Long ago – longer than I actually care to remember – I sat in a seminar which promised to present a new and successful solution to fundraising. Why not, I thought, after all, it wasn’t going to be the first one or the last one. Turned out this one completely changed my view on the way that we conducted fundraising from that point onward and the results were not at at all shy to appear.
As I listened to Jennifer McCrea talk about “friend raising” instead of fundraising and creating connection instead of (maybe not instead of but way before) making the ask, things started to make sense to me. I had never been good at asking for money – in fact, my leader and mentor had been quite honest about that. But I was good at creating connection and right there Jennifer was taking something that I felt I could not touch and presented it as something that was clearly within my reach.
Going back to the office, I suggested trying our hand with a “simple” Jeffersonian Dinner, to start creating momentum for the campaign we were hoping to launch. The key I believe was that we were not dead set on starting anything until we gauged the interest and involvement level of our key prospects.
I am not sure if it was the newness of the event, the people around the table, the fact that we sent the invites well in advance, or all of the above, but this was an amazingly good start. People who would otherwise not speak too much too each other – maybe not even meet – spent an evening engaging in a conversation about the educational experience that most impacted them. They heard personal stories around the table and connected with people they did not know at all or only knew professionally. Everybody left the dinner feeling energized, wanting more of the connection they had just experienced and with a clear understanding that the conversation had only just started. This was key: the dinner was followed by emails (many initiated by the guests and not us), meetings (in formal and informal settings), discussions and more connection. Connection in one on one meetings was sustained through authentic conversation around various issues.
We spent about one year connecting before we even started to think about asking for money. This enabled us to understand our potential donors better, what is important to them and what they stand for, and prompted the latter to extend a helping hand before any ask was even made. In a country where philanthropy is not at all ingrained in the culture, this was by far the biggest surprise.
As the most successful fundraising campaign has exceeded its goal in our organization, 3 years after my sitting in front of Jennifer McCrea in Zurich, I look back on all the US and UK fundraising and donor relations conferences, webinars, articles and books that have crossed my path, each and every one of them leaving me – coming from a former communist block country in Eastern Europe – feeling more and more alienated, as if I was aspiring to something I will never touch so I might as well stop dreaming about it. Meeting Jennifer, emailing with her and reading her book, The Generosity Network, changed all that for me and re-shaped my dream into something tangible, that worked. (I strongly recommend her Harvard Courses as well, for whomever is in the US or can afford to jump across “the pond” for them. )
Looking back now, a few important things stand out:
- Do your homework in regards to your prospective donors so as to understand the best ways in which to connect with them.
- Choose the person who connects and makes the ask wisely – these must be people who have contributed to the cause themselves, out of a genuine desire to make a difference and a belief in the project’s usefulness.
- Treat the newly formed relationship just as you would a newborn baby – nourish it, be true to it, have fun with it and allow it and help it to grow. It is the only way for real connection.