Advice to a Young Fundraiser on His 23rd Birthday

The older I get the more grateful I am for the mentors I had when I started fundraising.

More and more, I find myself remembering their advice and understanding why we did things the way they did, lo, these many decades ago.

Those of us that have been doing this for awhile (remember 3 x 5 cards and carbon paper? Good times, good times) have, I think, a responsibility to pass on what we’ve learned and encourage young fundraisers as they advance in their career.

So, when a friend posted that all he wanted for his 23rd birthday was for people to share what they’d tell themselves at the same age, I had a few thoughts:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
— Samuel Beckett

The successes you have will inform how you do you work in the future, but you’ll learn more from your failures.  Embrace them.  Success makes you complacent.  Success leads to “This is the way we’ve always done it” because you just keep repeating the steps that made you successful.   Your failures hurt, but growth ALWAYS comes from pain.


Read.  A lot.  Everything You Can.

There’s a lot of REALLY good information about fundraising in print.  Read it.  Learn from it.  Sure, I’m gonna offer my own list of favorite books as a starting point, but there’s a ton of great information out there.  Dig in.  Ground yourself in the solid principles of the profession – then break the molds that created them.

Learn The Alternatives

It’s not all about gala tables and silent auctions and grant writing.  It’s also not all about data sets and direct mail.  It’s about all of those and everything else.  It’s a big, beautiful, wonderful profession, full of great people doing amazing things in a million different ways.  Experiment.

Go Ahead and Do the Stupid Thing

If I could do anything over again, it would be to do the things I DIDN’T do because I was too scared, too conservative, too worried what people might think.  You won’t regret the things you did do – you’ll forgive yourself for those.  It’s the things you didn’t do that will keep you up at night in your 40s.

Love Wildly and With Abandon

Fundraising is about relationships.  To paraphrase RuPaul, if you haven’t learned how to love people how in the hell are you gonna learn how to love a donor?

” . . . love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.”
—Ronny Cammareri (Nicolas Cage), Moonstruck

Let your heart get broken, let friends disappoint you, be betrayed – but don’t let it make you hard and cold.  Let it open your capacity for love even further.

If You Love Something Else More and Can Do It Better, Go Do It

This is why I’m a RECOVERING actor.  Best advice I ever got.  I found something I could do better and loved more.  Is the thing you love ridiculous and doesn’t pay well?  Do it anyway.  You’ll be so much richer if your soul is happy.


You Will Have Multiple Careers

Don’t pigeonhole yourself now.  Learn as many skills and gain as much experience in other things as you can.  Your values won’t change – unless they need to – but your interests and your passions might.  Be prepared.  I failed college math . . . twice.  Now I’m kind of a reluctant data geek.  What a world . . . .

Be Amazed

The world is an amazing, wonderful, messed up place.  We fundraisers get to see a lot of sides of it – some good, some bad, some ugly, some beautiful.  Never become complacent in your amazement of the world around you and the people you encounter.  Be a part OF it, don’t just observe it.

Call Your Family, Drink Lots of Water, Use Sunscreen, Eat Well

All that stuff they tell you to do like eat healthy and get lots of exercise and, whether or not they drive you crazy, love on your family?  Yeah.  Do that.  It’s high price to pay later on if you don’t.

Don’t Wait

You think you have time right now.  You don’t.  That thing you want to do but you’re putting off until you have a better job, more money, more time . . . you never will.  Do that thing now.  You’ll have PLENTY of time to find the perfect job, the better car, the dream home.  (You won’t have plenty of time to save for retirement — start doing that now.  Srsly.)


The world has plenty of people who punch the clock and get the job done.  What we need are dreamers, the big idea makers, the challengers, the rabble rousers, the ruckus-makers.  And the dreamers who aren’t afraid to fail.

With all of that said, if I could say ANYTHING to my twenty-three-year-old self — and what I say to you on your birthday?

You got this.  You’re awesome.  Stop worrying so much.  Go do the thing.

Happy Birthday, friend.  Here’s to many, many more.


What I Learned At #TLCC2017

I have a confession to make.  I’m a conference junkie.

Fundraising and nonprofit conferences, specifically.  I’ve been fortunate to attend (and blog about) a couple recently:  the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference and the AFP International Conference.

I’m just home from the Tessitura Learning and Community Conference in San Diego. Five full days of talking about software.

Or so I thought.

Yes, it is full days of sessions on getting the most out of the software – which, by the way, is incredibly robust and offers some fantastic functionality – and it can get very techy/geeky/nerdy in a wonderful way.  But, it’s so much more than that.

It’s about connecting with other people who are doing the same work as you, feeling the same pain and celebrating the same successes.  It’s about what’s going on in Arts & Culture around the world.  It’s about sharing a work and a commitment with 2,000 other people who share the same passion as you.

So, here’s what I picked up:

Community is Critical

There’s something about being with other people who walk your same walk.  I love being at conferences and comparing notes with other fundraisers, but to be with other ARTS fundraisers?  That’s phenomenal.  We fed off of each other and stole ideas and gave ideas and validated each other and offered suggestions.  And that thing in my world that I think is so terrible was actually a good idea for someone else.  And vice versa.

Fundamentally fundraising is fundraising, but each niche – Healthcare, Higher Ed, Social Service, etc. – has its own foibles, its own idiosyncrasies that others can’t necessarily relate to.  It is energizing to be among other fundraisers from other areas – the Arts can learn a lot from Higher Ed and vice versa.

But there is a palpable energy that connections with similar-minded people in similar functioning roles with similar passions create.  It’s explosive, it’s exciting, it’s exhausting – and it’s critical.

Isn’t that, fundamentally, what we all crave?  To feel connected and not alone?  Isn’t that what our donors crave?  To be a part of something that fits with their personal interests and needs?

And sharing knowledge on how a software works leads, inevitably, to how you use it to further your message.

Deviate from the Agenda

One of the greatest offerings this conference has is the Open Sessions.  Pretty much anybody at any time can put up a topic of discussion and they provide space and time for anyone else interested in that topic to gather.  I went to two and they proved to be the most impactful conversations of the week.  A group of performing arts annual fund people sitting around talking about how to maximize their membership programs?  Yes, please!  Several performing arts fundraisers comparing notes on launching a major campaign?  Sign me up.  To have the freedom to go off script and really compare notes and share notes?  Priceless.

Know the Tech to Let the Tech Do Its Job

I spent a lot of time in sessions going deep into software functionality – picked up a lot of great tricks and techniques.

It really drove home, for me, though, that the technology is there to support the messaging.  You can have the greatest, highest functioning technology in the world and if your message is off its sound and fury signifying nothing. (With apologies to Bill S.)

We are way – WAY – past the point where front-line fundraisers and Chief Development Officers can afford to not be able to use technology.  I’ve heard too many “Oh, my VP isn’t allowed to even log in. S/he’d just mess it up.”  Nope.  That puts too much pressure on other staff to provide info and I’m willing to bet they spend most of their time running and re-running reports for higher ups.

Get to know the tech and get to know data, otherwise you’re at somebody else’s mercy and it’s your organization – and your donors – who lose out.

The Arts Might Just Save the World

Sometimes it’s hard as an arts fundraiser to maintain your purpose, especially when you have friends and colleagues who are raising money for causes that are literally saving lives.  We know we are not feeding the hungry or housing the homeless or healing the sick and some days it can feel a little less . . . important . . . than other NPOs.

And then you get together with 2,000 arts administrators and fundraisers and you realize that art is happening everywhere – large-scale, small-scale, in parks and public places and in gorgeous performance halls.  And children are learning to express themselves, and cultures are being preserved and honored and . . . the list goes on and on and on.  And suddenly you feel like you’re a part of a massive, world-wide phenomenon that brings joy to millions daily.

And I was reminded of this quote:


Unfortunately, has debunked the attribution of this quote to Sir Winston. Regardless of who said it, it’s still true.

What are we fighting for?  What are we saving lives for if not to celebrate the beauty of humanity and our world?  What are we living for if not to find ways to express our joys and fears and triumphs and tribulations?  What are we saving our cultures for if not to remember them and honor them?


The sessions at TLCC are very tactical, very hands-on.  And for direct software users, that’s phenomenal.

What they do so, so, so very well is the daily keynote.  You come out of some very technical sessions into beautiful, inspiring discussions on the arts and the profound impact they can have.  Two of my favorites, courtesy of Tessitura’s YouTube channel:

Phenomenal discussion from Nancy Yao Massbach, President of the Museum of Chinese in America:

And this from Network President Andrew Recinos on “Thriving in Displacement”:

More on Community

It was impossible to experience the week of the conference without acknowledging the backdrop of Charlottesville.  Big screen TVs all over the hotel and conference space had any number of news channels on, and it was coverage of those events on UVA’s campus nearly nonstop.

It was never spoken of.  At least not in conversations I was in.  But it was the ever-present, unwelcome visitor.

It was impossible to miss the juxtaposition of seeing the worst that humanity can be at a conference celebrating the best of the human spirit.

The arts might – just might – save the world.  And we will keep creating them and our donors will keep supporting them just as long as we continue to breathe life and place in center stage the absolute best of us all.