3 things that helped me when I became a 1-person fundraising shop - and 1 thing that didn't
Updated: Jul 21
Despite having just earned my CFRE certification, I felt disconnected sometimes when I was studying. Things written in textbooks seemed a lot neater on the page. However, real life is not neat.
Real life is getting shingles from the stress (true story).
And real life in fundraising is knowing that what you have to do to get through the day doesn't always align with best practices.
You might really want to spend time on planned giving, knowing its robust ROI. But what a nonprofit really might need you to do is slug through that special event for them and work with the infrastructure you are given. The change management process can be a slow one.
With that in mind, I wanted to provide a list of the 3 things that helped me when I went from working on a team to being the only employee at my work 100% dedicated to fundraising. Not surprising - it was a bit of a rocky adjustment, and it was without a doubt aided by the fact I have dabbled in special events, volunteer management, and marketing. My background had some generalist capacities with a grant speciality, which made things bearable that first year.
1) It was helpful to take time out to organize documents.
There was a day when I poured through documents left behind by my predecessor. Hundreds of them. I organized them into rough generalities - special events, major gifts, giving days/Annual campaign, and grants. It looked like that scene from "A Beautiful Mind".
But getting a handle on the paper is what helped me feel a tad more in control.
My predecessor also organized her internal files in a way that did not work for me. With permission from my Executive Director, I completely reorganized them - again into groups like major gifts, special events, etc. that mimicked the paper files. And instead of going by year in the grant files, I sorted them by grantor. If I would have made myself fit into their systems, I would have been miserable.
2) It was helpful for me to spend extra time getting to know the database through calling customer support directly.
I kind of wished my predecessor never had spent so much time putting together database guides, because I think I've looked at them once.
I was miserable running thank yous from the database - they were so unbelievably time consuming and all I could think was, "There must be a better way!". Turns out, a quick 10 minute phone call with customer support of DonorPerfect, and I found out that it can issue completely addressed letters with a template, without having to do a mail merge in Word! Yes, please!
For a desk manual, data processing procedures are important like how your organization chooses to address people. The technical portions of the database - leave that out of procedures you write for yourself, and provide how to get customer assistance instead.
3) It was helpful for me to put upfront time on data entry and Board member connections.
On my first Christmas campaign, we had 1700 letters. Board members came in and signed the letters of people they knew. I went through all 1700 letters and tagged contacts with the name of the board members that signed them. It probably took a full work day.
It was probably the most substantial, time-consuming, but important pieces of data I've ever put into that database, paying off years later in helping to manage the growth of the individual giving.
So my advice? Look for those data points that are going to drive relationships in years to come.
Not helpful - substantial worry and not visiting a therapist to establish coping skills
Fundraising is a tough job, and mine was compounded my taking on more responsibility after the elimination of another fundraising position. If I could have told myself anything that first year, it would be to breathe, to inhale and exhale. To remain mindful. To be present when writing emails and cognizant of my work pace.
Getting shingles that first year was nature's way of saying - slow down or I'm going to slow you down.
Uneducated EDs or others can put a lot of expectation on fundraisers and being a perfectionist doesn't help either.
I wish I would have immediately sought out some of my peers for fellowship. I wish I would have visited a therapist to talk about the pressure I was feeling in my life. I wish I would have done more for myself, because the main emotion of burnout is resentment. There are things that are in our control and things that are not, and I should have kept telling myself that I might fail, but it's not for lack of trying.
I think about that strong urge to run away when things were tough that first year, and I think about where I'm at know, and the resilience I developed is crucial to who I am now.
If this describes your current position at all, just remember, there are people out there who want to help you.