Hiring your first fundraiser: Hitting the ground running

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Be sure to check out the first article in our two-part fundraising series, Hiring your First Fundraiser: Finding the Right Fit. It offers plenty of tips to small nonprofits that are looking to hire their first fundraiser: ideal search processes, recruiting advice, resume red flags, and much more.

While Part 1 tackles the pre-hiring timeline for small nonprofits hiring their first fundraiser, Part 2 of the series focuses on how the newly-hired fundraiser can make their first 100 days with their new organization successful, including tips on effective integration techniques, managing board expectations, the development of a realistic fundraising strategy, and the importance of preparation.

The pen has been put to the paper, and your signature’s ink is barely dry.

“Welcome aboard,” your new executive director tells you, as you shake hands. “We can’t wait for you to get started.”

It’s a time of ambition for this small nonprofit, and they’ve just taken a big leap of faith: as a means of covering the rising costs associated with expanding the services they offer, they’ve made a significant commitment to growth by hiring you as the organization’s first fully-dedicated fundraiser.

In years past, the organization’s fundraising had been carried out in an ad hoc manner by its professional staff, members of the board, and various volunteers. However, as of today, these responsibilities now rest on your shoulders.

The expectations have been set: it’s time to boost the organization’s coffers, and you’re the person tasked to do it.

As you settle in to your new office, you take a deep breath. You have all the tools to succeed. Now, it’s time to hit the ground running.

Getting organized, gathering information

While the first few days in any new position can feel overwhelming, this especially holds true with fundraising professionals.

For fundraisers, the early days in a new position are typically a crash-course in learning the ins and outs of the organization. As the new fundraiser puts their nose to the grindstone, common thoughts may include: “Who do I need to meet with?“, “Should I start making calls to key donors?”, and even “I forgot to set up my voice mail!”

When caught in a flurry of seemingly endless tasks that need to be accomplished, John Wong, a seasoned nonprofit fundraising professional based out of Saint John, New Brunswick, recommends that new fundraisers make the gathering of information their first key priority.

“Start by getting to know your new organization’s inner-circle stakeholder relationships, including management, the board, and major donors,” he says. “We know effective fundraising is the result of strong relationships, and if you’re able to connect well with each of these distinct groups, you should be able to get a quick lay of the land, and with that, get an understanding of the intricacies of the nonprofit’s fundraising environment.”

From there, it’s important for fundraisers to get a sense of their organization’s financial position.

“You want to see if revenues are on target, year-to-date,” Wong adds. “This will help drive your decisions and priorities moving forward, including what actions to take to secure whatever low-hanging fruit is out there that will allow you to hit the ground running.”

Afterwards, Wong suggests that new fundraisers should “make themselves aware of any looming deadlines for donor solicitations, grant and funding applications, or other fundraising streams.” With this information in-hand, fundraisers will be better equipped to begin developing their strategy.

Leslie Thompson, the founder and principle consultant with nonprofit fundraising consulting firm Abundance Fundraising, has more than 30 years of professional fundraising experience. Thompson recognizes that while the first month of a new fundraising position comes with its fair share of pressures, fundraisers need to resist the urge to distance themselves from their colleagues.

“At the beginning, it’s going to be really tempting to glue yourself to the computer or the files, looking through databases to try and find out how many donors you have, and things like that,” she says. “But at this phase, it’s more important to spend time with key staff and board members than working alone to try and get all your files in order.”

Through getting to know more about fellow staff and board members, and specifically their attitudes and experiences with fundraising, fundraisers will begin to learn about any relationships that have already been cultivated between the organization and preexisting donors and sponsors.

“Listening to staff and board fundraising stories, and working in a collaborative way with these individuals, will help the fundraiser develop a baseline,” says Thompson. “It’s really tempting to bury yourself in paperwork in the beginning, but don't do it, because it not only shuts out these key individuals, but it also dismisses all the helpful experience they can bring to the table.”

Asking questions

“When you’re a fundraiser entering an organization that has never had a dedicated fundraiser before, you’re going to have to become educated in everything that your organization does in a very short period of time,” says Matthew Doherty, a nonprofit fundraising professional based out of Toronto. “Depending on the time of year you’re hired, you may even have less time than you thought you’d have to become familiar with programs and properties, so you really have to get up to speed.”

As simple as it sounds, Doherty suggests that the best way for new fundraisers to educate themselves is by asking questions.

“Don’t be intimidated by the workload, and understand that you’re surrounded by management and board members who want you to succeed,” Doherty adds. “The old adage rings true - there is no such thing as a stupid question. The more questions you ask, the better prepared you’ll be, and it shows the dedication you have to acclimatizing yourself to your new surroundings.”

Wong echoes these sentiments, noting how successful fundraisers display a willingness to collaborate and accept new ideas.

“It can be something as easy as going to your board and saying, ‘Hey, I’m the new guy, and I would really appreciate spending a moment with you, as I want to hear any comments or feedback you may have. How can we do things better?’” he suggests. “Don’t forget that this is an exciting time! Use this opportunity to your advantage, because it’s all about creating your own new relationships, your own new network, as well as strengthening the organization’s relationships.”

When possible, fundraisers should strive for face-to-face meetings with new colleagues.

“It’s always ideal to make a new impression directly, in-person,” says Thompson. “Meeting face-to-face helps individuals get on the same wavelength, more so than you would from sorting through emails and files.”

Communicating with an open-door policy

Successful small nonprofits typically share a common trait: their staff works well as a team. With just a few individuals tasked with so many varying responsibilities, the likelihood is that many staff members, if not all, will work in tandem on most major projects.

From there, pulling everything off requires top-notch communications skills.

“Fundraisers for small nonprofits need to ensure that the same open-door policy that they have with potential donors and sponsors is extended to their colleagues, as well,” says Doherty. “You can’t be working in silos, when your success hinges on the support of your co-workers and board members.”

Wong recommends that new fundraisers use their first few weeks as an opportunity to build trust with those they work with on a day-to-day basis.

“By building your colleagues’ trust, you gain an opening to show them that you can be effective and methodical, you show attention to detail, and that you’re capable of honouring the key relationships they’ve already cultivated.”

As Thompson has found, the very act of hiring a fundraising professional can often say a lot about a nonprofit’s willingness to “get organized as a team.”

“When small nonprofits make the move to bring in a professional fundraiser, they’re in the market for a successful team player,” she says. “Fundraising is a contact sport, and in today’s hyper-competitive market, the best teams raise the most money.”

Developing a strategy

After getting the lay of the land, and gathering as much intel as possible from their inner circle of stakeholders, fundraisers will be armed with enough information to develop their fundraising strategy.

“You want to be able to put together a very clear and simple plan that you can share with everybody within your organization,” says Wong. “It’s part of how to manage your board and management team, so you want to base the strategy on the feedback you’ve received on preexisting relationships, which will help you to set realistic goals and timeframes.”

The development of this plan won’t be easy. Having had experience serving as a small nonprofit’s first dedicated fundraiser, Doherty doesn't skirt the fact that building a fundraising plan from the ground up comes with its fair share of difficulties.

“It’s no cakewalk. Being the first individual to take control and build a fundraising program is a challenge, because there’s no plan to follow,” he says. “But with the challenge comes a lot of enjoyment, because the fundraiser has a lot of autonomy, and can inject some creativity into their work.”

For Doherty, he has found that fundraising plans are crucial as a means of fully mapping out areas to focus attention.

“It comes back to understanding what you want to prioritize at different stages of the year, and what you want to spend your time and energy on right away,” he says. “Being organized and having a plan is a must in this type of position, and becomes even more important if you’re the organization’s first professional fundraiser.”

Managing expectations

There is little doubt that the pressure faced by fundraising professionals working at a small nonprofit is sizeable. If they achieve their fundraising goals, their organization’s ability to deliver more services goes up dramatically. However, if fundraising goals aren’t met, and the organization’s coffers are more barren than expected, the nonprofit’s strategic planning process will likely be left in the lurch.

An ideal way for fundraisers to combat this pressure is to manage the expectations of their board and senior management team.

“Regardless of dollar and cents, I always try to show them what I’m doing in relation to my strategy,” says Doherty. “Even if the relationships I’ve built haven’t translated to success at the given moment, I try to show them where we are, in measurables, and give them an update as to how we’re proceeding.”

Doherty notes that as long as the avenues of communication are left open, the board and senior management team “will be more receptive to updates.”

As well, fundraisers shouldn't hesitate to call upon their strategy as a means of helping to temper unrealistic fundraising expectations.

“Your fundraising plan will have done everything to try to manage board expectations,” says Thompson. “It will say how long your organization will probably need to get into a good fundraising routine, and to actually have some results come from it, which will certainly not be overnight!”

Thompson urges fundraisers to remind their board and senior management teams that the core of fundraising isn’t about the amount of funds raised, but rather, the quantity and quality of the relationships developed.

“At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, ‘How many relationships did I advance today?’ as opposed to, ‘How many people did I ask for money?’” she adds. “That's what’s going to pay off in the end – the relationships you’ve cultivated.”

Creating your own path

On occasion, senior volunteers, board members, and even executive directors – particularly within smaller organizations – can let their passion can get in the way of progress.

Part of being a successful professional fundraiser is periodically having to engage in conversations with individuals who have established preconceived expectations based solely on prior fundraising experiences; this requires the fundraiser to embark upon steering expectations away from “This is how we’ve always raised funds in the past, and you should continue in this manner,” and moving them towards “We’re open to trying new ideas, so pitch us what you’ve got.”

When Wong encounters these delicate situations and difficult issues, he uses the LEAP method: “LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree, and Partner.”

Wong has shared a scenario where a new fundraiser can use LEAP to engage in one of these “crucial conversations” with a board member or volunteer who might be entrenched in one way of doing things:

“I’m trying to carefully listen to you what you’re saying about how you’ve always raised funds in the past... It has worked for you in the past, and I think I understand why you’re less inclined to change... I agree with you that it’s crucial that we secure funding ASAP… How about working together on this... Let’s carefully review how things have been done in the past, as challenging as some of this is, and see where there might be new areas for opportunity and growth.”

Thompson recommends that when new fundraisers work with their board and senior management teams, they should first acknowledge the relationships that have already been built and the successes that have been made, by collaboratively discussing strategies around each one.

“New fundraisers are always going to need support when seeking to service preexisting donors and sponsors,” she says. “Ask your board or management, ‘How best can I support you in this?’ and reinforce the fact that successful fundraising requires teamwork.”

Self-belief

Becoming a successful fundraiser requires more than a Rolodex of potential leads.

Fundraisers – especially organizations’ first-ever fundraisers – need to find ways to manage the pressure heaped upon their shoulders.

“Having been in those shoes before, I can’t tell you how many times I heard people around the office say things like, 'This new guy will make everything all right for our organization,' and, 'He comes highly recommended,’” says Wong. “It made for a pressure-filled environment, and at times, it was difficult to navigate through.”

Though it can often feel as though you’ve been branded with a “saviour” badge, Doherty sees value in carving out time each week for collecting thoughts, recallingsuccesses, and reaffirming personal belief as a way of staving off the spectre of self-doubt.

“I have had to really reinforce beliefs in my own head that I can be a successful fundraiser, and that successfully raising funds is something I can truly do,” says Doherty. “With anything in life, there’s always going to be self-doubt, but I think you need to challenge that doubt head-on, and understand there’s a reason why you’ve been given this opportunity.”

Doherty regularly checks in with a professional fundraising mentor, which serves as a forum to help him recognize his strengths, and identify areas where he would like to improve.

“Never forget that there’s a reason why you were chosen to be your organization’s first fundraiser,” he adds. “When the pressure builds, challenge your self-doubt by remembering that you’re going to do whatever it takes to be equipped with the skills, the know-how, and the information to complete the job.”

BONUS: Applying corporate sector experience to nonprofit fundraising

In Part 1 of the two-part fundraising series, we saw examples of nonprofit professionals encouraging organizations to consider opening up their potential fundraising candidate pool to those with for-profit sector sales experience.

With more than 50% of executive directors noting they’ve been unable to find well-qualified fundraisers, the sector is entering a period where more and more opportunities for nonprofit fundraising roles will be afforded to those with corporate sector sales experience.

If an individual with a business development background successfully makes the switch to a nonprofit fundraising position, John Wong has a few pieces of advice to impart upon those about to cut their teeth in the nonprofit sector:

1. “While the new fundraiser with corporate experience is gathering information about their new organization and its key stakeholder relationships, they should also be doing things like reading a book about fundraising best practices.” (Wong recommends Achieving Excellence in Fund Raising by Henry Rosso, noting that the core principles of fundraising discussed in the book are “particularly more relevant than they ever have been in today’s hyper-competitive, digitally-influenced fundraising environment.”)

2. “Those new to nonprofit fundraising should be connecting in the same way that they’re picking up the phone. On top of introducing themselves to key stakeholders and members of their board, they should also be connecting with fellow professional fundraisers. Attend local Association of Fundraising Professional events. Meet with other fundraising professionals in-person, or connect through social media. Get to know your colleagues.”

3. “It’s not uncommon to see somebody in my fundraising network just put a question or idea out there on social media. There’s merit to crowdsourcing, especially if you’re relatively new to the industry. Don’t hesitate to mention ‘I’m working on this project,’ or ‘I have this problem,’ things like that. Chances are, if you’re not from the sector, you may not have a professional fundraising network, and that’s something you need to develop.”

4. “Never forget to learn, embrace, and apply the principles of philanthropy and charity to your work, and remember that fundraising is all about relationships. Once you learn the vital importance of a culture of philanthropy and nonprofit fundraising ethics, you can combine your previous sales experience with fundraising best practices, and create some fantastic results.”

Brock Smith is a communications specialist based out of Markham, ON, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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