How to be a Leonardo da Vinci fundraiser

I just read a wonderful book: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.

It closely follows the life of Leonardo, had an amazing mind and a hard time staying on task.

At the end of the book is a section called “Learning from Leonardo.” It gives some characteristics of Leonardo’s genius that any of us can imitate in our own search for whatever it is we’re searching for.

I thought it would be a useful list for future fundraisers who know what still have a lot to learn, so I’ve added my own comments to the advice from Leonardo’s life.

I hope it helps and inspires you:

  • Be curious, relentlessly curious. It’s easy to take what you know as “settled.” But conditions change. Ask lots of questions, even very “obvious” ones, like “Why do donors give to us?”
  • Seek knowledge for its own sake. The most important answers often come when you ask big questions, not just when you know what you’re looking for.
  • Retained a childlike sense of wonder. When you know fundraising and charitable giving are in the domain of the miraculous, you’ll do much better work. And enjoy it more.
  • Observe. The answer is usually right in front of you. But you have to notice it!
  • Start with the details. This is especially important. Pay very close attention to which donors do what. Notice their timing, the order they respond (or don’t respond), who complains, who upgrades, who downgrades. The magic is hiding in that kind of data!
  • See things unseen. Leonardo looked closely at what the edge of a shadow actually looks like. It’s something every human of all time sees constantly. But looked directly at it and helped change the way art looks. Look that closely at your donors.
  • Go down rabbit holes. More than just rabbits are in some of them!
  • Get distracted. Focus is great, but sometimes it blinds you.
  • Respect facts. So often, the way donors behave seems “wrong.” Don’t let that influence you. They do what they do, not what we wish they’d do!
  • Procrastinate. It’s not a good habit, but sometimes you learn something useful while you’re not doing something necessary. And sometimes the artificial pressure you create by procrastinating gives you energy.
  • Let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Really zero in on getting stuff right. (On the other hand, don’t let this get in the way of making progress and finishing projects!)
  • Think visually. Sometimes you uncover something powerful by trying to draw a picture of the challenge you face.
  • Avoid silos. Silos kill fundraising. The most deadline silos of all are the ones inside your own brain.
  • Let your reach exceed your grasp.
  • Indulge fantasy. Ask crazy what-if questions about your donors and your messaging.
  • Create for yourself, not just for patrons. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent use all of your mind.
  • Collaborate. Find partners everywhere!
  • Make lists.
  • Take notes, on paper. There are lots of great note-taking apps, but you can’t beat paper.
  • Be open to mystery. The more often and more deeply you explore things, the more often you’ll find things that are hard to explain. Get used to it! That’s a sign that you’re paying close attention.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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