How to nurture happy fundraisers

Published by Sarah Clifton on

We have a unique profession, and one that very few of us plan to choose when we begin our careers. Many of us stumble on to a job as fundraisers, fall in love, 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 leave 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:

D8C0BE3D5F43427599D05458E1D4C6611. Help them find a passion

Whether one stumbles into a fundraising function or chooses 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 to simultaneously project manage too many activities that all have top priority without the authority or feedback to make choices or simply 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 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 skillful as fundraisers (see Reinier’s recent post for more on why this is important if you’re not already convinced by #2) 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, optimizing, 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

originalIt can take time and patience to get a whole group of folks aligned on a shared vision of the future, how to get there, and 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. Nearly all had to do with the transcendent moments that reconfirm our choice to work for a better world:

“The moment we received the letter in which the death of one of our donors was announced that 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 had 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 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.”

Therefore my #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.

Please add your own tips to this list using the comments! How do you help nurture happy fundraisers? Or what has helped you to become a happy fundraiser?

p.s., Thanks to Thomas, Jeroen, Joyce, Ellen and Elsbeth for your great input!

Sarah Clifton

Sarah is a Dutch / American fundraiser who has worked for animal protection and human rights organizations for more than 15 years. Since 2015, she heads up the Fundraising department at Save the Children Netherlands. She also (tries to) write occasionally and connect with other fundraisers frequently (especially over a beer).


Jann Schultz · June 22, 2015 at 15:24

Great reminders, Sarah! Thanks for inspiring me on my Monday morning!

    Sarah Clifton · June 22, 2015 at 15:30

    Thank you, Jann! Glad you like the post!

Joe Matassino · June 22, 2015 at 15:36

Good luck in your new job!

    Sarah Clifton · June 22, 2015 at 15:44

    Thanks so much, Joe! I’m certainly planning to put these lessons to good use!

Andrew Littlefield · June 24, 2015 at 15:35

Spot on! I think one of the most important things to remember about avoiding burnout is to be proactive about it. Don’t expect career satisfaction and fulfillment to just develop on its own, you (and leadership) need to work at it.

    Sarah Clifton · June 24, 2015 at 17:20

    Thanks, Andrew! Good point. Hopefully being the proactive folks we are in this field, fundraisers will take the initiative and not wait for management or colleagues to change something for them.

Simona Biancu · June 24, 2015 at 19:03

Truly inspiring, Sarah!
I agree with you: passion and people are THE keys to our profession. Something to handle with care, ever.
Thanks for this blogpost and good luck for your new job!

    Sarah Clifton · June 25, 2015 at 16:49

    Thank you, Simona. Much appreciated!

jP - João Paulo · July 3, 2015 at 04:48

Congrats on your article, Sarah. We will be sharing it with the Brazilian fundraisers in a few weeks, to inspire them in doing a better and more impacting work. Best!

michel · July 27, 2015 at 17:17

Very Good!!!

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