How to nur­ture hap­py fundraisers 

Written by
Sarah Clifton
June 16, 2016

We have a unique profession, and one that very few of us choose when we begin our careers. Many of us stumble in to a job as a fundraiser, fall in love with it and never look back. And because we are not only doing what we’re passionate about, but also contributing to amazing, transformational organisations and social movements, we should be one of the happiest groups of professionals on the planet. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. So how do we ensure that, as experienced fundraisers, we are helping to nurture happy colleagues? Fundraisers who grow in their knowledge and capabilities, excel in their work, and stick around?

For me, fundraising is not just about numbers, donor plans, strategy, budgets and boards. It’s first and foremost about people.

So as I prepare to start a new job, joining a new team of budding fundraisers and leaving my old team behind, I’m spending these last days with my colleagues reflecting on both the good and the bad moments.

How do you as a fundraising leader, manager, mentor, or coach nurture happy, passionate fundraisers? Here are the biggest tips I’m taking away from my experience over the last few years:

1. Help them find a passion

Whether one stumbles into fundraising or choose it conscientiously, there will be aspects of the job that inspire excitement and curiosity and those that simply need to be done. But helping one find a facet of the work that lights a spark can open an enormous source of creative energy. People can change before your eyes, taking their development in their own hands and driving themselves to achieve.

2. Communicate clear and ambitious, but achievable, expectations.

There is nothing more frustrating as a fundraiser than being told to double net income without the necessary investment. Or being asked to simultaneously project manage too many activities, which all have top priority, without the authority or feedback to make choices, or simply to say ‘no’. Avoid putting anyone in that situation. Listen and take your colleagues seriously when they tell you what’s achievable. They’re the ones doing it in the trenches.

3. Be an authentic leader

Everyone can be a leader, whether or not they manage a team. And while there are many excellent sources on the topic of ‘authentic leadership’, I particularly enjoyed a recent post by my colleague Alastair Lamb on LinkedIn. He writes, ‘By getting naked in the office I mean becoming real with your teams and co-workers as the quirky, idiosyncratic and potentially flawed individual you are.’

In my career as a fundraiser I’ve had both exceptional and less-than-effective managers and directors. The best ones were not only skilful as fundraisers but also open and accessible as people. Willing to be honest about their weakness, not pretending to be something ‘more’ or ‘other’. And that is exactly what I needed to be challenged, to dare to take risks and to set ego aside and let myself be nurtured and mentored.

4. Accept and share mistakes

The director at my current organisation began the presentation of our annual plan this year by saying that he expects at least one mistake from each staff member every quarter. Fundraising is about trial and error, testing, optimising, perfecting. And then changing again as the donors, the market and the strategy evolve. Mistakes are part of the process. Does your organisation or team embrace and share them with each other? Do you cultivate an open culture of learning so that everyone feels comfortable to share these failures? If not, your team is missing out on a goldmine of potential insights.

5. Develop a vision that excites and unifies

It can take time and patience to get a whole group of folk aligned on a shared vision of the future, how to get there and to include everyone’s contribution. But often in organisations in the midst of change – new management, competing priorities, differing interests – or when the demands of daily management become too overwhelming, shortcuts are taken in getting the whole team on board. But a cohesive and high-performing team will achieve so much more. Don’t your donors and beneficiaries deserve the best?

But the last tip is perhaps the most important. When I asked colleagues what makes them most happy as fundraisers the responses were touching: 

The moment we received the letter informing us one of our donors had died. She had left us a large amount of money in her will. I had talked to her about her wishes and her will and knew that her wishes had come true, and that I helped both her and the organisation. 

What really moves me as fundraiser is to see that there are people for whom it means a great deal to make a difference for animals and/or other people. Their motivation and involvement motivates me to do everything I can to help them make the world better. And then to see what an impact that has – a rescued bear, a change in the law, a change in society – it makes me happy and I am thankful for what I do.

Meeting donors! In the privacy of their homes and at events. Talking to donors and hearing what inspires them to be involved and to donate and to learn from their experiences makes me happy. I guess it’s the personal story of the donor that links with the NGO.

Several things fortunately! To meet the people we work so hard for, and see what a difference we make in their lives. But also, to meet the volunteers and donors who invest their time and or money to make a difference; to hear their stories. But, also as a fundraiser, meetings like the IFC, where we are inspired to do our work better and more efficiently and feel part of a worldwide ‘movement’

As a fundraiser I can get pretty happy with an improvement in conversion, a higher average gift, a better click-through rate, a new fundraising technique and so many more crucial KPIs. But actually for me it’s about something much more fundamental: via a fundraising activity both the giver and the beneficiary become happier. The receiver is helped by a financial contribution or action. The giver gets a good feeling by contributing with a gift or getting involved. And this makes me intensely happy and keeps me going with (nearly) every day a smile on my face as I head home from work. Priceless.

Nearly all had to do with the transcendent moments that reconfirm our choice to work for a better world. Therefore my no. 6 is

6. Share and enjoy the wonderful moments together
What we do changes the world. It is not always easy but it should always be rewarding. And our colleagues are there, every day, to share our joy and inspiration.

About the author: Sarah Clifton

Sarah Clifton is a Dutch / American fundraiser who has worked for animal protection and human rights organisations for more than 15 years. She is head of undraising for Save the Children in the Netherlands. In 2013 she contributed to the book Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising" written by Deborah Kaplan Polivy and published by Wiley.

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