The Art of Asking: Fundraising Tips for Non-fundraising Executives

By Greg Duyck

Over a fundraising career spanning more than 20 years, I’ve worked with dozens of healthcare, higher education and other nonprofit leaders seeking to attract philanthropy to their organizations. While some of these leaders embraced this role, and others begrudgingly accepted it, all of them recognized the importance of fundraising to their ultimate goal: fulfilling their mission.

Fundraising today is a team effort, everyone’s responsibility up to the very top of the organization. The following, for example, is excerpted from a position specification for a college president search that WittKieffer recently conducted: “The president will be the chief architect of the institution’s future philanthropic goals, serving as its chief fundraiser and championing the university’s aspirations to prospective donors.”

There are a few steps you can take as a CEO, president, provost, COO or whatever your title may be to prepare yourself for development and help you feel more comfortable with the philanthropic process. If I were advising you, I’d suggest you begin here:

  1. Start with a book or two.

There are several excellent introductions to the philanthropic process. Asking by legendary fundraiser and consultant Jerry Panas is a great opener – a quick, thorough guide to development and the solicitation process. William Sturtevant’s book The Artful Journey provides a more in-depth exploration of development. For the viewpoint of the donor, Ron Schiller’s book Belief and Confidence offers insightful perspectives, essential to understanding how your supporters see their partnership with you. Making the Case for Leadership: Profiles of Chief Advancement Officers in Higher Education, co-authored by my colleague Zach Smith, is helpful especially for academic leaders.

  1. Attend a fundraising leadership conference with your development lead.

Recognizing the central role that non-development executives play in the philanthropic process, many professional fundraising organizations have launched conferences focused on these leaders. The Association for Healthcare Philanthropy hosts the Leading Forward conference each year for chief development officers and executives to learn about philanthropy in a small group setting. The Association of American Medical Colleges builds “Executive Leadership Conversations” into its annual AAMC Conference for Institutional Advancement. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (the higher ed group) offers several conferences that may be useful: Development for Deans and Academic Leaders; Institute for Chief Business Officers and Chief Advancement Officers; as well as conferences in Europe for academic leaders and others.

  1. Find a mentor.

One of the easiest ways to learn about the development process is to talk it through with an experienced peer, especially if you can do it in person. Look around your community or state, locate a peer or aspirant institution, identify a colleague in that institution who is experienced in fundraising and reach out. Optimally, your mentor will be someone you know fairly well and with whom you’re already friendly so that the conversation will be easier. Ask if they would be willing to meet or talk with you regularly so that you can learn from their experience.

  1. Consider outside counsel.

One possible solution is to seek external expertise. While you would never want to undermine your relationship with your development lead, especially if you’re the president or CEO, finding a fundraising “coach” as a way to educate yourself and add to your relationship with your development lead may be helpful. Setting up a relationship in which your development lead joins the consulting conversation regularly would be optimal, to ensure that the advice you’re receiving is consistent with their strategy. There are many very good fundraising consultants in every nonprofit sector to choose from. You could even ask your mentor to help select one.

  1. Meet with your existing donors.

Ultimately, the best way to learn the fundraising process, and thereby feel more comfortable developing philanthropic relationships, is by doing it. I would encourage you, especially if you’re new to your position, to set up visits with existing donors and your development lead as soon as possible. These supporters will be eager to hear your thoughts about the organization and your vision for the future, and they will also be open to sharing how they became involved. The most important thing to do in these meetings is listen. It’s a good way to begin understanding your donor community, their motivations and the process to engage them.

After this initial work, I’d recommend cultivating and soliciting donors for new gifts in partnership with your development lead as soon as possible. Again, practice is the best method for understanding fundraising.

Keep in mind that fundraising skills are something you’ll need throughout your career. (This article by my colleague Suzanne Teer highlights how search committees are looking for fundraising skills in candidates.) While educating yourself as a fundraiser will require time, it will pay dividends now and well into the future.

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