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The four habits of successful fund-raisers
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The four habits of successful fund-raisers

My grandfather made a living from candy. In fact, a gumball machine from his store sits front and center on my desk. I know candy is fine in moderation, but it is hardly health food. 

And it’s candy I think about when asked, “What do you do?” After I say that I am a professional fund-raiser, the next question is often, “So you call people and ask them for money?”

I do. Guilty. 

The type of solicitation associated with cold-calls (aka, telemarketing) is to fund-raising what candy is to nutrition. Technically those calls are fund-raising, but they’re a poor reflection of the profession.

True fund-raising is about developing trusting relationships around common concerns. Fundraising takes time, patience, and personal attention. To be successful as either a volunteer or professional think about the acronym “CART.”

The first characteristic of any talented fund-raiser is curiosity. The most successful fund-raisers are genuinely interested in others — the antithesis of the selfie-generation. They ask supporters open questions and sincerely want to learn more over time.

The value of curiosity is addressed in a fascinating talmudic text about Moses’ final days (Temurah 16A). In their last conversation, Moses asked his successor Joshua if he had any more questions. When Joshua essentially said “no,” the Talmud observes that Moses became weak and Joshua forgot 300 laws. 

Curiosity is what drives learning; without it we hit a dead end.

Awareness follows curiosity as the next essential characteristic. Awareness is far more than active listening for the successful fund-raiser. It is much deeper and more attuned.

Awareness picks up on not only what is being said, but the tone and body language. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, in a TED Talk that has received over 31 million views, teaches that our posture, facial expressions, and all “non-verbals” communicate as powerfully as the words we speak. The successful fund-raiser is sensitive to the whole experience.

The importance of awareness and sensitivity is underscored in one of the most famous moments of Torah. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. God wanted to appoint Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land. But before relaying this to Moses, God instructs him to “remove your sandals.”

Sounds bizarre, right? Or maybe, as Rabbi Alan Haber of Jerusalem observed, a very sensitive part of the human body is the bottom of our feet. Barefoot, we can feel the tiniest of pebbles. Leadership, God was teaching, is not just about charisma and public speaking, but about being sensitive and aware to the environment around us.

After curiosity and awareness comes…the next important characteristic to…hold on a moment…I knew this — oh yes, to remember.

In philanthropy, as in business, “it can take a lifetime to build a donor, but only seconds to lose one.” It’s wonderful to learn all about your donor, but if you don’t find a method to remember, you’re in trouble.

I recall early in my career meeting a donor at an event and really hitting it off. We spoke during the cocktail reception, he introduced me to his wife, and we chatted about Federation and a shared hobby of woodworking, truly enjoying each other’s company. After the event, I met with him over breakfast to follow up about his commitment to the UJA Annual Campaign. The morning was going well until I asked him how his wife Jill was doing. “She is fine,” he answered, “but her name is Susan.”

Check, please?

Finally, and at the top of the philanthropic characteristics mountain, stands one word: trust.

Trusting relationships are the essential backdrop for any significant — and sometimes even not so significant — philanthropic gift. Trust means that over and above a shared concern regarding a charitable cause, you believe in the person with whom you’re talking. Their word matters. They are not “selling you” or “pitching you,” they are listening to you. And as a result, over time, you gain a sense of trust for their character.

I have been blessed with quite a few trusting relationships with donors. Some of the most meaningful conversations have taken place on a fishing boat, while delivering a custom toy-chest, while jogging, and on a plane (talk about a “captive audience”). Each conversation was the result of countless earlier ones, over years, which produced comfortable, confident trust in each other.

Trusting relationships appear in the Torah, too. For example, Abraham asked his servant Eliezer to represent him in finding a wife for Isaac. (Genesis 24) That took trust. But what jumps out in that text is that both Abraham and Eliezer are described by the same word, “zaken” or “old.” They knew each other for a long time to get to that point.

Curiosity. Awareness. Remembering. Trust.

These four characteristics are what separate philanthropic “candy” from quality fund-raising. 

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