Movers and Shakers

Eons ago, a friend was the Development Director at a large performing arts organization.  Most their major gift fundraising happened around very social events:  dinners before performances, drinks at intermission, private parties at the donors’ homes where the talent performed.  There was one, big problem with this type of fundraising, and it wasn’t the amount of time staff had to spend planning. Too often, one or another of her development team would forget that they were staff and no matter how friendly the prospects and donors appeared to be, they simply were not peers.  When they forgot that, they typically ceased to be effective.

Or, as one of my first fundraising mentors elegantly informed me:  “Being a development professional is a lot like being a piece of furniture.”  To the degree furniture is the center of attraction it is because it is needed for something—a place to sit, a table at which to eat—or it is being admired not really for its intrinsic value but rather for the good taste of the person who chose the item.  Likewise with fundraisers.

Or, as another colleague likes to say, “this is no job for an egomaniac.”

In my practice, I meet a lot of fundraisers who don’t seem to understand that their job is to coordinate and facilitate the fundraising process—and the glory goes to the CEO, the Board, the program person.  And even if the development professional is the one who is at the meetings, does the cultivation, makes the ask and then makes nice to the donor, it’s good form and smart politics to thank others for the work you did so well.

Of course, most of the time you would work even better if you included those peers in the process.  Yes, sometimes all it feels like is another layer—but over the years I’ve found that involving my volunteers, even at a distance, not only helps with new prospects but also ties those volunteers more closely to my organization.

A true story:  I was trying to engage a well-connected woman in our community with one of the programs at my college.  I asked the members of our Foundation Board if anyone could help.  Several said they knew her, but the only help that appeared forthcoming was an offer of a telephone number—one that was easily found in the local white pages.

I forged ahead and to make a long story short, the woman indeed became a strong supporter of the program.  I profusely thanked my Board members for their help and tried not to sound too sarcastic.

Years later I was consulting for an organization where this woman was on the Board.  At my first Board meeting, I went over to say hello.  After a few moments of catching up she told me that every time she saw—and here she mentioned the person who had offered me the phone number—she thanked him profusely for involving her with the program.  Go figure.

The point of course is not that the Board member did virtually nothing, but that “my” donor recalled a peer as the impetus for her involvement rather than me or even the program director.

Major gifts, particularly, are best as a team effort.  The professional is the glue that holds the team together, ensures that all the steps are taken and that follow up happens.  He or she documents the process every step of the way.  But make no mistake; the captain of the team is the person to whom the prospect cannot say no.

Fundraising staff may be the “mover” but the “shaker” of this enterprise is almost always a peer, and if not a social peer then it is a business one—the CEO,  the program head, the person who makes the project a reality.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits helping them to move their fundraising efforts forward.  Learn more at