Somehow I missed submission to this month’s About.com Nonprofit Blog Carnival, sponsored by Katya Andresen, but the topic of Nonprofit Career Highs and Lows was too good to miss.
What’s the Nonprofit Blog Carnival? Glad you asked. I wasn’t quite sure myself what it was all about, despite the fact that I agreed to host November’s, so I gave Joanne Fritz of About.com a call a few weeks ago to learn more. The way Joanne explained it, the “carnival is a collection of the best advice and resources that consultants, support organizations, and nonprofits themselves are offering to the nonprofit community through their blogs.” (From about.com)
I have been blessed. So many of my highs (and some terrific lessons) came from my very first job working in nonprofit development. I was fresh from nearly seven years working in programming and communications for a grant-making private family foundation. While there I’d juggled a lot, including raising two young daughters, working almost full time (four days a week), attending college full-time, and handling a husband with the emotional level of a five year old. Trust me. I knew how to prioritize. During the course of my employment with the foundation I’d become well-versed in the Philadelphia nonprofit scene and fantasized often about working in nonprofit development, where I could “make a real difference” rather than just handing out checks. Seriously. Just as I was about to burn out from sheer exhaustion between work, school and home life I stumbled into a fifteen hour a week job as a development director for a regional agency with a yearly budget of just under $3 million. “Ahhhhh, this should be fun and challenging,” thought I, ready to relax for a bit and kick up my heels. Riiiiight. It took all of about two weeks to discover that:
- aside from writing two tiny DCED grant proposals, the previous development director had done virtually nothing in the previous five years
- I knew zilch about fundraising
- The date for the organization’s annual membership campaign, which had been handled by three separate mail houses in the three preceding years to disastrous results, was rapidly approaching
Yes, I was up the creek without a paddle. My initial instinct was to panic. I thought I’d taken on much more than I could handle and had no idea where to turn first.
Thank heavens for best friend. When I went to him, overwhelmed and nearly in tears his response was “Hey, this is great! How many people get to create their own job?!”
That was the kind of personal challenge and perspective I couldn’t resist. I set about establishing core areas needing my focus. Grants. Individual giving. Community relations. Setting up a website.
I didn’t have the time, nor the funding for any of the coursework offered by our colleges or membership organizations – but what I did have was a background in sales and marketing. In fact, early in my twenties I had been the top display advertising salesperson at the small weekly newspaper I worked at in the Detroit area. I had started out abysmally in sales and very nearly quit. Those who know me well know that I’ve battled debilitating shyness all my life. Fortunately, instead of quitting, I took the time to study direct marketing and read books by folks like Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill.
The marketing techniques that I had learned, as well as the time management skills from working in a commission-based environment, stood me in good stead. Within a year, our organization’s membership had increased by 25% (I always credit Mal Warwick’s book “A Revolution in Your Mailbox,” the first fundraising book I ever read seeing me through my first direct mail appeal, to 70,000), we had increased our individual donor list by 30%, we’d raised over $150,000 in foundation grants alone, we had launched a well-received community health initiative, we had a new website up and running and our organization was well on its way to becoming well known in the community, thanks to a weekly column in our local paper and associations with the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and local politicians.
The following year, when the budget went up substantially and we were allotted funds for training, I took my first professional grant-writing class.
After the class they asked me if I would be interested in teaching it.
Since then, I’ve taken considerable coursework and read untold books on the topic of marketing and nonprofit development. Frankly, for every great seminar or course I’ve attended, I’ve attended three that were utter time-wasters. And, more often than not, I’ve spent my own money for training and books (small nonprofit organizations are notoriously reluctant to spend money on training – for shame!).
Yet, despite all of the classes and coursework I’ve completed I’m so very grateful for that earlier sales and marketing training and believe that it has been the real catalyst to my successful career in development.
Truly understanding what goes on in the mind of your prospective donor and what they respond to is at the core of all great development work.
We’re all in this kind of work to make a real difference. And, after over thirteen years working in the nonprofit development arena, I’ve learned that to be genuinely effective – to truly make a difference – organizations need to be just as committed to funding their missions as they are to their mission.
There is simply no way to ever not pay a price.
That first development job was one filled with mostly highs, very few lows – and a lot of lessons. Our board had a very trusting, reciprocal approach.
I proposed an entirely new strategy for individual giving – and they ran with it. I scheduled community events, and they supported my efforts. A two-page membership appeal was mailed “as is,” without the usual complaints that “no-one will read a two-page letter” or any attempts to shorten it. There existed a marvelous sense of mutual appreciation between the board. volunteer staff and myself where they respected my expertise (despite the fact that it was so recently acquired!) and allowed me a good deal of leeway to experiment.
My work was never bastardized.
Oh the glory!
It wasn’t until I had other development jobs under my belt that I realized what a true rarity that experience was.
I learned that truly great fundraisers are indeed marketers at heart, and that the sometimes insular and often pedestrian world of nonprofit education can be paralyzing rather than enlightening.
I learned the importance of testing, tweaking and continuing to learn – even when learning might mean looking into resources having nothing whatsoever to do with “fundraising.” I learned to appreciate the beauty of “simplicity” and, while I didn’t know it then, I was already in the process of created my Simple Development Systems method of “doing it all” for the one-person development office.
I learned that sometimes starting from scratch can be a very good thing indeed.