Tilting At Windmills

Helen looked around the university’s Phonathon Center. It was in the basement of the administration building; tucked away, but spacious enough for their needs. Campus security was great about stopping by and making them feel safe, even late in the evening when the rest of the building was deserted.

There were 20 caller cubicles but only 11 were staffed tonight, the Tuesday before the holiday. Many of Helen’s student callers were already heading home. She was the Phonathon Director. It was a killer job that no one did for more than two or three years. The hours were just too tough. Helen hoped her dedication would be a stepping-stone to a “normal” development job in Alumni House across the Quad.

It was almost 10 p.m. Helen knew her team would be wrapping up their West Coast calls and sure enough, one by one, bleary-eyed students trooped up to her desk to deposit the evening’s paperwork. Helen would do the report in the morning and head to the airport herself.

She loved how the students chatted amongst themselves at the end of their shift. Who had the biggest gift, who had the most hang-ups. They didn’t take those personally. No good fundraiser takes the “no’s” personally, she always reminded them.

Tonight, the chatter was about going out for a beer. “Beth, are you coming?”

Beth was a senior and the best caller by far. She had a wonderful phone manner you just can’t teach, she had persistence, and she needed the money her 12 hours a week earned her.

“No thanks, you guys go ahead. Have a great holiday!”

As Beth called out over the top of her cubicle, Helen noticed that Beth’s smile was forced.

“You ready to head out?”

Helen had wrapped up for the night. Beth was still sitting at her workstation.

“I guess so.”

But she didn’t move.

Almost by instinct Helen pulled a chair up close to Beth’s and in a gentle but firm voice said, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

That was all it took. The floodgates opened. Tears streamed down Beth’s cheeks. She was sobbing. Beth was sobbing so hard she was shaking.

“I don’t know. It’s silly.”

She had to make an effort just to get the words out. Helen sat there, a foot away, stunned.

“Well, I’m here. It’s just us. Tell me.”

“Helen, I know this is stupid of me, but I am so scared! I mean, everything happening in our country and around the world these days! It’s craziness! I think about if I would ever get married some day and want children, but who in their right mind would want to bring children into a world like ours! Really! Where are we going!

“And this! (Beth made a sweeping motion with her arm around the room.) I mean, I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but what good is all this?

“What difference does it make? In the big picture, I mean? Do you ever think about it? Fundraising just seems so inconsequential to me right now.”

She reached out to Helen and touched her forearm.

“Helen, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it to come out like that. I know you want this to be your career. I think you are an amazing person. I mean, I guess I really just don’t know any more.”

Sometimes the moment in front of us calls us to be a greater person than who we think we are.

Helen reacted not with anger or disdain to the young woman still weeping next to her. She sat forward on her chair, clasped her hands in her lap, and reached out from her heart to the frightened woman eight inches away.

“Hey, listen. Can you look at me for a second?”

Beth was trying to avert her eyes but looked across through her tears to Helen.

“I’m just as nervous about all of this as you are. Everybody I know is shaken. We don’t know what’s next.  Things we thought we could count on, we’re not sure anymore. But then I think about my life, what we take for granted and I realize how lucky we are. How thankful we should be, about so much.

“I know what you mean about calling. It’s hard, night after night. But the amazing thing about life is we never know. We never know if someone you connect with might just be inspired to do something astounding. Here, or even someplace else. A kid whose scholarship is renewed because we raised the money for it? What do we know? That kid might someday figure out all the craziness in the world.

“You’re right about this career I want to have, you know!”

By now the sobs had stopped, tissues were out, and a panicked face was now a hopeful face. Helen continued.

“I had lunch last week with Connie. Do you know her? She’s amazing. She’s been doing major gifts here forever. What a lady. I could never be like her, but I’m going to try!” Helen grinned.

“Connie told me that if you ask any fundraiser; that is, if you could get them to tell you the truth, they would tell you they’re in this business for two reasons.

“First is, there will always be a need for people to do this work. If you can learn, if you’re any good at it, you’ll pretty much always be able to find a job. The pay’s not Silicon Valley, but it’s not flipping burgers, either.

“And the second is, she told me, every fundraiser has a little Don Quixote in them. Maybe we’re tilting at windmills, maybe not.

“But every fundraiser hopes, and believes, that he or she can make the world a better place. Even a little bit. Even if it’s just in their little corner of the world.

“That’s what Connie told me. And you know what? I’m in. I want that. If I have to work, that’s what I want my work to be about.

“If I really believe that fundraisers can at least try to make the world a better place, when all this craziness is going on, you better believe we’re not going to stop trying.

“And neither, my friend, are you.”

Helen stood up. Beth stood up. There was a hug that neither of them would soon forget.

Helen said, “Come on. Did I hear something about a beer?”

Excerpted from “Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising”

Dreading Sunday Night

It’s Sunday night. The dinner dishes have been put away. Maybe you’ve finished that second glass of wine. You find your bag or briefcase and set it on the kitchen counter for the morning, wondering what you’ll toss in there for lunch tomorrow.

Your mind wanders to the week ahead. What are you thinking?

Does the work week fill you with anticipation? Or unease?

Do you dread Sunday night?

That’s not good. There’s a big difference between taking a deep breath knowing you have a busy week ahead, and secretly wishing you would come down with the flu so you could stay home.

Deep down, what you want to be thinking is:

“Buckle up! I’m going to kick some tail and take no prisoners! Not sure what, but I’m gonna make something happen this week!”

That feeling of positive anticipation? The best way I’ve ever heard it expressed is “I want to ‘bring it’ every day!”

Moving from a feeling of dread to “Let’s go!” means tackling one or more of five things that stand in your way.

If you think of the week ahead as one big 500-pound bear, you will lose. You can’t dance with a bear. You have to break up the week into smaller, manageable pieces you can attack and conquer one at a time.

Two, admit to yourself you aren’t going to convert Mother Russia next week. As you lay out the days in your mind, or in your planner, be kind to yourself. Set realistic goals you can actually achieve. The rest can wait. Really, it can wait. For once, give yourself permission to succeed this week.

Among the goals that you must embrace for your week have to be the three most important to-do’s on your list. You know what those are. The task we most want to avoid? We convince ourselves it can wait a little longer. Stop avoiding. The task we dislike the most is often the most important. Know the top three things you need to get done next week and commit to them.

One reason you have that knot in your stomach is because your boss doesn’t know what you have on your plate, or because you and your boss aren’t on the same page when it comes to your priorities. You have to fix that.

Believe me when I tell you, if your boss wants to know what you are doing, the two of you need to be on the same page. She or he must know your priorities, and agree with them! If that doesn’t happen, no matter what else you do, that knot in your stomach isn’t going to go away.

Finally, you have to close the door. Literally or figuratively. If you know your priorities, if your boss does, if they’re realistic, and if they’re in manageable bites, that is your focus for the week. You really don’t care how busy everyone else is. Saying to a colleague, “Sure, I can help you with that” becomes a very low priority.

Because the truth is, no one cares how busy you are.

That sounds unbelievable harsh, I know, but it’s true. Not even your closest friend in the office cares how busy you are. He or she has their own work to do and you have yours. Keep it that way.

Please don’t get me wrong. Being a team player was very important to me as a colleague and a boss. But one of the most profound pieces of professional advice I ever received was,

“Stop being such a nice guy.”

In this case let’s translate that to “Love others AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF.”

Spending all your time looking after others and not looking after yourself is one of the five reasons you feel out of control, and one of the five reasons you dread Sunday night.

You can change that.

Excerpted from “Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising.” Available by clicking the link above.

Becoming a Major Gifts Officer

from The Weekend Briefing for November 4, 2018

The party was over.  Pizza, stories and a champagne toast celebrated the end of a successful campaign.  The president stopped in to thank the team, as did their wonderful campaign co-chairs.  Each fundraiser thought the same thing, “We were never going to let you down.”

Now everyone was gone.  Clare had stayed behind to clean up.  She always did the “above and beyond.”  A new major gifts officer, Clare couldn’t believe how lucky she was to get this chance and to be on this team.  She looked for every opportunity to help.  She was hired as a development assistant four years ago, at the beginning of the campaign and was promoted often.  Clare was named a major gifts officer when the campaign “went public.”  She was proud of the gifts she added to the campaign total.

Right now empty cups and dirty paper plates had her attention.  Clare looked up.  The only other person tidying the room was Anita, their VP.  Clare wasn’t surprised.  This was classic Anita.  Not seeking the limelight, always doing for others.  A leader they would have taken a bullet for.

Anita was on the other side of the room.  She looked up and smiled.  As she did, Clare whispered, “Thank you.”

Her voice was so soft, Anita could barely make out what she was saying.


“Thank you.”

Anita raised her eyebrows and smiled in surprise.  “Well, gosh, you’re welcome!  But for what?”

“For believing in me.  No one has before, really.”  Clare meant what she said.

Anita walked over to her.  “That’s hard to imagine.  You’re a very talented fundraiser.  I always thought it was our good fortune to find you.”

Clare shook her head.  “Anita, that’s what I should be saying.  How blessed I am to be here. 

“Can I ask you a question?  I was hired to be a junior staffer for the campaign.  This shot, to be a major gifts officer.  Why?”

Her vice president smiled.  “You really want to know?  Okay, sit down.  I’ll tell you.”

They pulled up chairs together in the empty room.  The cleanup was forgotten.  Clare’s heart was pounding.  This was like seeing the teacher’s edition of the math book, with all the answers!

Anita began.  “Really, Clare, it’s not that complicated.  My job is to find the best players for the team.  When someone makes the team and I see promise in them, a fire in their belly, it’s my job to help them grow.

“Remember your first promotion?  We moved you after three months to alumni relations.  That to me is the proving ground.  Long hours, multiple projects and working with others.  Most of all it’s a chance to connect with donors.  Can you be comfortable with them?   Can you be respectful, but be yourself at the same time? 

“You were there, what, 18 months or so?”

Clare nodded.  She was listening more intently than she ever had in her life.

“Well, we were watching.  Were you on time for work every day?  Did you gladly stay late and work weekends when we needed you?  We were looking to see if you ‘got it.’

“Do you remember what Jerry Panas said are the most important qualities for a fundraiser?”

Somehow Clare did.  “I think he said enthusiasm, energy, and empathy.  That is, being a good listener.”

Anita nodded.  “That’s right.  He said one other quality was important, too.”

Clare grinned at her teacher.  “Integrity.”

Anita reached out with a fist-bump.  “Exactly!  While you were working your tail off, we were paying attention.  And we saw those qualities in you.

“Clare, don’t get me wrong, I am all for experience.  Especially when that experience is gained here.  But a very wise man told me long ago that to develop great major gifts officers you have to ‘grow your own.’

“That’s what we try to do.  Do we miss once in a while?  Sure, that happens, but less often than you think.  We believe very strongly that the foundation of great fundraisers are those transferable skill sets you can’t teach.

“Does the person want to be out making visits?  Can they ask?  Do they understand how to build relationships?  How to make the donor feel appreciated?  And, the things Panas wrote about.

“A person either has that DNA or they don’t.  You do.  We moved you up to special annual gifts so you could be out and asking.  You took to it like a duck to water.  We knew you would. 

“Right at the time the campaign went public we gave you a portfolio and told you to ‘let ‘er rip’!

“But,” Anita added, “we did one other thing.  We made sure you had a safety net.”

Clare looked confused.

“You know how Ellen would stop in to see you every so often and ask how it was going?”

Clare said, “Sure, she did it all the time.  I thought she was just being nice.”

“Well, that too, but she also had your back.  If you were in a tough spot with a prospect you had someone to talk with about it.  You weren’t going to come to me and tell me you didn’t know what to do, were you?”

Clare nodded.  “That’s for sure.  Wow.  I never knew.”

“Good.  It was a way to support you without being a crutch.  The reason you became a good major gifts officer is because you made lots of visits and lots of asks and as you did, your confidence grew. 

“Quiet confidence.  You have it now.  The most important thing of all.”

Right then Ellen and Paul, their grant writer, walked into the room. 

“Hey, what are you two doing here all by yourselves,” Ellen grinned.  “Planning the next campaign?”

Clare got up, walked over to Ellen and hugged her.  No words were needed.

As Anita and Ellen left the room, Anita turned to look at Clare one last time.  Their eyes met, and Clare put her hand over her heart.

Anita smiled and gave a thumb’s-up.

Now Paul and Clare were alone in the room.  Paul asked, “What was all that about?”

She answered,


Have a good week, my friends.


Never Ask for Money

What do donors say when they wake up in the morning? “Honey, let’s give the school a million bucks! Bet they’ll be surprised!” “For what?” “Who cares!” Do donors say that? No, they don’t.

What DO donors say?

“I can’t stop thinking about what we read yesterday. Women in Africa walk 3 miles to a well to get clean water for their families. It would cost $8,000 to dig a well in their village. We should do that.”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to fund a scholarship for a student whose family isn’t as lucky as ours? Let’s do it.”

“Look at this. We can make a gift for a monitor that wakes parents up in the middle of the night if their child is having a seizure. It can save a life! How can we not do that?”

Never ask for money. Donors don’t want to give money. They want to save a life, dig a well, fund a child’s education. Money is just the means to the end.

Fundraising is helping donors do the great things they want to do. Focus on the great things your donors want to do.

Never ask for money.

The Eight Rules

Once upon a time, in a land far away, the fundraising community was in a tizzy.

“One of the steepest declines in giving on record!” screamed the headlines. “An even sharper drop from everyday donors.” “Trouble for nonprofits.”

At a midsize organization, a major gifts officer read this and was puzzled. “We don’t see these problems here,” he thought. “I wonder why?”

He got up, walked down the hall and knocked on the CEO’s door. She looked up from her work and smiled.

“Come in, Charlie! How can I help you?” The young staffer explained. The CEO nodded and smiled again. She’d been expecting this question for some time.

“First of all, Charlie, bravo! Your question tells me you are aware of the world around you. The answer is simple. We follow the Eight Rules.”

The next five minutes would be the most important in Charlie’s career.

“First, we live within our means. Just like our parents taught us. We create the income side of our annual budget first, with conservative expectations, and then allow expenses to match that. Of course we want to do everything we can to further our mission. But we don’t allow ‘we must do this or that’ to foster unrealistic goals.

“Two, we don’t ask for money 18 times a year. Did you know that asking donors too often is the number one reason they stop giving?

“In fact, when we do ask, we never ask for money. We invite our donors to help make something happen, which is exactly what they want to do.

“The second biggest reason donors stop giving is because they feel the organization doesn’t care about them. We never let that happen. Our donors know how their gifts are used and the impact their gifts make.

“And our donors, all our donors, know they are genuinely appreciated.

“Because we live within our means and because our donors know where their gifts go and feel genuinely appreciated, they stay with us. Most, for life. Research tells us that’s what happens. Many of our donors remember us in their estate plans. Often it is the gift they truly want to make.

“For these reasons we are less dependent each year on major gifts from our wealthiest donors. With them, most of the time we are simply building relationships. When we have a campaign, our lead donors aren’t worn out and they know it’s important and they respond.

“Charlie, let me ask you. When something comes up that would take you away from the job you were hired to do, the job you want to do, what happens?”

“I bring that to my manager and the roadblock goes away. That’s true for everyone. It’s our mantra here, ‘Knowing what NOT to do.’”

“And one last thing, Charlie. Do you feel appreciated here? Respected for what you bring to our organization?”

“Yes, I do. I know my colleagues do, too. I guess that’s why everyone stays here, right?”

Another smile crept onto the CEO’s face. Charlie knew he had a donor call soon, but he asked one last question.

“Margaret, what you’ve told me, the Eight Rules. They’re so simple. Why don’t all organizations follow them?”

Now the CEO sighed. “I honestly don’t know.

“Someday perhaps, to survive, they will.”