Advice for the fundraiser as a young man

When I was a young fundraiser, I was an extremist. I zoomed back and forth between two kinds of fundraising extremism. It was kind of fun, and it gave me a continuing sense of self-righteous fervor.

But I was missing the boat, over and over again.

I went back and forth between what I’ll call right-wing fundraising and left-wing fundraising. These are not political terms in any way, but describe approaches to fundraising itself. Let me describe them:

Right-wing fundraising

This is fundraising that stays with best practices. It’s cynical of new approaches. It has advantages and disadvantages…

Advantage: Fundraising results are usually good. Best practices are best for a reason — they work!

Disadvantage: You don’t innovate. You’ve seen too many bogus innovations that cost too much and accomplish nothing. So changes — generational and cultural shifts, changes in technology and media use — they can catch you unprepared.

Left-wing fundraising

This is fundraising that’s focused on innovation, change, and the future. It also has advantages and disadvantages…

Advantage: You figure stuff out early, and adjust more quickly to changes in the fundraising landscape. You tend to be one step (or more) ahead of others, which can be a huge advantage.

Disadvantage: You fail and screw up a lot. Let’s face it: The majority of new ideas don’t work the way they’re intended to. That’s just the way life is. And it’s nearly impossible to see the badness of an idea when you’re in new territory.

As a young fundraiser, my natural tendency was toward left-wing fundraising. I talked about the need for innovation all the time, and I had no patience for “we’ve always done it that way” as a reason for doing anything. I loved manifestos and open letters that made bold statements and predictions. I wrote a few myself.

But now and then, I’d encounter some half-baked “innovation” that was self-evidently stupid — but being touted and accepted purely because it was new. I’d fly to the right and become a spokesman for knowledge, wisdom, and proof.

It took me a long time to realize that both extremes are great. And both are flawed. And that the secret to success is not to sell your soul to either extreme.

To be a moderate fundraiser.

If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, that’s what I would say. I’d give myself a set of principles something like these:

  • “We’ve always done it that way” is not a sufficient reason for doing something. It’s also not a sufficient reason for not doing something. The past is a guide. Not a prison.
  • Best practices are more likely good than bad. But there’s no guarantee they’re good. Test and question them.
  • Change is inevitable. We face a change of generations (Boomers are replacing the older generation). We face major changes in communication technology and the way people use them. Costs for traditional fundraising media are going up faster than inflation. Ignore those things, or fade away!
  • The more things change, the more they stay the same. Human psychology has not changed, despite all the other things that are changing. Everything you have to do to succeed in the old media — you still have to do in the new.

Knowing those things would have really saved me a lot of time, energy, and bonehead errors.

Then again, my young self probably wouldn’t have paid attention to a gray-haired, middle-aged codger trying to tell him these things.

Maybe the only way to learn is the hard way.


Comments

Leave a Reply

What this blog is about

The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

Blog policies

Subscribe

Get new posts by email:

About the blogger

Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


Archives

Blogroll

Categories


Search the blog

The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

Recent Comments

About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.