Are you an accidental fundraiser?

February 22, 2011

How did you get your start in nonprofit work?

I always trace my start in the nonprofit world to my first job working for a wonderful private family foundation.

I had married, moved to Philadelphia, had two children and was looking for a part-time job that would still allow me to be at home with my daughters for a few days of the week.  The foundation had been established during the 1950‘s but had only recently begun to establish formal grant policies and procedures. My experiences with that grantmaking foundation were wonderful in many respects and exposed me to all the marvelous work being done by nonprofit organizations all over the city, leading me eventually to the world of nonprofit fundraising.

But the truth is, I always wanted to make a difference.

As a teenager, I volunteered for George McGovern’s campaign (yes, I am really dating myself), going door-to-door (and often getting them slammed in my face).  Later on I worked for the Michigan State Legislature, both in the House and the Senate, on issues ranging from social services to mental health to corrections.

We’re all doing what we do because we want to make a difference.

Yet there really isn’t anything that quite prepares you for working in nonprofit development.

My first job after spending nearly seven years in the relatively cushy foundation world was as a 15-hour-per-week – and, yes, $15 an hour – development director for a community agency with a $3 m budget.

After a week or so foraging through existing files and talking to everyone and anyone who would sit down with me I came to the conclusion that nothing had been done for the past five years (since a very successful capital campaign had ended).

No follow up grant proposals to those generous funders of the capital campaign had been written.

The annual membership campaign had been farmed out to three separate direct mail companies – with disastrous results.  Donors were angry.  Records were missing.  Key community contacts had lapsed.

I thought I’d taken on much more than I could handle and had no idea where to turn first.

Thank heavens for my mentor.  When I went to him, overwhelmed and nearly in tears he said “Hey, this is great!  How many people get to create their own job?!”

Well, once he put it in that perspective I started establishing some areas I wanted to focus on.  I didn’t have the time or money for any courses, but I had worked in advertising sales.

In fact, for two years I had been the top display advertising salesperson at the small weekly newspaper I worked at in the Detroit area.

I had started out abysmally in sales and very nearly quit. Those who know me well know that I’ve battled shyness all my life. Fortunately, instead  of quitting, I took the time to study marketing and read books by folks like Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill.

The marketing techniques that I had learned, as well as the time management skills from working in a commission-based environment, stood me in good stead.

Within a year, our organization’s membership had increased by 25%, we’d raised over $150,000 in grants alone, we had a new website up and running and our organization was well on its way back to enjoying the beloved status within the community it had once known, thanks to a weekly column in our local paper and associations with the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.

In fact, when the budget went up substantially the following year and we were allotted funds for training, I took my first grant-writing class.

After the class they asked me if I would be interested in teaching it.

Since then, I’ve taken any number of classes and read untold books on the topic of marketing and nonprofit development.  I’ve taken the Benevon “Raising More Money” training, Kim Klein’s classes, and a seminar from Penelope Burk of Donor-Centered-Fundraising fame (her book, Donor-Centered Fundraising, is one that I constantly reference).

And, frankly, for every great seminar or course I’ve attended, I’ve attended five that were worthless.

More often than not, I’ve spent my own money for training and books (nonprofit organizations are notoriously reluctant to spend money on training – for shame!).   Regular readers know, too, that I am a huge fan of Sofii.org – the fundraiser’s swipe file (if you haven’t visited it, or made a donation, check it out!)

Yet, despite all of the classes and coursework I’ve completed I’m so very grateful for that earlier sales and marketing training and believe that it has been the real catalyst to my successful career in development.  Truly understanding what goes on in the mind of your prospective donor and what they respond to is at the core of all great development work.

We’re all in this kind of work to make a real difference.  After over thirteen years working in the nonprofit development arena, though, I’ve learned that to be genuinely effective – to really make a difference – organizations need to be just as committed to funding their missions as they are to their mission.  There is simply no way to ever not pay a price.

How did you get your start in nonprofit development work?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael J. Rosen, CFRE February 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm

In my book “Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing,” I share how I got my introduction to the nonprofit world and fundraising. In summary, once upon a time in the long, long ago, I began to learn about philanthropy and fundraising. I was eight years old, and wanted my parents to buy me some comic books. My mother said that she would get me any ‘‘real’’ book I wanted but, if I wanted comic books, I would have to spend my allowance. Well, in those days, an allowance was not an entitlement; I had to earn it by doing household chores. Sadly, I was already at my maximum earning capacity. And, I had no more money for the latest edition of Superman.

Because I simply had to have the latest Superman comic book, I asked my mother if I could sell my old comic books and open up a lemonade stand to generate some quick cash. Fortunately, she granted her permission. My first entrepreneurial effort was a terrific success. I generated what in today’s dollars would be about $150. As an eight-year-old kid, I was rich! Recognizing that I did not need to buy quite that many comic books, my mother suggested I give half of it away to charity. She further said that, if I agreed with her suggestion, I could pick whatever charity I wanted.

At the time, our local newspaper operated a fund to send ‘‘poor, inner-city’’ kids to summer recreational camp. I grew up in the suburbs. However, my cousin grew up in the big city. I knew how miserable summertime in the city could be for a kid. I knew how good I had it, even with our meager working-class lifestyle. I wanted other kids to enjoy the clean air and open spaces that I enjoyed. So, I took my coffee can with half of my earnings and marched into that local newsroom. The editor was so moved that he had my picture taken and put me on the front page! My little eight-year-old ego swelled. I was inspired for each of the next several summers to run a front-yard fair for that summer camp fund. The only changes were that I gave 100 percent of the revenue
to the charity and the event got bigger each year. It even inspired similar efforts in other neighborhoods.

I can trace the roots of both careers I have had in my adult life—journalism and development—back to that little boy’s experience. I learned a great deal about fundraising in those days, especially about what it takes to inspire donors to support a good cause. I also learned how good it feels to be philanthropic.

Both my parents taught me about tikkun olam, a core value of Judaism that translates as “heal the world.” Many faiths have a similar concept. It resonated with me. It’s how I live my life. I thank my parents for their superb example.

Pamela Grow February 24, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Thank you for sharing such a moving story Michael!

Bob Rowell February 24, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I, too, wanted to make a difference. Upon returning from Peace Corps, I sought a way to continue and further my work in environmental conservation. This led me to non-profits such as YMCA env. ed. camps, science centers and museums. I found that staff often held ideals closer to their hearts than did administration.

Jeff Groenewald February 25, 2011 at 9:18 am

It all goes back to a battery-powered megaphone, and a dunk tank at the local town fair at the age of 15. I realized I had a gift for convincing people to get involved.

In university, a passion for Christian missions began to grow, and as they say, the rest is history.

Sherry Truhlar February 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Six years ago I dove into my “To Do” list when I was laid off from GE. I decided there was no better time to check a few activities off my bucket list.

I did the typical (real estate academy, dance classes), and atypical, exotic animal training school. My graduation project was getting Bamm Bamm, a male grizzly, to smile on camera. (Sounds easy, but it’s not.)

When it came to making money, I founded a charity auction firm called Red Apple Auctions. As an auctioneer, I do the “fast talk.” Yet as a female, I comprise just 7% of auctioneers. The best part is I’ve helped the majority of my clients — in a recession — hit new auction records. The fastest growing segment of my business is coaching non-profits how to improve their event’s profitability by using marketing techniques I honed from 12+ years of working at Fortune 10 companies. So now, I teach volunteers how to boost ROI at their auction fundraisers. How rewarding to help groups succeed!

Benjamin March 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Since I’ve started contributing money to several causes I feel strongly connected to, I’ve started paying more attention to how these organizations market themselves when conducting fundraising drives. This really puts it all into perspective from an “insider”, since I’ve always worked in the for-profit sector. Thanks for the valuable insight, and congratulations on your previous successes!

Nathan Hand June 9, 2011 at 8:13 am

My boss in my first nonprofit job got her start after a little run-in with the law sentenced her to community service. It stuck and she’s been in the sector for 20+ years :).

I get that question a lot and can’t pinpoint a particular ‘a-ha’ moment. I think it was a combination of my parents being involved in the community and the service-mindset that came with scouting, school service activities, etc. I went to college to be a biology major and then go to law school to be a patent lawyer. I dropped my bio class 6 weeks in. I was spending more time at the campus community center developing service trips & projects, doing leadership development for younger students and creating university-nonprofit partnerships. The rest is history.

Leslie Clay July 28, 2011 at 7:22 am

I always say that I “fell” into nonprofit work – it was not a major when I attended college like it is now. I majored in TV-Radio-Film and Advertising, but ended up in computers and banking! Left the paying workforce when our children were born and was an unpaid worker for many years. Decided to re-enter the workforce (part time) and ended up doing admin work. The husband of a college friend was looking for someone to do admin at a small nonprofit where he was the ED. I came on to answer phones, type, etc. Found I really liked the work – and just asked if I could take on new responsibilites. What I liked best was promoting the organization and connecting with the members. I always said I would do ANYTHING but development – not realizing that promoting the organization was part of development.

I remember the distince moment I realized that fundraising was not about asking someone for something, it was about offering people the opportunity for them to make the difference. The ED left abruptly and I was left as the only other employee at the nonprofit and we had a golf tournament to put on in a month and essentially NOTHING had been done. We needed dinner supplied for the event and the Board President put me in touch with a contact he had at a major restaurant chain. I put together my collateral materials (thank goodness for all those promotion classes in college) and timidly set out for the appointment. We didn’t even go up to her office – we met in the building foyer. I told her about the organization and how the tournament would help. I think it took all of 10 minutes. She didn’t even bat an eye when she said yes, they would furnish a wonderful dinner for 100 people – all gratis to the organization. I am still not convinced the Board President didn’t lay the groundwork for me – he claims he didn’t. Right then I thought “hey, development work might not be so hard!” The rest is history. It took me a few years and 3 other nonprofits to get to a nonprofit where all I had to be concerned with was development and I love it.

John July 28, 2011 at 7:24 am

I took an online grant writing workshop at http://simplenonprofit.com/grantwriting . It turned out to be the best teaching on grant writing I have ever gotten and launched my ability to write super successful grant proposals.

Donna Caputo July 28, 2011 at 8:21 am

I was hired by chance through a temp agency to work as a Development Assistant in a 2-person shop at a small community hospital. Two weeks into my “temp job” the hospital offered me the job. Three or four months after that, the board fired my boss and I spent the next year and a half working as the lone paid staff member, coordinating fundraising efforts and events with the volunteer committees and board. It was a surprising twist that led to a successful, satisfying career!

Jennifer Spies December 2, 2011 at 8:01 am

Like Leslie, I fell into the nonprofit world during college. I applied for several internships during my last semester, both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and I got a communications internship at Minnesota Children’s Museum. After I graduated, I completed a second, longer communications internship at Children’s HeartLink and got more involved with the online/social media world.

Since both of my internships focused on the online side of communications, so my skill set matched really well for my current position at Luther Seminary as an online fundraising specialist.

I have about a year of nonprofit experience right now and I couldn’t imagine working in a different sector. I love what I do and the results I see in the world because of my work.

Rick J. Blount January 13, 2012 at 8:14 am

Thanks for the question, Pamela. As you well know, people like being asked about their stories. Here’s mine:

I got into fundraising two ways (to paraphrase Hemingway) — gradually and then suddenly.

The sudden part came when I was in my mid-30s and serving on the board of our local Community Health Center. I was on the steering committee of a timid campaign seeking $400K to modestly increase our space and protect our building from a rumored adult bookstore. The number seemed enormous to me, and I had no idea who would be silly enough to give us that much money. We raised $2.1 million, bought the building and created the space our community deserved. The epiphany hit as I was walking to a press conference with a local entrepreneur who was about to announce a leadership gift. He said, “I think I’m going to cry.” I said, “Please do. It will let others know how much this means to you.” His emotional delivery made it clear how deeply privileged he felt –and that giving feels really, really good.

The gradual part came in my evolution into the type of person who can type that last sentence with straight-faced certitude. I was trained in writing, and my career path had gone from college writing instructor to medical writer to — at the time of the campaign — PR/communications director for a medical school. By this point, I had come to realize that I am drawn to the intersection of emotion and reason. (Plenty of that in medicine.) I am zealous about the human imperative to take care of one another. After the campaign, a major gifts position came open at the medical school to which I had dedicated the past 7 years. As I considered this opportunity, I recalled not only the campaign but also the fact that development pros constituted some of my best friends from the two medical school conferences I attended each year. I thought – perhaps naively – that I might be able to help bridge the chasm between PR/Communications professionals and Alumni/Development pros. I also drew on local non-profit connections, including my wife — who was at the time development director of our YMCA.

Taking stock of the “gradual” it was easy to make a sudden transition. It has been a gift.

Steven January 13, 2012 at 9:57 am

Some might question our sanity for seeking out this line of work.

I have always been in sales, but thankfully I got good early training in two very different environments: Best Buy Customer Service, and a summer job working in the suites at Ranger Stadium. At Best Buy I got some of the best customer service training I have ever seen, at the stadium I got to see and be a part of the foundations of a few ballplayers- namely the Pudge Rodriguez Foundation. At 14 I was seeing the “backroom” i.e.- how important service is, and the good that can be done with money when applied properly.

Fast forward 16 years. I was burnt out. I had done a lot of things: Worked in the music business, started a roofing company, worked as event coordinator, and now I was selling ag chemicals. No matter what my title was it was all sales, making someone else rich, and at the end of the day I was taking too much time away from my family and not really doing anything GOOD.

Reevaluation time. I found that the jobs I had really loved were the the jobs that allowed me to do good work while doing my job. The foundations I got to work with at the ballpark, 3 years of doing Country Cares for Kids with St. Judes, 4 years of doing Race for the Cure through the event planning company…how could I turn my volunteer fundraising into a job? It’s all sales, right?

I gave myself 6 months to find a job doing just that. Something that felt good to come into the office for. Something that I could look my kids in the eye and know that I was working for a good reason. Not just to make the most cash, or to make my employer rich, but to be a positive benefit. I talked to my employer, helped train the staff at 3 different offices, and was part of the hiring process to replace me. This was in 2009, in the start of the recession. My wife could have killed me, but she was supportive. I opted out of my contract renewal which was to roll over February 15 of 2010. My 30th birthday was February 21st.

Friday February 12 I got a call back from one of my interviews, and they asked if I would come in for a second. They offered me the job and I took it, starting February 22nd. My first day as a 30 year old was my first day on the job. It was awesome. We increased funds 15% the first year, 28% the second.

Unfortunately after 2 years the honeymoon ended, but I am now having a lot more fun helping different companies grow their fundraising with awesome guidance from Pamela, Mazarine, John Lepp, and Mark Pittman (to name a few).

Beth Ann Locke April 16, 2012 at 8:11 am

My first job out of college was at my alma mater in the College of Engineering, as a secretary. The Development Office there was a great team, raising the 2nd greatest amount of funds at the University of Washington at the time. I watched and enjoyed hearing stories about the work they were doing.

When the Associate Director left to lead the new Development Office at Harborview Medical Center, I applied and was the most junior person on the team of three – but boy did I learn a lot fundraising for the largest trauma center in the region. I felt it was my calling and 20 years later have never looked back! I enjoy making a difference in the community and in the lives of individuals everywhere I have worked. For me, it is a higher calling!

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