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Turning Fundraising Nightmares Into Dreams

By Benjamin T. Mohler on June 29, 2010One Comment

Susan wasn’t new to the role of development director. Unfortunately while in this role for the past four years she saw her job expectations increase, the resources did not. When she joined the staff of the mid-sized human services organization the three-year strategic plan included a possible capital campaign. Thirty million over five years sounded like a realistic challenge at the time. However, economic conditions affected the planned expansions of the fundraising support staff and reduced the fundraising general operating budget.

In addition to the campaign effort, Susan’s supervisor expected her to maintain the existing fundraising activities (i.e. direct mail, stewardship, events, and major gifts). Susan was at a crossroads. Without additional support, she knew it was not possible to maintain the sustaining gift operations critical to achieving the organizational mission, all while building a campaign.

It was clear that Susan would need to find additional help if she was to succeed. These additional “helpers” would have to be passionate about the cause — that was for sure. They would also need to be willing to work for little to no pay and they must understand the need for expanding capital resources while maintaining current fundraising operations.

Fortunately for Susan, the organization had an engaged board of trustees. Three recent board recruits had just completed their first retreat and were currently being mentored by board members more senior in tenure. Susan decided this group of new board members would be an excellent source of volunteer leadership for the campaign. Susan knew their enthusiasm and passion would come across in donor meetings. She decided on the newer board members because they would be less likely to settle for the status quo or organizational politics. Susan was also hopeful that these new recruits could act as opinion leaders to help rejuvenate the rest of the board to become more involved in the campaign.

The first step in bringing the campaign volunteer leadership up to date was to brief them on campaign dynamics and fundraising best practices. Knowing time was of the essence, Susan opted to keep the formal training to a minimum. Susan arranged for the new board members to meet with top donors who had already signaled a strong commitment to the campaign.

Prior to this first meeting, Susan asked her campaign volunteers to think about their personal commitment to the organization and how they would each like to be involved in supporting the campaign effort. Securing their commitment prior to the donor meeting would be ideal, but Susan also knew that a donor’s passion can be infectious and the upcoming meetings might inspire her campaign volunteers to make a stretch gift.

Susan scheduled the first meeting with a committed donor who had been supporting the organization for a number of years and had already signaled her intent to support the campaign effort at a high level. This first meeting would give her volunteer leader confidence in his new role by giving him an early success.

Susan’s strategy paid off and the first meeting was a success. The leadership volunteer was successful in conveying his passion for the organization and, without even asking, the donor made the first leadership gift to the campaign. The leadership volunteer even inspired this first donor to participate in future donor visits.

By harnessing powerful gifts of time and leadership, Susan saw success in cultivating gifts of financial resources. She overcame her fundraising nightmare by helping her leadership volunteers become more engaged in the campaign fundrasing effort by serving in a support role. For what began as a nightmare, Susan was able to rediscover that once her board members saw that fundraising was more than just “asking for money,” they become inspired to help facilitate philanthropy and, in effect, multiplied the campaign fundraising staff at minimal cost. Susan’s fundraising nightmare was actually a reminder that unpaid volunteers can serve as powerful advocates who can clearly articulate the case for support in a way that resonates with their peers.

Benjamin T. Mohler, M.A., CFRE, is an experienced fundraising professional and graduate of the Philanthropy and Development program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He may be reached at

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