Becoming an Authentic Fundraiser


I heard Jann Freed, professor emerita of business management at Central College in Pella, IA, and author of Leading with Wisdom, speak at the Quad Cities AFP Spring Conference back in March; her suggestion to “authentically connect with donors” has stuck with me ever since.  As the group brainstormed ways to make authentic connections with donors, their suggestions felt like “same old, same old” – more generic than authentic and personal (e.g., host a recognition event, send birthday cards).

Fast forward to this summer. I heard Carla Harris, vice chairman at Morgan Stanley and author of Strategize to Win and Expect to Win, speak at the Executive Women’s Day prior to the John Deere Classic. One of her “pearls of wisdom”:  show the real you – the authentic you – in all your interactions. A high powered investment banker in New York City, Carla tells how she felt that she had to put up a certain façade to meet her clients’ and colleagues’ expectations of “how investment bankers supposedly act.” When she let them see the real her – the gospel singer and the investment banker – they got to know her as a person, she developed more meaningful relationships, and won some significant accounts.

Authentic relationships exist on a foundation of trust, commitment, and shared understanding. They do not happen overnight but take time, energy and effort to develop.


How can you become a more authentic fundraiser?

  • Show your personal side – appropriately! This does not mean to self-disclose everything about you when you first meet someone; we all know people like that and they make us feel uncomfortable. Instead, open up appropriately. I had a meeting scheduled with a client and arrived about a half an hour late. Without a cell phone number to call (lesson learned!), when I got in touch with someone, I confessed that my son had locked his keys in his car and I had to turn back. I could have made some lame or generic apology, but they understood that, that morning, “Mom-me” had to step up for a few minutes before “consultant-me” could.

  • Treat donors like people not ATM machines: I once worked with a major donor who could not have been more different than me on every aspect of life. But her granddaughter (who she adored) went to school with my son (the same one who locked his keys in his car!) which gave us a commonality.  I made sure to ask about her grandchildren and when stories appeared in the local paper about her granddaughter who had become a gifted athlete, I made sure to save it to send or give to her the next time we met. We connected on a more personal level.

  • Make your correspondences personal: Rather than send a generic thank you, write a personal letter to those you know personally or at least write a personal note of thanks on the bottom of the generic thank you. As a donor, I find it disheartening to receive a generic thank you from an organization with whom I have worked closely. It makes me wonder if they even know I made a gift! Likewise, if you send birthday, anniversary or holiday cards, take the time to write a personal note. Show them you know and care about their worth as an individual.

  • Pick up the phone! In today’s technology-dominated world, we forget about using the phone. If someone you know has a birthday, made a major gift, or received a community award, call him or her with your congratulations or thanks. Emails get lost in the massive inbox; generic letters get shuffled with bills. Even cards feel less personal than knowing someone thought of you on your birthday. I know fundraisers who set aside the first 15 minutes of each day to make phone calls. It gets done before the day gets busy. Even if you leave a message, your attempt to reach them on a more personal level moved the relationship forward.

What tips or suggestions do you have for becoming a more authentic fundraiser?