen them to make a gift?

You, the dream weaver, must answer these questions.

2. Outsized optimism

Larry Ellison, the co-founder and genius behind Oracle, told me it wasn’t always easy for his software company. Many if not most doubted the venture. But Ellison’s resolve never wavered. When I asked what made the difference, he said acting confident even when he wasn’t.

For some volunteers and staff, seeking charitable gifts grinds them down. Others it polishes. It all depends on your attitude.

Zerizus is a Hebrew word that means no matter the odds, no matter how difficult—you forge ahead with a sense of calm, confidence, and total optimism. As they say, like a Methodist with four aces.

3. A flair for leadership

I’m with Frederick L. Collins when he says, “I find there are two types of people in the world: Those who come into a room and say ‘Here I am,’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’” Almost always, the latter attitude characterizes a leader.

Dr. Denton Cooley performed America’s first successful heart transplant. He and his associates have since completed nearly 120,000 operations—more than any other group in the world.

A journalist once shadowed the cardiologist for a week. One morning, scrubbed and ready to operate, the ever-mindful leader paused to chat with the floor sweeper. Then Cooley proceeded to surgery.

Immediately, the journalist approached the custodian and asked what he and Cooley had talked about. “We talk that way every morning,” the janitor said. “I’m part of the team. You know, around here we all save lives.”

4. The courage to ignore convention

Highly productive fundraisers take a hammer to a glass wall of tired ideas while others spend their time polishing the panes.

Those who are most effective understand that a prime motivation for those who give is the desire to create change. Donors want to see things happen, to feel that from their gifts will come meaningful results.

For these donors, and the fundraisers who call on them, conventions and status quo are often hindrances. The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are often the ones that do.

5. Energy on call

She would make coffee nervous, is how I sum up Melanie Sabelhaus. Currently, she’s vice chair of the American Red Cross, responsible for nationwide fundraising strategies. Add to that board membership at Ohio University, Johns Hopkins University, and the College of Notre Dame in Maryland.

How does she do it? It’s partly in her genes, Melanie tells me. “But there are some days I need to push myself—I know how important it is to demonstrate energy. It’s contagious.”

And vital, too. I conducted a study of major donors to learn what they wanted most in the volunteer or staff calling on them. Guess what led the list? You guessed it. Energy.

What Makes a Great Fundraiser Great? Five Key AttributesThis post is adapted from The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick, by Jerold Panas. His other books include Asking, Making a Case Your Donors Will Love, The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards, and Mega Gifts.

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