Fundraising Q&A: A lifetime of charity

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There is no specific question I'm answering today...but that doesn't mean this isn't an educational fundraising (and very romantic) tale!

I can't deny that as I write this month's article, I'm mourning the loss of my favourite aunt and second mom, who has been so near and dear to my heart for more than a half century. Ann was a strikingly beautiful war bride of rather distinguished heritage - her Scottish father was a sea captain in the Royal Navy, and her mother a countess of Polish descent.

My uncle was so smitten with his new wife that he worked diligently to ensure her happiness in her new home. Knowing she missed her relatives in England, he brought our two families together. We lived next door to each other about 40 kilometres northwest of Toronto and became one big family with four parents, and the children (as country cousins) were constant playmates.

Ann's knowledge and appreciation of the arts was deep and together she and my uncle volunteered countless hours to help transform Toronto's cultural scene...one he describes as quite dismal in the early 1950s. Among her many loves, the ballet was her favourite.

In the 1960s my father was president of the Ontario Humane Society's board, so my introduction to fundraising (at six years old) was being an "Animal Defender" and canvassing on tag days. I recall my aunt, uncle and mom all being very active with the Canadian Cancer Society. Every April, I used to help my mother canvass all the neighbours by "pony express," although my unfaithful steed once broke away and galloped home without me while I was issuing a receipt! Despite his escape, Sparky was an effective door opener and required less effort than my bicycle.

Over the past 20+ years in this profession, my mentors and role models included my parents, aunt and uncle and my mom's best friend, who recruited me to the profession when she said, "There's a terrible job at the Ballet School and I know you can do it!" What none of us recognized at the time was that I'm genetically programmed to work in the charitable sector. I have always felt so fortunate being taught by deeply devoted volunteers who built some of Toronto's treasures out of a pure love of the arts and desire to strengthen their communities.

When I landed my very first job in fundraising at Canada's National Ballet School in 1987, I frequently probed my family on the donor's, board member's or canvasser's perspective because all of them wore these varied hats and had such knowledge to impart. They shared their passion, observations and sage advice with the same generosity that inspired their good deeds and helped educate me to respect and nurture these priceless bonds with our donors.

My wonderful role models also epitomized the ideal board member, one who recognizes that an organization's fiscal health relies on leaders who are willing to open doors and ask for money. My experience today is that finding leadership volunteers who'll request the support of their friends and family is an increasingly challenging task. (Keep in mind that these appeals should only be directed to parties who would be motivated by your organization's mission.) Don't forget Linkage - Ability - Interest when identifying the difference between a "suspect" and a "prospect."

My family got lots of practice canvassing during the fifties, sixties and seventies because fundraising professionals were a rarity. In fact, careers have evolved significantly since those times and many individuals don't have the luxury of volunteering. However, my aunt's and mother's "jobs" were also full time, based on the sheer size of our families. And the bread winners somehow still managed to make time for their volunteer work because that's what kind and good people did in those days.

Now that this field has become such a "valuable commodity," there is often confusion about delegating (what many see as the nasty task of) fundraising, and naivety on the part of staff and board members that either side of the team can raise significant dollars without the support of each other. We need to better communicate our expectations around fundraising to our board members and volunteers, help them understand the many roles they can play in the success of a campaign, and then provide adequate training to build their confidence. Remember that donor stewardship is the key to long term relationships; not everyone has to feel comfortable asking for a gift, but it helps if they all say thanks!

Around 1995, Ken Wyman played the host of TVOntario's The Fundraising Game. I always felt the strongest component of that series was the interviews with major gift donors, some of whom may no longer be with us. I still believe that despite the show's dated nature (15 years later), any curious student in this field would benefit immensely from watching those snippets because it's a candid glimpse at what motivates these individuals. What is it that lights the fire in people's hearts and inspires them to invest significant amounts to various causes? One of the lessons in these interviews is the importance of addressing a couple during a major gift "courtship," regardless of who signs the cheque.

Over the years, my uncle has received honours and accolades for his volunteer leadership and support of charities, but I don't think he has ever taken all the credit. In fact, given the opportunity, he always wanted Ann to share the limelight with him. She was often the "silent partner" and yet her influence played such a paramount role in their charitable giving. Those who paid attention to the love and respect these two had for each other during their 64 year marriage recognized the importance of their mutual decision-making.

I have already stressed in past months that the most successful fundraising is rooted in the deep relationships you build with your donors. As much as I'd like to treat all contributors equally, time management and return on investment dictates the need to focus efforts on those with the greatest potential to make significant gifts. Hence the expression (not coined by me), "fundraising is an elite contact sport!"

This profession appeals to me because it combines the qualities and talents of my role models - business acumen and engaged nurturers. Thanks to those closest to me, I managed to land in a profession that has transformational potential. Change doesn't happen overnight, but with strategy, talent, patience, tenacity, optimism and a healthy sense of humour, we can move mountains...together.

Bless you, Ann, for inspiring our family with such grace and beauty and strengthening those charities you held so dear!

Cynthia Armour is a freelance specialist in fundraising and governance. A Certified FundRaising Executive (CFRE) since 1995, she volunteers as a subject matter expert with CFRE International. She works with boards and senior staff to ensure that strong leadership will enhance organizational capacity to govern and fundraise effectively. Contact Cynthia directly at 705-799-0636, e-mail answers@elderstone.ca, or visit www.elderstone.ca for more information about her services.

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