Fundraising Q&A: Highlights from the Association of Fundraising Professional's Congress

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What were some highlights at the Association of Fundraising Professional’s Congress?

Having just spent almost three days with several hundred of my colleagues, including some of the top international gurus, I thought this month's article was a good place to share some of the insights that resonated with this veteran. Unfortunately I have to pick and choose because of time and space.

The theme for Toronto’s AFP Congress this year was Collaboration: Limitless Together. Delegates were treated to Don Tapscott kicking off the event with his keynote address. In this increasingly connected world, I fall into the category of a digital immigrant versus native. In fact, anyone born after 1979 is a digital native and thus, far more comfortable with technology and all that it brings. That doesn't mean there isn't hope for me yet but without any offspring to teach me, I have to try even harder to get wired!

Tapscott presented six themes for philanthropy in a networked world:

  1. Collaborative innovation. Talent doesn’t need to come from the inside. Our donors are part of the organization’s ecosystem and we must think differently about our boundaries. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s soundcheck is an example of engaging youth in their mission.
  2. Openness – to the point of being radical. Organizations are becoming “naked.” There are growing expectations of honesty, full access to financials, abiding by the commitments made and in turn, we increase trust.
  3. Molecularization. KIVA provides opportunities to invest through micro-financing rather than making huge donations and has raised hundreds of millions $25 at a time.
  4. Self-organization. There are new models of citizen engagement that do not follow a top down approach. These opportunities unleash the power of human capital.
  5. Interdependence. State, private sector, civil society and individuals are the four pillars of society that help solve global problems.
  6. Dynamic leadership. Through networking and distribution of power, leadership comes from anywhere and everywhere – collaborative tools make collective intelligence possible.

How does this information translate to our world of fundraising? His analogy compared the military band (follow the leader) to jazz and its improvisational characteristics. In fact, we were treated to an early morning jam session with a full band including Tapscott on keyboards.

Sheree Allison, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Club of Miramichi, and I presented on Rural and Grassroots Fundraising. I appreciated her perspective as the leader of a small New Brunswick-based charity that’s raising significant dollars despite a depressed economy. One of her tips was having a board chair who asks each member what they’ve done for the organization since their last meeting – talk about motivating engagement, accountability and leading by example - that's enough to galvanize a person into action! Even if it's only shortly before the meeting, knowing they will be asked helps ensure deliverables. Another couple of Sheree's strategies include not checking email in the first two hours of the day and setting Friday afternoons aside for donor stewardship and contact.

Karen Osborne challenged us by saying generous, inspired, joyful giving is our responsibility as fundraisers. We need to have all the “rights” aligned: the right purpose, amount, solicitor, time, place, participants and materials but most important to remember, Purpose drives Amount.

Another tip is engagement means action - donors invest in outcomes based on their emotional commitment to your cause. Frame your questions to prospects and donors in ways that build investment and listen intently to their responses.

As the sole proprietor of my (primarily) one-person business and aptly-named farm, "Neverdun" I also attended Karen's session "Managing Your Work, Time and Energy... While Still Having a Life!" Hope springs eternal but I've created my own monster. However, my greatest joys come from tending to my horses, turning Neverdun into Nearlydun and laughing at the antics of my cats so all these gifts are energizing even if they include hard work. Some of Karen's tips included clarifying what's contained in our five biggest buckets (professional and personal priorities carefully defined). Identify how much time we spend, whether we're negotiating that time with family or colleagues and ask their side of the story. Is our perception of time skewed? Of all the balls we might drop, which ones are so fragile they will shatter and which are rubber and can bounce back? What's urgent and what's important? Plot tasks in quadrants and drop the ones that are neither.

My next session was a case study on Empowering Your Fundraising Through Metrics presented by Debbie Eyton Findley, Josh Lai and Amy McKinnon all from Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation (one of the bigger players in the game!) While it may be challenging to ensure all fund development staff are completing their reports and shifting from old spreadsheets to new systems, persistence pays off. There is hard evidence behind the numbers that reassures the leadership team and helps everyone make more informed decisions. In a moment's notice the Senior Director can be updated and everyone is more efficient and effective.

Lyn McDonnell from The Accountability Group presented "Turning Up the Heat" where she made some important distinctions. Strategy is a mindset that leverages opportunities and leads a team toward the organizational vision - 1 + 1 = 3 (or more!) whereas strategic plans implement or operationalize strategic choices. We also looked at six alternative approaches including generative questions, scenarios and critical success factors for identifying enabling and blocking forces. In keeping with the conference theme we also examined organizational integration and the varying degrees of coming together.

The following statement captures the essence of Tammy Zonker's session on how Detroit's United Way won over GM despite it being bankrupt. She was quoting another of Congress' speakers, Tom Ahern: “A case for support is not so much about what your organization does. A case for support is mostly about your promise, the promise you make to the world through your mission, your accomplishments and your plans.” United Way's goals were lofty, ambitious and worthy of investment.

Simone Joyaux is another trusted name in our business who shares her wisdom generously (check out the Learning Centre on her website and see what I mean). She covered Moving From Fundraiser to Nonprofit Leader and expressed her concern over the growing number of fundraising technicians who are incapable of identifying, analyzing and solving problems themselves.

She pointed out that there needs to be a shared vision of leadership within your organization and that takes dialogue. Fundraisers often express their frustration at not being invited to the table and yet, perhaps it's because we don't demonstrate our ability to lead. Her advice? Take risks, volunteer for things, put yourself everywhere because that's what leaders do! Help the voice of philanthropy be heard!

The finale of Congress was Fundraising Theatre led by Tony Elischer and starring a cast of our finest internationally-represented leaders in the sector. I've run out of space to outline the A to Z list of what makes philanthropy work but I invite readers who attended Congress to share some of their own insights: what resonated with you at this year's conference?

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, email, follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaJArmour, or visit for more information about her services.

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