Back of a car covered in bumper stickers

Ten Things Every Early Career Fundraiser Should Know

by Josh Jacobson

Early in my career as a development professional, I must have made hundreds of mistakes. Some were fairly minor, others somewhat more substantial, and some… well, let’s not go stirring up things better left in the past, shall we?

I certainly learned from my mistakes, but that is just the sort of revisionist thinking you tell yourself in retrospect.  In truth, I wish I hadn’t made most of those mistakes.  Looking back, I wish I could have had a heart-to-heart conversation with my older self, to have been counseled by a wiser, more centered version of me.  I may have been too pig-headed to take advice from anyone else back then, but I’d like to think I would have been able to get through to… well, myself.

If I did, the following is a list of things I would have told that wet-behind-the-ears go-getter I once was, in no particular order:

  • 10548684_sRead the Newspaper – Daily newspaper reading was not something that resonated with me in the early days.  And if I did pick up a newspaper (or log on to the newspaper’s website), I was probably looking up sports scores or the movie theater listings.  It took a while for me to realize that the newspaper was the single greatest prospecting tool available to me, providing a wealth of insight into my local donor base.

Beyond being a great platform for research, it also made me a more intuitive thinker, allowing me to make connections between seemingly unrelated items I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.  And if nothing else, it is vital for donor relations – if subjects come up in conversation and it is assumed you read the day’s front page news or an important Op-Ed, the embarrassment of not being in the know is something you’ll want to remedy.

  • Follow the Stock Market – I remember it like it was yesterday, calling a prospective family foundation donor to discuss making a gift the day after the market had taken a huge drop.  There are few things more mortifying than to have a longtime donor chastise you for being unaware of the current financial environment, hanging up the phone in your ear.

I’ve found that fundraising professionals are often former liberal arts majors, and as such may not have as firm of a grasp on the intricacies of financial management.  But that is hardly an excuse for not paying attention to the stock market and timing your solicitations accordingly.  Further, if you work with a number of foundations, I suggest modeling the holdings of your top five or six foundations based on their 990 filings.

  • Know Thy Sector – It stands to reason that not every fundraiser is an expert on the organization and its mission when the position is accepted, but most immediately become students of that nonprofit’s programs and finances.  It is difficult to raise money for something you don’t understand well.

So, too, should a fundraiser study the broader sector in which the nonprofit operates.  What differentiates your programming from another organization’s offerings?  How are you complementary to each other? Your donors are likely supportive of other nonprofits in your sector and will expect you to have a working understanding of how they all fit together.

  • Know Other Sectors, Too – When I worked in theatre development in New York City, I spoke with my funders about plays and playwrights roughly half of the time.  The other 50% I was expected to understand what was happening with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a whole host of other cultural and non-cultural topics. Had I been to MOMA in Queens? Did I have an opinion of whether the museum had an obligation to the neighborhood to maintain a Queens presence after so many businesses had opened due to its temporary relocation? Speaking of borough revitalization, what were my thoughts on creating an Industrial Business Zone in Long Island City? And so on…

Really successful fundraisers are typically those who are plugged in to what is happening everywhere, and donors gravitate to them as much for their sense of connectedness as their knowledge of the nonprofit they serve.  Someone told me once in passing that studying the recreational options of Jackson Hole, Wyoming would make me a better conversationalist with donors who had vacation homes there.  And it was true.

  • 12143436_sScrub Your Online Profile – Having conducted a number of development searches both as a staff member of nonprofits and as a consultant, I can tell you that young professionals are foolish when it comes to social media. If you are actively seeking a job, posting pictures of a keg stand on your publicly-accessible Twitter account is not wise.

It seems teenagers growing up today are smarter than the bubble of young people who graduated college in the 1990s and early 2000s and began using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media as adults.  Perhaps children today better understand the legacy of poor choices as captured forever on the Internet, the way things can haunt you for years.   I continue to encounter individuals who must have never googled themselves, or assume that no one is smart enough to enter their name into a search engine.

That DUI mugshot of you from college that shows up on the first page of Google?  You should probably try to do something about that (if you can).  Because it may not be that your future employer wants to penalize you for your prior mistakes, but more likely that they fear a donor finding that information and having it tarnish the brand of your nonprofit.  Your personal brand is just as important.  

  • Get Rid of Your Bumper Stickers – Speaking of personal brand, it’s probably time that you ditched the 10+ bumper stickers on the back of your car.  The word play of “visualize whirled peas” coupled with the emphatic advocacy of “drink craft beer, dammit” is probably not the statement you want to be making.  That said, this advice is less about the content of those messages and more about presenting yourself professionally.

It may be controversial, but the one rule I would make about content relates to political bumper stickers – avoid them, particularly if you are a major gift officer who meets donors off-site and uses that car to transport yourself.  One of the great things about fundraising for nonprofits is how it brings together both sides of the political aisle.  As a representative of your organization, your job is to be a conduit of philanthropy for people of all political beliefs.

  • Stop Your Road Rage – Do you drive fast, honking your horn at people who get in your way?  Do you gesticulate with various fingers, yell at people as if they can hear you, and turn to scowl at the person as you pass?

Imagine passing that person and realizing it is your single biggest donor. Your eyes meet. You know she saw you, and a look of disappointment crosses her eyes in that split second.  And look at that, you were speeding to a stoplight, and pulling up next to you is the person you have spent countless hours creating strategy to approach for a sizable, multi-year gift. How will you explain the situation to your organization’s board chair?

  • 7823729_sStick to One Glass of Wine – Depending on your nonprofit, this may not be a big deal.  However, some fundraisers may find themselves in situations where the imbibing of alcohol on the job is not only accepted, but encouraged.  At your organization’s gala, or grand opening, or donor cultivation event, or even just the company Christmas party, one should always drink in moderation.

I suggest sticking to one glass of wine, and more or less carrying that glass around all night long if you have to.  This is the one rule I’ve broken too many times, and find I regret having broken it the morning after.

  • Be a VolunteerSome very early advice I did receive was that I should get out of my sector and feed my soul through other interests.  It may be difficult for you to find volunteer opportunities in your own sector that don’t feel somehow like spying, but engaging in unrelated nonprofit sectors is encouraged. 

If you need a selfish reason to volunteer for another nonprofit, consider it a study of best practices – a chance to learn other techniques and meet new people.  But mainly you should volunteer because it feels good, and can renew your inner self as the pressure of deadlines increase your stress level.

  • Find a Mentor – If you’re lucky, your future mentor may be in the office down the hall.  I was fortunate to have someone like Amy Crane during my time at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, who thought enough to provide counsel and encouragement to a 20-something who was badly in need of both.  

But for many early-career professionals I’ve met during my time as Chair of the AFP-Charlotte Mentoring Committee, an in-office mentor is not to be found.  Organizations like AFP make formal mentoring opportunities available, and I believe everyone can benefit from it.  However seeking informal mentors is a skill worth developing.  I would tell the younger version of myself that it is okay to admit that I don’t know everything, and that there is much to learn from others who have been down this road before me.

Stuff that just missed the list: Don’t date a co-worker, don’t then break up with that co-worker and have it get weird, never ask if someone is expecting, fully understand your organization’s audited financials, buy Girl Scout cookies from the Executive Director’s daughter, use an office-appropriate ringtone on your cell phone, don’t crack jokes that are in questionable taste, use mouthwash, stop biting your nails, keep your very impressive rapping skills to yourself, lock up your valuables, start contributing to your 403B as soon as possible, and remember birthdays and anniversaries.

Are there items that I missed? Add them below in the comment section!

Image Credits: Featured Image (123RF – Visions Of America), Newspaper (123RF – Noppasin Kortungsap), Facebook ((123RF – Igor Kovalchuk), Wine Glass (123RF – chr1)

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