Fundraising is a Conversation

Last night I spoke to the Board of the Montessori School in Wilton.  Almost all of the members of the Board have experience raising funds, along with a strong commitment and willingness to raise funds.  So I was cognizant of not wanting to “preach to the choir” or go into all those fundraising tactics, that – quite honestly – are primarily of interest to development professionals.  What interests a Board member is different.

Volunteers are the backbone of any organization.  And volunteers who are raising funds are  about as good as it gets.  So, what is the one thing that can make a volunteer feel comfortable about raising money?  I think it’s simple.   If you believe that the basic premise of raising money is “people give to people” – then fundraising is a conversation.

The very best fundraisers are people who know how to connect with other people; and connect in a meaningful way.  They are not afraid to share stores, or values or the things that touch the heart.

Everywhere in America people today are raising money – after all, it’s event season.   In communities throughout our country volunteers are working hard to stage galas and walks and benefits of all shapes and sizes.  Many might be worrying about the food they will be serving, getting the right auction items or whether enough people will show up.  This is all important.  What is just as important, though, is how you engage your guests and tie them to your cause.  And my suggestion is to begin a conversation with every guest or participant at your event by asking a magic question.  A magic question is one that brings the conversation around to the services and impact your charity offers.  A magic question explores stories, values and things that touch the heart.   Here are three magic questions for you to bring along and ask at your next event:

1)      How are you connected with this wonderful organization?
2)      What brought you to this event?
3)      Is there anyone you know that has been helped by the work this organization does?

Ask – and then don’t be afraid to share your own story – that is how conversations work.

Once you start sharing, then it is easy to see how “fundraising is a conversation”.  And here is one other secret — conversations that focus on what really matters naturally progress to “how can I help”.  And I think we know the answer to that question.


Before your eyes glaze over …  I think it is interesting to note that The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported a new poll by AFP that showed ethical dilemmas are relatively rare in fund raising, and that “the lion’s share of fundraisers – 82 percent — face ethical dilemmas once a month or less.” That may be rare – unless you happen to be facing your monthly ethical dilemma.  But, if we come right down to the matter — I think we face ethical dilemmas everyday in the small, seemingly innocuous decisions we make.   

Recently my co-vice president of Professional Advancement for the Association of Development Officers in Westchester – Paula Barbag – and I put together a luncheon program on “ethics.”  We asked Dr. Gene Buccini to facilitate and came up with a number of situations that could pose an ethical dilemma.  These were discussed at the respective luncheon tables – and then the thoughts were shared among all the guests. The discussion was fascinating, particularly as there was never any real consensus, but a lot of “it depends …” (And, as most of the group was development officers, they seemed to always be trying to find ethical ways to accept the contribution.  No real surprise there.) 

How we behave, and how we receive and present information actually poses potential ethical decisions all the time.  We just happen to make them without giving them a lot of thought.  But, just for a few minutes, I’d like to challenge you to think about a few situations that might give you pause – and possibly present an ethical dilemma.

  • Are you being truthful when you present a hopeful scenario on a grant application, knowing that your organization, like all others, faces some problems that may not be quite as promising as you portrayed?
  • How honest are you when you estimate the proportion of your budget that goes to fundraising and the percentage that goes to programs? 
  • How do you count the number of people affected by the services your organization provides?
  • What if a donor makes unreasonable demands on your organization, such as asking for benefits not accorded to other donors, or even requiring an inordinate amount of time from staff?  What about if it is time they are taking from program staff?
  • What if a donor left your development officer in his/her will – in addition to your organization?  Or what if your organization was excluded and the development officer was not?  Yikes
  • Should a major donor be given special privileges?  When is it ok? When is it considered favoritism?  Consider concierge services at a hospital or the admissions office of a college or university.
  • What if a major donor made a “pass” at a young attractive fundraiser on your staff?  What if the donor was married and the staff member complained?   What if it was at a gala and the fundraiser was dressed provocatively?  Uh-oh.
  • Should the CEO of an organization be given a loan from the nonprofit he/she runs to pay his or her mortgage or debt if the individual were experiencing legitimate financial problems, such as an illness in his/her family?  And he/she has worked there 20 + years?
  • Should you accept a large gift from someone for a purpose that deviates from your mission?  What if it is a VERY large gift with a promise of an endowment?
  • How do you report how much you raised from your event – what do you count, what don’t you count – and do you report net or gross to your Board?  Is that the same number you report to the public?

 Every one of these questions have actually been experienced by people working at or affiliated with a not for profit organization.  And they were pretty agonizing.  There are no “right or wrong” answers, in most instances — or perhaps you think there are.  My favorite explanation of whether or not you are being ethical is:  “can you look your mother in the eye?”    Hmmmmmm ….. Post a Comment … Let me know what you think …..

Who Needs a Philanthopy Therapist?

Sharon DanoskyI think the answer to that might be anyone who is seeking donor support to rev up their non-profit engine.  And that might well be every CEO, Executive Director, VP or Director of Development and members of a non-profit Board.

Welcome to my blog – The Philanthropy Therapist

I have to confess, I didn’t coin the phrase Philanthropy Therapist.  That actually came from some of my clients who laughingly refer to me as such after a particularly intense meeting or discussion.  But when I think about it – it makes sense.  Keeping an NGO on track with the resources required to move it forward and serve its mission is hard.  And, a bit lonely.  So, I decided to name my blog – yes, you know.

What I have learned from my years of working in the non-profit sector is that while there is a community of people who are willing to listen, and who have experienced similar frustrations, it is sometimes hard to share your experiences. Your colleague might also be a competitor, your friends don’t really understand your mission-focused work, your spouse will try to fix it, and you simply can’t share certain things with your employees, your Board, your CEO.   So, you turn to books, the Internet and – maybe – you can find someone who will serve as a philanthropy therapist.  (By the way, we also often go by the name consultant).  A philanthropy therapist is someone who:

  • Will Listen
  • Has been in a similar situation
  • Offers sound advice
  • Sees the humor
  • Provides perspective
  • Picks you up to fight another day
  • Laughs at your awful jokes

In the most traditional, straight-forward sense, you actually seek out a consultant for his or her vast array of experience who can offer valuable guidance, strategic direction and solutions.  What really matters, though, is whether that person can provide the hope and confidence for you to undertake what you need to do and chart the course that will raise the bar for your not-for-profit organization.  Because it is lonely out there – and sometimes you just need someone who is on your side.

The Philanthropy Therapist
Sharon J. Danosky
Danosky & Associates

For over 30 years, Sharon J. Danosky, founder and president of Danosky & Associates, has dedicated her career to working with not-for-profit organizations.  As both a consultant and a senior executive for numerous charitable organizations, she has transformed organizations into highly effectively charities of choice in their communities