7 things that will make you a better fundraiser

Published by Margaux Smith on

Screen shot 2013-02-10 at 8.08.34 PMThree years ago, I didn’t even know fundraising was a profession. (Some of the contributors to this blog have been raising money for charity since I was a baby!) But when I arrived, I threw myself into the deep end and have consequently learned a great deal in a short time.

Most of all, I’ve learned that no amount of study can replace years of experience. So while I wait for the time to fill me with wisdom, I’ve learned to improve my fundraising in more immediate ways. Here are seven ways I’ve discovered. Feel free to challenge them or add your own in the comments.

1. Brush up on your teamwork skills

Working as part of a team is necessary in nearly every type of fundraising role. And sadly, almost all of us are stuck with at least one colleague who is far more concerned with number one (it might even be you). I can be a bit of a lone wolf, so this is something I’ve had to make an effort to improve, but goodness, is it ever important. The quality of your work, and your office morale, depend on it. So join an after-work sports league, or club, go out and meet new people. Practice listening, compromising, and working towards a common goal. You might be surprised how good the result can be when you let go of a little control.

2. Write letters to people you love

By hand. With real stamps and everything. I find this especially useful as a direct mail copywriter, but all fundraisers write to donors at some point, whether it’s emails, social media, or thank you cards. Writing real letters is a great way to remind yourself how special the written word can be. Your communications will become more conversational, personal, and heart-felt. And chances are, you’ll get an equally thoughtful response in your mailbox before long. Then you’ll have the chance to see how much it’s possible to connect with an outer envelope (my best friend addresses her’s to ‘Miss Margaux Smith’ and my Grandpa types my details straight from his old-timey typewriter). You’ll experience the joy of tearing it open to reveal the care and consideration enclosed, knowing they took the time to sit down and create something special, just for you (I like to add cute animal stickers to my letters for a bit of visual flare). It will just make your whole day.

So try it. Remind yourself why direct mail isn’t going to ‘die’ anytime soon. Because it’s awesome.

3. Donate and volunteer

This one’s a bit of a no-brainer. You should donate to your own charity fairly often as a mystery shopper to ensure your donors are having a good experience. Major gift fundraisers should be donors so they can solicit with genuine conviction. And I’ve already written about why it’s so important to get away from your desk and out to your front lines to reconnect with the emotion of your work.

But I also think it’s vital to do this outside of the office. Give your money and time to causes close to your heart, where you can separate yourself from the internal politics and paperwork. This job can be frustrating – it takes effort to keep from becoming jaded. But it really helps to revel in the sheer joy of being a donor. Damn, it feels good.

4. Fill your brain bank

We’re all creative beings. And the process of putting ideas to paper becomes easier as our brains become more full. If you’ve seen an experienced creative at work, you’ll know their brilliance seem to come out of thin air. You can present them with a problem that you’ve been trying to solve for hours and, within 30 seconds, they make a suggestion that leaves your ideas look like a sack of turds.

Of course, it’s not unattainable for any of us, but it does take a great deal of effort and practice. What they’re doing is pulling from the vast wealth of knowledge filed away in their mind – everything they’ve ever read, watched, learned, and experienced. The trick is to practice pulling from it, and like many aspects of fundraising greatness, this takes years to develop.

So in the mean time, we can fill our brain with as much variety as possible and get to filing it away for future use. Read. A lot. Not just about fundraising, but about anything that interests you. Let your imagination run wild as often as possible. Go on adventures. Get uncomfortable. Travel. Challenge yourself. Watch old movies, new movies, television that makes you laugh and cry and think. You can even benefit from unintellectual smut. I’ve been able to write in the voice of a teenage mother because I watch MTV’s Teen Mom, and the voice of a young girl with Asperger’s after I learned about it from an America’s Next Top Model contestant who lived on the spectrum. Yes, really. You’d be surprised what you can pull out of that ol’ brain bank. The more you vary the contents, the more interesting and diverse your work will become. So be interested in as much as possible. (I’m still waiting for the appeal where I can put my extensive knowledge of ornithology and paleontology to good use…)

5. Make mistakes

I put my foot in my mouth on a near-daily basis. But it sure does speed up the learning process. (As long as you’re not repeating the same mistakes.) And as a bonus, it also gives you the opportunity to show people that you can eagerly admit when you’re wrong and apologize. This proves you’re human, and seems to be one of the most endearing qualities a person can possess. So take risks, put yourself out there, and recognize that it is OK to be imperfect. (Donors will love you for it too.)

6. Don’t be a snob

Following on from above, recognize that, in a sector this vast, there is always more to learn. Even if you’ve been around these parts for more than 20 years and you’ve seen it all, you can’t see into the future. (If you can, call me. I want to know you.)

It’s impossible to know what’s around the corner in this ever-changing fundraising world. These days, mobile’s growing, online/offline integration is becoming increasing crucial, and baby boomers are taking over the traditional donor base. These problems were hardly talked about a decade ago (from what I can gather), and we’ll certainly be concerned with other things a decade from now. So I don’t care who you are, you don’t know everything and you never will.

By all means, please bring all the knowledge and experience you can to the table. But be open to what others are bringing. We’ll all be stronger for it. Be confident but adaptable, and remain a great listener – you’ll stay relevant until the day you die. The people I look up to most in this sector are the ones who embody this mindset.

7. Give a damn

I reached a point last spring, around my 6-month mark as a copywriter, where I was boiling over with self-doubt. Struggling and convinced I’d be fired any day, I was stuck in the creative gap, as Ira Glass describes it. But at that crucial point, I got a pep-talk from one of my bosses. I confided my fears, telling him I didn’t feel I was a very good writer. My ideas weren’t interesting enough and I wasn’t sure I could cut it in this business.

He looked me straight in the eye and said (with his Geordie conviction and much more cussing than I’ll include here), ‘Well, no. You’re not very good. But you will be. Because you give a damn and that’s something nobody can teach.’

He’s right. In this business you have to care. Really care. With every fiber of your being. So much that it hurts. That you get angry and you cry and you do something about it. Whatever you can, every day.

It sounds simple but we all know this sector can be tough. Outside, people don’t understand us. They think we’re money-grubbing, manipulators. Inside, it’s not always better. You hear ‘no’ so often, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is trying to knock you down. So please don’t stop giving a damn. And if you do, kindly get out.

Margaux Smith

Margaux is currently living in Sydney, Australia, working closely with incredible clients at Flat Earth Direct, creating digital and direct mail campaigns with them to help change the world. This Canadian fundraiser misses her compatriots in London and Toronto, where she learned almost everything she knows, but is enjoying the Australian sunshine a little too much to leave any time soon.


Kimberley MacKenzie · February 11, 2013 at 17:51

Oh Margaux – best blog I’ve read all year. Thank you so much. You are absolutely right and are SUCH and inspiration to us all. Thank you so much for taking the time to contribute to the sector this way. Bravo!

    Sheila · February 13, 2013 at 20:13

    ditto what Kimberley said!

Siobhan Aspinall, Sand Dollar Consulting · February 11, 2013 at 19:31

I love number 3 – it’s almost impossible to fundraise without first-hand experience from the frontlines of your organization. Get out there and volunteer for your charity (a must!) and others that interest you.

Howard Greenstein · February 12, 2013 at 15:18

Great piece Margaux. Very inspiring and intensely personal. I have heard all these things before, but you’ve put them together in a great package to share with my students.

    Margaux Smith · February 12, 2013 at 15:30

    Thank you so much, Howard! That’s fantastic :)

Beth · February 12, 2013 at 18:15

Great read! I just shifted to an animal welfare cause after a long time learning the ropes in academia and at a museum. You will love it!

Tania Little · February 13, 2013 at 04:50

Thank you for sharing so candidly your learnings along the way Margaux. Your refreshing, warm candour is so needed in our sector.

I look forward to your blog posts, which cause me to pause, reflect, smile, usually blush a little at at least one or three self-realized moment(s). Your courage is very inspiring – thank you.

Ilja De Coster · February 15, 2013 at 07:04

Great blog – recognisable and so true.

Great you close with “give a damn”, that is the core of what fundraisers do

Michele McGovern · February 19, 2013 at 23:33

Wonderfully done! Great advice for new fundraisers and those of us who have been working to fill our brain banks for many years.

Sophie Penney · February 20, 2013 at 18:26

Agree regarding items 4 and 7 in particular. Four because it also enables you to talk with donors no matter what their background or interests. Seven, because as you said (and a great fundraiser once taught me about hiring staff) you can’t teach passion!

Mervin · January 10, 2020 at 12:36

Well…im reading this 7 years later, i wonder how you are faring? I do hope you are living happily with the people you love and doing the things that makes you feel good. And i wanna say that you are really an inspiration. Im currently 14 and wants to make a big impact on our current world’s society. To create a better home filled with love support and acceptance. And it just happen that fundraising is actually a great way to help out.

fundraising consutants · November 17, 2020 at 11:31

I am not really superb with English but I line up this
real easygoing to translate.

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[…] Find out the 7 things that will make you a better fundraiser and help improve your fundraising in more immediate ways. […]

[Headlines] Getting Your Message Out | · February 19, 2013 at 04:32

[…] Find out the 7 things that will make you a better fundraiser and help improve your fundraising in more immediate ways. […]

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[…] nice post from a Margaux Smith, who’s been fundraising for only three years: 7 things that will make you a better fundraiser. Smith talks about a pep-talk she got from a boss at a critical point. “I confided my fears, […]

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