Authentic Fundraising: The Clark Kent Approach

When I introduced the Authentic Fundraiser I talked about the need for a less traditional sales approach. In this post I’m going to dig a little deeper into how “professional” fundraising professionals should be?

People have been practicing acts of philanthropy to address social needs for thousands of years. It is only in the last 30 or so years that we have “professionalized” ourselves. Formal education programs for working in the charitable sector are still fairly new. Advanced degrees are brand new.

Those of us in our late forties have most likely fallen into this career through our volunteer work. We are “Accidental Fundraisers”. For me I often described my education like twisting a rope as I climb the mountain. When I needed to know how to do something I would read a book or go to a workshop. I didn’t choose this profession – I fell into it through my passion. Like many people my age, I started doing it for free because I wanted to accomplish something. Eventually, the executive director at the charity I fell in love with first offered to start paying me for raising money.

Posing this question about being “too professional” in no way suggests that we need to become less legitimate. I am deeply grateful to all of the educators I have had the privilege of learning from during my career. Organizations like the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), The Resource Alliance, The Institute of Fundraising and Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) have worked to ensure that we all operate with a high degree of accountability.

Those of us who are members of these organizations have made a commitment to conduct business within an ethical framework. We must continue to have professional associations whose mandate it is to advance our sector by advocating for good government policies. Up to date training and more awareness for our role in society is of great value.

We are committed to earning the trust donors place in us. Yes, I believe all of that is important and serves to unite us as a sector.

Are we too professional?

Here is the kicker though. I am worried that in our sprint to “professionalize” ourselves we alienated ourselves from our communities. I’m worried that we have lost some authenticity at the core of what we do and who we are.

Fundraising isn’t a transactional business like banking or buying a coffee. Fundraising is about aligned passion. We need to be able to open our hearts to donors. Ultimately we are all human beings who share the same values.

From the trenches

Ten years ago I was working at a conservation organization and many of my major donor visits took place cottages on a lake. At the time I was only six years into my career and really punching above my weight. I was very ambitious and took myself very seriously. To me, this job was a big deal.

I found myself interacting daily with some very accomplished people. My donor visits were with retired C-level executives and people who had received the order of Canada. They usually took place at their cottage on weekends.

In order to play in their sandbox I felt I needed to be very “professional”. I wore a suit to every donor visit. I was there to do a job and learn all about them, their families and their ability to give. I behaved so professionally, that I did not tell them anything about who I really was. That is what I thought I SHOULD do. I wanted to set a good example for the profession of fundraising. I was wrong.

Two years into the job I came to realize that while visiting donors at their cottage I bloody well better have a pair of hiking boots and a swimming suit with me! I was more successful if I connected on a more personal level. They enjoyed the visit more if they saw my kids swimming in the lake during the meeting. We all knew that eventually we would be talking about their donation. No one lost sight of that. The work just became a lot more fun! And a lovely bi-product was that we started building a very successful major gift program.

In my experience donors don’t want your visits to be all about them. Donors want to get to know you as a human being who shares their values. That is why working in an organization that you really love is so important. It creates a common ground from which you are able to build rapport.

A warning: Stay positive

By all means share information about yourself. Talk about your family. Share pictures of your children. These are things that make us human. I would however, caution you to be smart about it. Remember we want people to feel good about spending time with us.

Ultimately, our job is to inspire a stronger connection between the donor and our organization. So refrain from being SO open you start venting about things like a divorce you are going through or negative feelings about your mother in law or your drug addicted teenager – or even the flat tire you got on the way there. This isn’t girl’s night! Above all else: stay positive so that people feel inspired and lifted up after your visit. But do open your heart.

Ours is a noble, worthy profession that can be deeply satisfying. It is also a very new profession. Yes, it is our job to help people understand how this business works. However, we need to do it without hitting donors (and co-workers for that matter.) over the head with a hammer.

By all means channel your inner super hero, but approach your day-to-day interactions with grace, humanity and humility. Be more like Clark Kent and more people will want to support your efforts.

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