Words to Live By (Or Not): A Fundraiser's Holiday Rant



Last year around this time, I created a list of the 10 worst things about fundraising.

I am grateful that many colleagues in the field read the post and related to it, but truth be told, I am not really surprised. After all, “misery loves company,” and we all know about the “special” misery reserved for those who have chosen fundraising as their destiny!

So with that cheery thought in mind, I have decided to pay homage to our profession again by sharing 10 homilies to live by. As it is the time for home and hearth—not to mention those critical end-of-the-year, now-or-never, do-or-die, last-ditch, pull-out-all-the-stops, annual fundraising campaigns—the moment seems appropriate.  

I call these tidbits “KBHisms,” which I hope will guide you through the cold winter months ahead and provide some comfort. You are not alone. Every fundraiser in the world is gazing up at the heavens right this very moment, praying for a miracle that the huge gift they have labored over day and night for the last 10 months will finally close before 2018 is history.

KBHisms: The List

1. Credit Is Easy, Money Is Hard. This one is a no-brainer. Simply put, funders want to be recognized and thanked for their contributions. The old adage about modesty being a virtue, ’tis better to give than receive, blah, blah, blah—throw this idea away immediately. Be creative. Think big. Acknowledge donors as much and as often as possible—online, in print, in person, on stage. Why be stingy with credits? Give good service. After all, no one is giving you money to sit in lousy seats. It’s a competitive world out there. Welcome donors when they arrive at your event. Show them the love. It will make your life so much easier when you knock on their doors next year asking for a renewal!

2. Fundraising Is Really About Good Manners and Common Sense. This is another version of KBHism #1. Seriously, when a donor asks you to place their credit on the left in green using a particular font, is it really worth arguing about it? Stubborn design and marketing departments have brought down many worthy gifts because they are unwilling to compromise. I would urge those interfering with “funder harmony” to remember the old adage “the customer is always right… even when they are wrong!”

3. Delayed Gratification Is the Fundraiser Creed. Handling rejection is your mantra. Resilience is your religion. Don’t be deterred. Keep inviting them. Find ways to get closer, inch by inch. In this case, the old saying “Patience is a virtue” is spot-on. Stay calm. It is important to be aggressive, but remember there is a short distance between persistent and obnoxious. I know; I have crossed this line before and it has always ended badly.

4. Great Institutions Are Built on Great Endowments. Channel Harvard University, the Metropolitan Museum or Central Park. A healthy endowment is the ticket to freedom, forever!  Invested wisely, it will grow over decades, bringing your organization millions of dollars in passive income in perpetuity. (Hurrah! Money you don’t have to raise every year!) Yes, it is very difficult to raise funds for endowment purposes. It is hard to build a large, well-performing fund. It is equally hard not to invade it at the first sign of trouble. It requires discipline and fortitude. But if you succeed, the long-term rewards are many. And—bonus point—this endowment will also be the greatest anti-anxiety drug you have ever known, providing you comfort and reassurance just because you know it’s there.

5. When You Buy a House, There Are Three Important Things to Remember: Location, Location, Location. When you raise money, there are three important things to consider: research, research, research. Be prepared. Know whom you are asking and for what purpose. A good ask is:

  • Thoughtful: You understand and have thoroughly reviewed their guidelines, assets, other grants awarded, mission and deadlines and have aligned your project with them.

  • Reasonable: You have studied their giving patterns and, while it is OK to be “ambitious,” don’t go crazy. Keep the amount of your request in the respectful zone.

  • Non-oppositional: If they don’t fund classical music, don’t try to persuade them to change their approach just because you want them to. People are busy. They have given a lot of thought to their funding categories. Don’t waste their time or yours.

6. You Lose More Money Presenting Opera by Intermission Than You Do Presenting an Entire Season of Theater. It is a fact; some things (like opera) are just expensive. If we want to do these things, our boards and donors must accept that reality. In opera, the wigs alone can equal the budget of a small country. And then there are the singers, the orchestra and the fact that the artists cannot perform large, demanding roles night after night. It’s the way it is. But just because something is hard or costly doesn’t mean we should avoid it. It means we need a solid fundraising plan that will appeal to donors who care about it and are willing to help absorb the costs.

7. There Is Nothing Theoretical About Fundraising. It lives only in the world of the practical. Simply put, you either raise money or you don’t. Trying hard may get you a pat on the back from your equally stressed colleagues, but a win is a win only when the check is deposited. Stay focused. Be tough. Don’t waste time speculating on what might have been. Suck it up. Get back to work.

8. Great Institutions Speak in One Voice. This is the reality that exists when the marketing, fundraising and other related areas of management feel like the programming. Everything is in sync. The message is clear. The graphics are strong. Donors, audience members and the entire community of stakeholders actually understand what your organization is doing. You have succeeded in breaking through the clutter. Things are looking up!

9. Fundraising Is Akin to a Military Operation. You have a dedicated game plan for each of your flanks or constituents (foundations, corporations, high-net-worth individuals, lower-level members, galas, government appropriations, etc.). You will have to be flexible and ready to change direction during the heat of battle. Your efforts must be thorough—top-down, bottom-up—and leave no stone unturned. Be prepared to take casualties along the way, but when you stay committed, victory is within reach.

10. Bold, Visionary Programming Wins the Day. Yes, we need general operating support and funds to cover basic administrative expenses, but it’s not enough just to get the show on the stage, pay the staff and keep the building clean. The great ideas and projects that move the needle and build your organization’s reputation are the Holy Grail of your work. Think about how to group powerful initiatives and programs together and request multi-year funding for them. You will raise more money and accomplish your goals at the highest level when you set forth on an ambitious journey.

As we head into the New Year, remember that finding support for the most worthy causes really does make the world a better place. This, my fellow fundraisers, is why you have chosen this difficult but rewarding path.

Related: 'Tis the Season: The 10 Most Excruciating Parts of Fundraising

Karen Brooks Hopkins is the President Emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nasher Haemisegger Fellow at SMU DataArts, and Senior Advisor to the Onassis Foundation.