Authentic Fundraising: The Clark Kent Approach

Published by Kimberly Mackenzie on

When I introduced the Authentic Fundraiser I talked about the need for a less traditional sales approach. In this post I’m going to dig a little deeper into how “professional” fundraising professionals should be?

People have been practicing acts of philanthropy to address social needs for thousands of years. It is only in the last 30 or so years that we have “professionalized” ourselves. Formal education programs for working in the charitable sector are still fairly new. Advanced degrees are brand new.

Those of us in our late forties have most likely fallen into this career through our volunteer work. We are “Accidental Fundraisers”. For me I often described my education like twisting a rope as I climb the mountain. When I needed to know how to do something I would read a book or go to a workshop. I didn’t choose this profession – I fell into it through my passion. Like many people my age, I started doing it for free because I wanted to accomplish something. Eventually, the executive director at the charity I fell in love with first offered to start paying me for raising money.

christopher_reeve_superman-11Posing this question about being “too professional” in no way suggests that we need to become less legitimate. I am deeply grateful to all of the educators I have had the privilege of learning from during my career. Organizations like the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), The Resource Alliance, The Institute of Fundraising and Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) have worked to ensure that we all operate with a high degree of accountability.

Those of us who are members of these organizations have made a commitment to conduct business within an ethical framework. We must continue to have professional associations whose mandate it is to advance our sector by advocating for good government policies. Up to date training and more awareness for our role in society is of great value.

We are committed to earning the trust donors place in us. Yes, I believe all of that is important and serves to unite us as a sector.

Are we too professional?

Here is the kicker though. I am worried that in our sprint to “professionalize” ourselves we alienated ourselves from our communities. I’m worried that we have lost some authenticity at the core of what we do and who we are.

Fundraising isn’t a transactional business like banking or buying a coffee. Fundraising is about aligned passion. We need to be able to open our hearts to donors. Ultimately we are all human beings who share the same values.

From the trenches

Ten years ago I was working at a conservation organization and many of my major donor visits took place cottages on a lake. At the time I was only six years into my career and really punching above my weight. I was very ambitious and took myself very seriously. To me, this job was a big deal.

I found myself interacting daily with some very accomplished people. My donor visits were with retired C-level executives and people who had received the order of Canada. They usually took place at their cottage on weekends.

In order to play in their sandbox I felt I needed to be very “professional”. I wore a suit to every donor visit. I was there to do a job and learn all about them, their families and their ability to give. I behaved so professionally, that I did not tell them anything about who I really was. That is what I thought I SHOULD do. I wanted to set a good example for the profession of fundraising. I was wrong.

Two years into the job I came to realize that while visiting donors at their cottage I bloody well better have a pair of hiking boots and a swimming suit with me! I was more successful if I connected on a more personal level. They enjoyed the visit more if they saw my kids swimming in the lake during the meeting. We all knew that eventually we would be talking about their donation. No one lost sight of that. The work just became a lot more fun! And a lovely bi-product was that we started building a very successful major gift program.

In my experience donors don’t want your visits to be all about them. Donors want to get to know you as a human being who shares their values. That is why working in an organization that you really love is so important. It creates a common ground from which you are able to build rapport.

A warning: Stay positive

By all means share information about yourself. Talk about your family. Share pictures of your children. These are things that make us human. I would however, caution you to be smart about it. Remember we want people to feel good about spending time with us.

beyourselfoscarwildeUltimately, our job is to inspire a stronger connection between the donor and our organization. So refrain from being SO open you start venting about things like a divorce you are going through or negative feelings about your mother in law or your drug addicted teenager – or even the flat tire you got on the way there. This isn’t girl’s night! Above all else: stay positive so that people feel inspired and lifted up after your visit. But do open your heart.

Ours is a noble, worthy profession that can be deeply satisfying. It is also a very new profession. Yes, it is our job to help people understand how this business works. However, we need to do it without hitting donors (and co-workers for that matter.) over the head with a hammer.

By all means channel your inner super hero, but approach your day-to-day interactions with grace, humanity and humility. Be more like Clark Kent and more people will want to support your efforts.

Kimberly Mackenzie

Kimberley is passionate about building the capacity of the third sector and works with a variety of organizations to advance a culture of philanthropy for their important work. For over 16 years she has been transforming fundraising programs and delivering double-digit growth. Kimberley also serves as Editor of Canada’s leading weekly fundraising resource Hilborn’s eNEWS, is a member of the Advisory Council for the Rogare Think Tank in Plymouth University, UK, is the Director of Education for the Planned Giving Council of Simcoe County and is currently writing her first book called The Authentic Fundraiser: How get transformative results for you and your organization.


Alex · September 29, 2016 at 18:31

Spot on Kimberly. With the rise of agencies recruiting fundraisers it detaches us from why we should be at the charity – because we care about the work it does. No wonder there is such a high turnover of fundraisers because from that first instance we aren’t connecting with the work of the charity but with a job role.

Equally, charities that serve a community should be recruiting and training fundraisers from that community, as they have a direct personal connection to the work of the charity and stories on the need for that charity. It would make for much more diversity in ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background in fundraising too!

    kimberley MacKenzie · October 14, 2016 at 12:56

    Ha! That is a great point Alex. Definately passion for the cause is important. I guess I like working with a variety of charities because my passion is moving a philanthropic culture forward and helping donors find joy and satisfaction with their philanthropic activities. Also a bit fan of change and transformation.

    So, if we see beyond the specific cause to how that cause improves the world for others, I do think a good authentic fundraiser can work with a variety of charities. As long as that charity fits in with your core values as a human being. Make sense?

ANDY DUCHOW · October 13, 2016 at 17:21

Great piece.

Passion and personal connection raise more money, in print and in person.

But I imagine for some Dev Directors, the idea of being more personal is appealing, but actually doing it is intimidating.

It’s a big risk if they alienate a donor. “Why mess with a good thing?”

Any advice on how to shift from “‘The Professional” to something a bit more personable?

Any anecdotes on what it was like for you personally?

    kimberley MacKenzie · October 14, 2016 at 12:51

    Hi Andy,

    Thank you for your comment. I’ll have to think about that. There are so many examples. I think the core of the issue for authenticity in fundraising is personal growth. Finding a way to get to a place personally where you feel 100% comfortable with who YOU are. It sounds easy but for many it is not.

    Last night for example, I had a major donor event. A MAJOR, major donor event in a private club. And two days prior I burned my hand cooking dinner and have to where this ugly white glove. When I needed to say my Executive Director bit at the podium instead of ignoring it and pretending the bandage wasnt there I just told everyone what happened.

    This is a silly example actually. There are a lot more on my blog at http://www.theauthenticfundraiser.ca

    I guess it is about being a robot, behing human and being transparent and cadid with our donors.

Amelia Roster · October 17, 2016 at 08:12

Thanks for sharing this interesting post on how to do fundraising with a positive attitude. It is important that we approach people with respect and humility; we should not overwhelm them. I gained a new perspective after reading this post. Looking forward to read more unique articles from you.

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