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.

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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.

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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.)

Dream

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 #AFPFC 2017

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), of which I am a member and President of the Las Vegas chapter, hosted its annual International Conference on Fundraising this week in San Francisco.  It was a long and powerful three days, full of inspiration, great insight and comparing notes with some of the smartest, finest people in the industry today.  I’ll be honest – it didn’t light me up like previous years have.  It was a little flat and didn’t pack as much depth as I’ve seen before, but it is always, always time well spent and you do come back feeling like you’ve been on the mountain and had a chance to recharge your fundraising batteries.

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So, my top takeaways:

1) Fundraisers are the kindest, warmest, most lovely people on the planet.

Everywhere I went people were smiling, talking, engaging with each other – introducing themselves and shaking hands and hugging.  Walking around on the streets near the conference center, everyone was open to conversation and willing and interested in talking.  The energy was high and the love was flowing.

2) There is a movement afoot and we’re ready for change.

There was an undercurrent, both from the stage and in the seats, that we, the fundraisers, aren’t just blindly accepting status quo anymore.  Maybe the donor retention message is finally getting through or maybe we’re ready to claim our space, but more-and-more you hear “This isn’t working, we need to do better.”

3) That said, we’re still talking about the same stuff.

We are still talking about:  how to find more donors, how to keep more donors, how to get more donors to give more.  There were a couple of times that I wanted to stand up and scream, “WE KNOW HOW TO DO THIS!!!”  Sure, there were a LOT of first-timers this year – and that’s GREAT!  Whole troves of college students coming to learn about fundraising . . . but there were a lot of people, too, who are seasoned development professionals drinking from the same fire hose. Why are we still having the same conversations?

4) We need more mentors and leaders on a one-on-one level.

Nobody has time; everybody’s busy.  But we make time for the things that we believe in and are important to us – somehow we find the time.  If we want the profession to advance, if we want to lead change, we have to make the time to mentor and be mentored.

5) You can’t live on the mountaintop.

Theory is great, but the practical day-to-day doesn’t always live up to theory and best practice.  We all have limitations – Executive Directors who MUST read every letter, Boards who aren’t interested in fundraising, co-workers who just will NOT update the CRM.  Our jobs are, more often than not, to create phenomenal, donor-centered experiences in spite of the limitations.  And implement the best practices we can.

6) Speaking of Best Practices – Get Rid of ‘Em.

Some of the best nuggets of info & inspiration can be found in the Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers track.  Simone Joyeaux dropped this little bomb during one of them and if I take nothing from this conference but this, I’ll consider it time and money well spent:

  • Follow the valid research
  • Do away with best practice
  • Always ask why
  • Be a critical thinker

Then she grabbed me by the lapels and blasted, “I HATE THE PHRASE ANNUAL FUND.”  I blacked out after that, don’t remember a thing. #FanBoy

Point is – stop doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it or that’s the ‘best practice.’ If we stuck with best practice we’d still be fundraising off of 3×5 cards.

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7) Stop Fund Raising

Raising funds is transactional, singular and financial-based.  Develop relationships.  Develop boards.  Develop institutions.  Develop capacity.  All of which have a side benefit of bringing in the revenue needed to do those things, but stop fundraising.  We’re bigger than that.

8) Always Be Sure Your Tech is Functioning Order

My phone died halfway through day 1.  Not died as in had no power, but died as in:

This iPhone is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolic processes are now history! It’s off the twig! It’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX iPHONE!!

(With deep, deep apologies to Monty Python).  It was acting up, I thought it would hang on.  It didn’t.  I lost a lot of pictures, a whole bunch of texts and missed a whole session.

9) Data Remains An Opportunity

I was, truly, honored to be chosen to present a session and even more honored that people actually came! “Data Got You Down? Simplifying Donor-Centered Data Analysis for the Data Allergic.”  Phenomenally smart questions during and after the session, but even the other sessions I went to point out that we really have an opportunity to improve how we use data, what we do with it and being far more strategic about how we implement information in our fundraising.  You can tell the greatest story in the world, but if you’re telling it to the wrong people, you won’t get very far.

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10) Diversity and Inclusion 

There seemed to be a stronger focus on Diversity and Inclusion and the strengths of our differences was evident.  AFP Las Vegas is very proud to have received the Friends of Diversity designation, but I was even more encouraged by visibility at the conference and the acknowledgement that only in celebrating our differences – as people, as nonprofits, in our experiences – do we truly gain equity.

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To Sum Up:

At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway is the connections with people – with other professionals who are in the same trenches, fighting the same battle and doing phenomenal good.  We feed each other and uplift one another when we’re together.  And that is what I’m most grateful for.   Go do good, wonderful, powerful things!

P.S. My favorite fundraising message of the week?  This:

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