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Building relationships to raise funds
July 30, 2013
I am a really slow learner. I have been working in the cultural nonprofit sector for a long time. It is only now that I feel that I am comfortable in philanthropy work. What took so long?
When I consider my experiences in fundraising over the last twenty-three years, I recall how terrified I was when faced with the duty of fundraising as a newly appointed Executive Director. I felt paralyzed by the prospect and hid out in my office to avoid the task. I wanted to be successful at it for the sake of my institution but felt so intimidated by the image of asking very important wealthy individuals (who intimidated me already) for their money.
So I focused on grants. It seemed much easier. I had the same perception of many of my board members. There are foundation pots of money “out there” for the asking; one just has to write a grant. “Can’t you write a grant for that?” a well-meaning board member would suggest. They, too, didn’t like fundraising and wanted to avoid it by suggesting another route to funding a special project or need. It was a reflex response to any funding issue. “Just write a grant.”
Working with our grant writer and researching on my own, I quickly learned that being awarded grants requires a process of research, cultivation, and relationship building similar to those when fundraising from individuals. It can take years to identify potential funders, establish a relationship with them, and write a request that they may or may not fund. Crafting a compelling grant request takes time and artistry, and involves sound business planning and program evaluating methods. It must demonstrate impact. Writing a thoughtful, well-researched single grant may be a multi-year process.
I came to realize that the common denominator between asking institutions for money and asking individuals for money is relationship. And that takes time.
The best part of the grant-writing experience was meeting with the program officers of the Knight Foundation, PEW Charitable Trusts, Lila Wallace Fund, and Creative Capital. It started to give me confidence in my ability to make a strong case for our institution’s mission, history, and future plans. It also taught me the importance of building relationships over years.
However, perhaps the most important lesson for me was the importance of learning that fundraising isn’t about me (was I a good fundraiser?) or my institution. It’s about the goals of the foundation or the individual or corporate philanthropy department and learning if there is goal-alignment between their institution and mine. It’s about making a good match of core values, goals, and impact, Not about whether the funder is supporting the “right” cause or whether my institution is that “good cause.” This has helped me care more deeply about the conversations that I get to have with donors and funders. I get to learn about their institution’s passions and motivations and, if it’s an individual donor, what they would like their legacy to be. I get to create a deep and meaningful relationship between them and my institution. What a gift it is to me to act as the facilitator of that relationship.
Recently, I was fortunate to participate in Charlotte’s Leadership Gift School. Leadership Gift School is presented by a consortium of funders: the Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council, Carolinas HealthCare, Blumenthal Foundation and others. The brilliant program is designed and led by Chris McLeod, an independent fundraising consultant in Charlotte, and Karla Williams, author and national fundraising consultant. Through that remarkable program, I have come to love philanthropy and see it as a unique and noble calling. I owe the consortium of funders and Chris McLeod and Karla Williams my greatest thanks.
I am a slow learner. My life lessons and those lessons learned from program officers at foundations taught me much about authentic relationships built upon shared values and goals. Leadership Gift School taught me that those lessons are instrumental in philanthropy and creating vibrant and meaningful impact for individuals and community.