This sign hung in my various offices for over a decade.
I guess you could consider this a motivational poster of sorts, but I think it was actually a very early meme. These two sentences have become my fundraising mantra. Something I repeat to keep myself focused and to cope when things get rough.
Because I’m both a nerd and a yogi, I looked up “mantra” in the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “mantra” comes from Sanskrit and the root words mean basically: "thought support" or device to support thought and action. This is exactly what this simple sign has been for me throughout my career. Even the repetitive rhythm of it helps in its function as thought support.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Raising money is the main thing.
Let me tell you the story of this mantra:
To give credit where it is due, the original sign was created for me by Mark Nelson, who was the Treasurer for the Libertarian National Committee (the Libertarian Party) in 2004-2005. So, he was a board officer for the organization I was working for at the time.
I was the only full-time fundraiser for the national organization and I was only 23 years old.
Their theory was to hire smart young people who would be “cheaper” salary-wise for the DC area. The exchange was that I would get a ton of valuable training and experience and they would get energetic labor.
However, I was overwhelmed and I think Mark sensed it. I was managing a conversion from an antiquated custom donor database to Raiser’s Edge. I was producing a monthly newsletter for our recurring donors. I was helping to plan the national convention and scouting locations for the next convention. I was recruiting and training paid callers to renew memberships via phone and managing our intern program. With the help of a consultant, I was managing monthly direct mail campaigns and planning fundraising events. Then, because the LP was a political organization, staff frequently got pulled into controversies and political discussions.
I’m tired and anxious just typing about everything I was called to do.
As treasurer of course, Mark had a keen interest in keeping me motivated. On a trip to our DC office, he walked in and taped the sign to the wall above my computer monitor and explained what it meant.
The “main thing” meme helped me to prioritize my work and keep my head on straight. It also reminded me that the officers of the organization supported me in my main role.
My job as a fundraiser is revenue generation. Everything else must fade in comparison.
When I left the LP, I took this simple sheet of copy paper with me and posted it in my new office at the University of South Carolina. This concept continued to keep me focused as I was hiring 110 student callers per semester to raise $1.47 million via phone annually.
When I took a job as behind-the-scenes project manager with RuffaloCODY (now Ruffalo Noel Levitz), I would see the sign and feel sad. I knew then that I missed frontline fundraising. I missed chasing down a dollar goal. It helped me navigate my career back to raising money.
At some point in changing offices, the original paper got ragged and I disposed of it. But, when I was at Southern Miss and we tripled our annual fund income in one year, I recreated the poster for some of our gift processors who were overwhelmed and wanted a reminder of how their work connected to the big picture. It became a bit of an office-wide mantra.
Now that I’m back at a small shop, I think of this mantra often. I try hard to “stay in my lane” and keep the focus on fundraising. There is much to do, the need is great, and it is easy to feel like you are never doing quite enough.
But, the main thing . . . is to keep . . . the main thing . . . the main thing.
And, raising money . . . is the main thing.
At any organization, you will be asked to do many mundane things (I collectively call them TPS reports). These include: expense reports, submission forms, demographic changes in database, meetings, etc. Do these things, but strive to automate those tasks as much as you can so that they don’t distract you from the main thing: raising money.
At some organizations, especially those that are not organizationally mature, fundraisers will get pulled into political discussions and controversies. Continue to come back to mission and how the main thing (fundraising) supports that mission. When people around you go low, you go high. Keeping focused on raising money is the high road.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Raising money is the main thing.
What’s your fundraising mantra? How do you keep yourself focused?
Comments and questions are, as always, welcomed and encouraged!
PS – If you liked this post, you might also like these:
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I know it's so superficial and perhaps shallow.
But nonetheless, it's true. One of the reasons that I love being a fundraiser is the FOOD.
It's no secret to anyone in the industry that we fundraisers love to eat. We like to take donors to dinner, to lunch, to have breakfast, to have coffee, or to meet for dessert. We like to do anything that will help us break bread with people because it is such a primal way to build relationships.
It's a core aspect of hospitality to provide food to someone we are grateful for. And it is just a nice perk of the position. Fundraising is tough work and you get told no an awful lot, so getting a yummy meal brings balance to the universe.
And inevitably as a fundraiser, you'll end up involved in event planning. Attending a tasting session for an important event is so much fun. I hope for each of you that one day you have enough positive career karma to get to sample delicious menus including desserts and wine. It's bliss. Truly.
Despite the fact that it's a superficial reason to love my career, the food is some small compensation for having to ask people to share their hard-earned funds with our organizations. Bon appetit!
When I was a young call center manager, I thought I would end up being a faculty member at a university. That was my career goal. I was totally opposed to making fundraising into a career rather than a job.
Then, one night I decided to mess with my callers just a bit. I had a cubicle in the corner of the call center. I shouted over the wall at around 8:00 PM that I had moved them ALL into credit card calling pools. Of course, since everyone they were talking with had both given before and given via credit card, they were excited. Sure enough, gifts picked up and in that last hour, the credit card rates were over 70%!
The secret was that I hadn't done anything at all, except changed their expectations.
At this point, I realized that I really liked the strategy and psychology in this field. I liked examining results and figuring out where things worked or didn't work and why. As I grew in my career, I loved the organizational challenges thrown at me. You have to have a strategy when you are trying to clean up a building project where naming opportunities might have been double-booked.
Most of all, monitoring my own mindset is part of the strategy that keeps my mind stimulated. Smile when you dial is one of the most important lessons I ever learned. I never do the same thing day-to-day and there always a new challenge on the horizon, requiring a fresh strategy.
If you are interested in the other reasons that I love being a fundraiser, check the posts out:
Fundraising is about relationships. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that, I wouldn’t need to work and I could make a major gift to my favorite organization today.
The thing is – it’s true. Not only do fundraisers serve as the conduits between donors and the institutions that they serve, but we also work collaboratively within our offices, with program staff, and with others in our industry.
One of the reasons I love my job is that it has given me these amazing relationships.
You get to know donors on a personal level and even when you leave one organization, sometimes you remain friends with them. Your donors have incredible stories and you have a platform to discover those stories and share them. Many donors, especially board members, have become personal mentors to me.
We are also lucky to work in an industry that loves to share best practices and business information. Especially in higher education fundraising, we aren’t often competing for the same donors. That means we can help each other out substantially. Many of my closest friends are also fundraisers and we frequently solicit advice and tips from each other.
Not all donors and co-workers become your friends. But, it’s a wonderful career that is focused on friendship. I would put up with a good deal of frustration to get the collection of amazing donors I’ve met and colleagues that I’ve relied on over the years.
Among office workers, fundraisers are some of the toughest folks out there. #1 you have to develop the gumption to ask on a regular basis and #2 you get told “No” a lot. If you’re doing it right, you get told no more often than yes, a good deal more often. Lastly, fundraisers have to do this knowing that most of our organizations have persistent need and you’ll be asking year after year. Even if you finally complete a campaign or finally raise an endowment, there are always more people to help and more programs to create.
Is it fun to get told "no"? Nah, but what it does for fundraisers is builds resiliency. Fundraisers become warriors. They take their mission out there and champion it no matter the cost to their own egos. For example, it is such a feeling of freedom when you realize that if you expect 20% of your prospects to make a gift, which means 80% won’t! How wonderful to know that you can be told no that many times and it constitutes SUCCESS!
Without having been a fundraiser for so long, overcoming obstacles and the fear of failure might have held me back in my career and in life. But, I’ve fallen off that bicycle so much and had to get back on immediately, it just doesn’t bother me much anymore. I have fundraising to thank for giving me such a steely outlook.
Ironically, it’s getting told no that signals that you are asking enough. And it’s continuing to ask even though you get told no that makes fundraisers resilient. That’s another reason why I love my career in fundraising.
(I'm back!! Last week was crazy but the full moon has passed and hopefully the insanity level has slowed in all areas of my life.
I've decided to make Motivation Monday into "Reasons why I love being a fundraiser" for the next ten weeks. It will challenge me to articulate the reasons why I love my profession and hopefully it will inspire and motivate you to love your career.
My first reason why I love fundraiser is the travel. For a long time, I stayed away from the travel and thought it would hold me back in my career. But in my current position, I am the lone professional fundraiser for an institution and I must travel. Now, I embrace the travel and see it as a benefit. Sometimes I travel with my husband and kids (we homeschool) and sometimes I travel alone. Either way, in this past year, I've been able to visit amazing places and meet amazing donors. (All photos above were taken by me on work trips.)
I was able to have breakfast by the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara one morning before flying home -- a rare contemplative moment of solitude with nature for this busy mom.
I've taken my family on a train from Oakland to Portland and we woke up in a winter wonderland watching eagles dive into lakes amongst snow-covered Douglas firs. I feel certain these are experiences that we would not have had if I wasn't a fundraiser.
And this literary nerd has gotten to see the pew that Ralph Waldo Emerson used to sit in when he attended church in Concord. I've taken my 7 year old daughter to see the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz at the Smithsonian. She also got to visit FAO Schwartz before it closed forever. Of course, we could have done this on our own as a family, but it isn't likely we would have been able to afford it.
These magic moments happened because I am in a industry that still depends on a values face-to-face contact. Traveling to visit with the amazing folks that support the institution that I work for is its own reward and its an amazing perk.
Stay tuned for another reason next Monday and more great content coming up all week.
You might have seen the various memes with 10 things that require zero talent. It’s a great list. Here are the 10 things:
It’s worthwhile to look at each of these and evaluate yourself as to whether or not you are maximizing this category for career development and self-improvement. I try to cultivate all of these qualities and habit in myself and my work, but there are ones that stick out as potential areas of improvement. For instance, I know that if I get bored or feel helpless/hopeless in a role, I will check out in the passion area. Also, my “coachability” varies based on the demeanor and presentation of the person doing the “coaching”, if you know what I mean. I could stand to work on both of those things.
Beyond that, here’s my key insight for your Monday: While none of those ten things require talent, they do -- in aggregate -- create what we call talent.
If you practice all of the ten skills (behaviors, habits, etc.), you will get better in your chosen vocation and if you practice them all long enough, you will become an “overnight sensation” so to speak. You will slowly build up a critical mass of knowledge and self-correct from potential mistakes so often that you will break through. Keep plugging away at the little things. It becomes the big stuff.
How are your public speaking skills? It’s an important skill in any business but in fundraising, it’s essential. Fundraising is about communicating vision through relationships. Sometimes this relationship building happens one-on-one or in small groups. But, more often than not, you are in situations which require you to speak in front of a medium to large group. This can manifest as donor recognition event, fundraising events, board meetings, volunteer training sessions and conference presentations.
If your job doesn’t require much in the way of public speaking from you, find a place to practice. Write a presentation for your local Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter. Send in a proposal to present at the next Council for the Advancement and Support of Education district conference. Join your local Toastmasters group. The more you practice, the better you will get.
Practicing your skills as a public speaker will pay dividends for your career and for your organization. Everyone has their own process for preparing and practicing. For me, I begin with an extended outline. I put it all into Powerpoint, trying to use more images than words. I keep the wordy outline as notes for me. I like to extemporize during a presentation somewhat. I’ve never been one for reading from a text. So, closer to the actual event, I shut my office door and run through the entire presentation standing up at full vocal power. (In dance, they call this doing it “full-out”.) I fully visualize my audience and anticipate questions that they may have. I also try to insert as much humor as possible.
The other practical tip I have in this area is to focus on your posture. The impact of excellent posture on public speaking cannot be overstated. Your posture is the root of both your voice and your confidence, both essential to getting your message across. It’s not just about standing up straight. It’s about relaxing in the right areas and the position of the chin. Good posture is about opening the chest to vulnerability while standing on a firm foundation.
The biggest personal benefit you will get from more public speaking experiences is more confidence. No matter whether I nailed it or bombed, every speaking gig I’ve ever done has ultimately built my confidence. If you mess up, you learn more about what not to do.
If you nail it, well, you confirm your awesomeness.
The concept of "grateful patient" fundraising has always fascinated me. How meaningful, how wonderful, how . . . . EASY to raise money from those who lives were saved by your institution! A team of specialists at your hospital saved someone's child from cancer and they have capacity. What a wonderful story!
Of course, I know that it isn't that simple to raise money in healthcare fundraising. But, the stories of grateful patients are enticing and make those of us in higher education a bit jealous. Unfortunately, most stories are a bit less tangible than that in higher education.
No matter what kind of organization you work for, I find it is a great exercise to reflect regularly on the question, "Who are your grateful patients?" Asking this questions drives you right to the core of your mission. Who is served by your institution? How does it change lives? These questions takes you deep into impact and narrative. This question leads you to the "Why?"
In higher education, who are our grateful patients? Last week, I was composing a blog post about how philanthropic support has directly helped me in my life and career. We often think of students as our grateful patients and they are. But, more than that, it is our ALUMNI that are the grateful patients. Students who graduate and move out into the world changed by the education they acquired at our institutions. The stories of students work to connect our alumni to mission only if those stories activate the sense of gratitude that our alumni have for their own time at our colleges and universities.
It's not mere nostalgia, it is a real and tangible linking back that our student narratives must do in order to invigorate the "grateful patient" sensibility of our alumni. They must see in the story of current students their own story and from there be able to project what their life might be like if their educational story was different.
The phrase "make a difference" is overused and trite. However, if you want to find your grateful patients (who will be not only your best donors but your most enthusiastic advocates), you have dive into the real meaning of that phrase. How is someone's life path qualitatively different because your institution exists?
“Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” – You’ve Got Mail
Unfortunately, where I live, school starts while it is still more than 80 degrees and 90% humidity. But, still most K-12 institutions have already started classes. And colleges and universities begin very soon. That means more time trying to find a parking spot for those of you working in higher education.
All kidding aside, this is the time. That “back-to-school” feeling is pervasive in our culture. Donors feel it too and get nostalgic for their time at our institutions. It’s the time of very when education is naturally on the mind of our constituents. If educational fundraisers don’t have a plan ready to turn that nostalgia into gifts, we have lost ground and will have a hard time catching up this year.
Also, it’s time the perfect time of year to connect back to the mission of your institution. If you work in higher education, there are new students on your campus that are beginning a transformative journey. The classes they take, the things they learn and the people they meet could change their lives. You play a role in that. From raising funds for scholarships and library acquisitions to raising the profile of the institution through outstanding alumni support, advancement is part of that student’s path.
So, take a walk on your campus today. Watch the students making their way. Visit the campus bookstore and buy yourself some new pencils.
You have work to do.
Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.