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Introducing: The Authentic Fundraiser

(This article was originally published in multiple publications in 2016)

In a world where we talk A LOT about building relationships with and loving our donors, very few charities are actually putting donors above their own organizational needs. I believe that is because we are paying lip service to buzz words but still using traditional sales techniques in the trenches. Our sector needs more authentic fundraisers, more authentic fundraising and more authentic people.

Our sector needs more authentic fundraisers, more authentic fundraising and more authentic people.

Before we start throwing around yet another new buzzword, it is prudent to stop and ask ourselves: What does authenticity mean? What does it mean to be a truly authentic fundraiser? And what does authentic fundraising look like?

The problem with the traditional approach

When I first started raising money for charity sixteen years ago, there were a few books that formed the basis of my education. They were: “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie.. “The seven habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey and “The art of persuasion” by Robert Ciaidini. – far be it for me to go up against Covey, Carnegie and Ciaidini! These are still best selling business books. You should read them; I just encourage you to read them critically. Not all of their techniques apply to our sector.

Time for a new approach to “sales”

After considerable thought I now believe that how we are applying these principles in the espoused books is dead wrong. Let’s take a closer look at the language being used:

Influence: the power to change or affect someone or something : the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen

Persuasion: the act of causing people to do or believe something: the act or activity of persuading people[2]

Reciprocity: a mutual exchange of privileges; specifically: a recognition by one of two countries or institutions of the validity of licenses or privileges granted by the other[3]

I would like to banish the words persuasion, reciprocity and influence from the fundraising lexicon. Donors are more cynical, educated and are expecting us to do better. They want to be more engaged, are thinking more critically and are giving differently than they were twenty years ago. The fact of the matter is our sector is falling behind and our profession is grossly misunderstood.

According to some work that I participated in as part of the advisory panel for Rogare, many fundraisers are paying lip service to the idea of building relationships and being donor centred. It is easy to stand up and cheer for our donors when we are at meet ups – but how do we operationalize that in the trenches? Many organizations in our sector simply are not doing it.

Sales is not fundraising

Another problem is that so many people who have a “sales” background transition into “fundraising” jobs. I think that is because they think if they can “sell a pen” they can “sell” a charity. This is doing a disservice to what I consider to be a vocation and perpetuates misconceptions about what it is that fundraisers actually do.

When hired there is an assumption that as fundraisers we will come into our new roles with truckloads of cash. All hopes are pinned on the new guy, without taking into account the health of existing programs, the strength of the governance structure, the culture and the appetite for and perception of fundraising in general.

Furthermore, I think that many charity staff tolerate the development department rather than embrace it. We are perceived as a necessary evil and until we stop using archaic sales techniques and start approaching our profession from a sense of service and authenticity rather than a sense of entitlement we will not be able to create the change necessary to stay relevant for next generations.

So what does an Authentic Fundraiser look like?

According to Miriam Webster, to be authentic is to be: real, genuine: not copied or false. So I see an an authentic fundraiser as:

Service oriented – 0ur job is not to sell and raise buckets of cash. Our job is to facilitate philanthropy. We are there to serve program staff and make their jobs easier. We are there to serve our board and help them have extraordinary experiences as board members and we are there to serve our donors and make sure that their passions and dreams come to life through their philanthropy – not our solicitation. The authentic fundraiser wakes up everyday and asks: How can I make the world better for the people around me?

Deeply curious – Of course we have all heard the saying “You have two ears and one mouth, listen twice as much as you talk.” With donor relationships that is never truer. Instead of trying to “persuade” people, we should be sincerely asking them what they care about, what they want to achieve and whether our organization doing a good job at keeping them happy? The authentic fundraiser is sincerely and deeply curious about people.

Rarely thinks about money – I know it is a little bit naïve to say that fundraisers NEVER think about money. We do have targets to meet so that programs can be delivered. BUT, money is just a means to an end. Money is not the goal. Creating change is the goal.

90% of donor relationships are about stewardship, impact reporting and relationship building. Only 10% of that relationship has to do with conversations about money. In fact, if you do your 90% well, experience has demonstrated to me that the donor will give without a solicitation and perhaps even start encouraging their friends to get involved.

Lives a wholehearted life – The authentic fundraiser has nothing to prove. We know that we are good enough. We are comfortable with ourselves and are deeply passionate about our cause. Living our own personal truth is essential to our success.

When we start to have more real, genuine and honest approaches to this profession we will have stronger relationships with our staff, our peers, our boss’s, our donors and even our own families. This is a cry to stop paying lip service to the ideas of being donor centred, building relationships and advancing a culture of philanthropy while we continue to study traditional sales techniques.

In future articles I will share real world examples of authentic fundraising. Together we will explore how to advance your donor relationships along what I think of as an engagement continuum – rather than “managing moves”. And I will share with you real examples of how to apply this approach to every revenue channel of your development program.

What do you think? Will you consider joining me in this movement for more authenticity in our profession?

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