I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of development candidates and coached thousands.
What makes a good fundraiser?
First, the mistakes and table stakes.
Mistakes: I see people hire for rolodex. While I’ve seen a few connections get made, 90% of the time this is a bust. Individual relationships can impact strategy (eg. how easy it is to get a visit), but it’s rarely the case that someone is giving (in a major way) to an organization BECAUSE of the relationship to an individual. It’s a relationship to the cause or the case – facilitated by, or serviced by, the individual.
Table stakes: Every fundraiser needs to be able to have a conversation, to be able to listen, and be relational – in some way. Being really good at relationships isn’t a reason to hire someone; it’s table stakes.
The most important thing: Disciplined execution – above personality. For some, this means not overthinking things. For others, it’s about a routine. Do the work. If it were an either/or, I’d take the person who can work a task list on a deadline over the person who can work a room at a cocktail hour every time. So much of fundraising is about doing the focused work to get to the ask… or to ship timely follow-up (and not overthink it).
A good fundraiser accepts responsibility for conviction. This is slightly different from saying, “A good fundraiser has a positive attitude.” A good fundraiser does the work to have conviction in the ask they’re making. This conviction comes through in a thousand little ways every week, month, year – from nonverbals, to decisiveness, to the impact the fundraiser has internal to your team or organization.
A good fundraiser is a good communicator (in writing). A fundraiser must be able to carry on a conversation (again, see table stakes) but must also be able to synthesize – simply – in writing.
- Empathy. So much of fundraising is about listening to and understanding what the other person is thinking, or wants to do. A good fundraiser can put themselves in the shoes of a prospect or funder.
Ultimately, fundraising isn’t about our case for support, it’s about how our case for support connects with a funder.
- Conceptual thinker. They have the ability to connect details to the big picture. And/or, they can take a complex idea and synthesize it in the form of a picture, or an analogy.
These are bonus traits because we’ve seen hundreds of really productive fundraisers that fell a little short in these areas. This meant they left a few dollars on the table, or took longer to close sometimes, but they had more than enough activity to make up for these missed opportunities three times over. It doesn’t work the other way, however. A brilliant conceptual thinker that overthinks the process, or can’t execute in a timely way, will not produce longitudinal or sustaining results.
The asterisk: Supernova fundraisers. You will often see the founder or visionary leader who is a total natural. In those cases, funders are usually betting on them. They ARE the case.
Are they great fundraisers? Yes!
Can we hire for that? Can we train that? Can we scale that? No.
The way we handle this is to name the situation for what it is. “You, [founder], are a supernova. We’re lucky to have you as our supernova. We want you to continue to be a supernova. At the same time, we need to name you as such and realize that your style, or your ask, may not be scalable.”