The 8 Keys of a Successful Modern Fundraiser

The 8 Keys of a Successful Modern Fundraiser


ince the dawn of philanthropy, we’ve been trying to build a better fundraiser.

Like some Frankenstein monster, we’ve assembled fundraisers out of the leftovers of other disciplines. Bits of negotiation tactics: “Shut up after you ask.” Lengths of direct mail wisdom: “Write short.” Chunks of marketing strategy: “Practice your elevator pitch!”

Some fundraisers have been able to connect the pieces together.

Others are feared by the village donors. Occasionally, they are chased with pitchforks into the night.


In the ‘60s, Carlton Ketchum, a founder of the firm that has become Pursuant, defined the best fundraisers in dichotomies. Also, as men:

“[They are] bold but modest, aggressive but tactful, confident but prudent, alert without presenting the appearance of over-eagerness. He must be resourceful, far-seeing, discriminating and wise. He must make a fine personal appearance and convey the impression of being both a wonderful fellow to know and be with, and a man of dignity, poise and judgment. A true conservative who is, at the same time, full of originality and invention. He must carry instant appeal to old and young, man and woman, great and small.”

Jerrold Panas defined 16 successful traits, or “verities.”

And a few years ago, Dr. Beth Breeze of the University of Kent tried to answer the question too. She found 11 traits.

And while I wouldn’t argue with any of these (save Ketchum’s anachronistic sexism), there still seems room to add definition to what a successful fundraiser looks like.

What about the skills needed in small shops? When you’re juggling your annual fund appeal, a foundation proposal, and a gala? Or the skills to handle the diverse world we live in? Or being a young millennial asking for bequest commitments?

What does it take to be a successful “modern” fundraiser?

Well, here are 8 things I think make the difference between great and extraordinary:

Life-long learning

If you think having years of experience under your belt or an advanced degree gets you off from continuing to learn, you’re wrong. And you’re missing out.

It wasn’t so long ago that fundraisers learned the majority of the craft on the job. If you were lucky, you might have had enough budget to cover a conference, or at least an AFP membership.

Now it’s hard to throw a hashtag around without hitting a fundraising expert. Everyone seems to have ablog with great insights or a masterclass in almost anything. Most are free or cost a fraction of your last direct mail campaign.

brainI remember when I first heard Penelope Burk speak at a conference, it was a revelation. Now her studies seem less prescient but only because there is research everywhere.

You can devour the knowledge from the best minds in the field for the price of a few hours of your time. You can read Adrian Sargeant’s work without being an academic. Software vendors are sharing research as content marketing. Even foundations are investing in fundraising research.

Learning opportunities today are endless and endlessly varied. If you’re not taking the time to brush up on the latest trends or learning a new skill, you’re falling behind.

No fear of discomfort

The most successful people in any field know one common feeling: discomfort. They also happen to push past it.

If you’re a gift officer, you’ll make more asks that end in “No” than “Yes.” If you’re a copywriter, you’ll have a few direct mail pieces that you love more than your donors did. It’s okay.

In your career you will be asked, if you haven’t already, to take on a task, a project, a new job that you’re not ready for. You just don’t think you can do it. Don’t turn it down.

Ask any professional, if you’re not outside your comfort zone, you won’t learn anything.

Care for donors

Donor-centricity? Donor love? Whatever you call it, you should care for and want the best for your donors.

Don’t take the time to listen to their life story just to log it into a contact report. Learn their grandchildren’s names or their hobbies or where they love to vacation. Caring about your donor means caring about them beyond you or your organization.TMFR Heart

Stop talking at them and start having conversations. Ask them questions they want to answer: How do they wish they could change the world? Why do they love your org? Why is giving important to them? How can you ever thank them for their generosity?

Then shut up and listen.

Don’t take them for granted. This is a relationship you’re developing. Thank them. And mean it. A donor parts with money they worked hard to earn because they want to show how much they love you. Love them right back.

Thank them when you get a gift. And when one of your programs has a success. It’s because of your donors that you get to raise money and your org gets to fulfill its vision. Never forget that.

Passion for the cause

Forget memorizing the mission statement. You should have a fire in your belly for the mission itself.

You are a champion for your cause. If you don’t believe in it, why should the people you’re asking?

If you can spit mad mission rhymes, all the better.

Intercultural communication

If you’re wondering what culture has to do with fundraising, you need to start talking with your donors more. Intercultural communication isn’t just about reaching new and diverse donors. It’s also about communicating better with donors you already have.

mouthLike you (and your org), your donors have their own cultural identities: Where they were born and raised, the ethnic or racial background they identify with, their religion, sexuality, education, career, socioeconomic status… Everything that influences who they are as a person.

Now imagine how each of those factors plays a part in the decision to give and to give to you.

Forget the focus on “getting face time” or presenting “your” proposal. Imagine creating a real dialogue where you and the donor empower one another to create change.


Fundraising can be messy. Your database will waffle between “fresh from a change of address update” and a dumpster fire. That ask you made four months ago? It will still need more follow up. Ugh, and those changes to that grant proposal that your ED suggested. It takes a lot of time and effort to be successful. That takes discipline.

Discipline to know when to keep pushing and when it’s time to go home to your family. Be disciplined by following through on your commitments. Set aside time for what’s important and deciding what isn’t important.

Remember, perseverance is discipline in action.

Critical Eye

It should bother you when a puzzle piece doesn’t fit. Or when the numbers just don’t add up. Or, worse, when something isn’t working and the only response is, “But that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Problems can hide around every corner in a nonprofit. Most are hard to spot.

There’s a great metaphor in Susan Scott’s Fierce Leadership for this: Squid Eye. See, squid are great at camouflage. Spotting one just in front of your face can be hard. It takes someone special to see its “tells.”

Same goes for being a fundraiser. So ask questions. Test everything. And make no assumptions.


Fundraisers get a bum rap.

Sometimes, though, it’s well-deserved. If there’s one thing that will rankle a donor, it’s being fake with them.

Know yourself and be yourself. There’s nothing worse than that fundraiser who hops from table to table asking the same list of questions. Those are the fundraisers with goals in their belly, not passion in their heart.

Find your connection to the cause. Find your donor’s connection. Share that.

You’re not a monster, after all.


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