Though fundraising in today’s tough economy may seem particularly daunting, it’s the traditional, time-tested skills that remain paramount.
And mastering those skills requires formal education as well as more organic, peer-to-peer learning experiences.
The most important capacities for a fundraiser still revolve around the age-old basics of relationship-building, good stewardship and solid planning, says Robin Rosenbluth, assistant vice president for development at Columbia University Medical Center.
“Keep in touch with people in an ongoing way, not only when you’re beginning to cultivate a donor, but to continue what we call ‘stewardship in the field,'” says Rosenbluth, who also teaches in Columbia University’s master’s program in fundraising management.
It’s also important to be a good planner, she says, to ensure contacts are cultivated in a steady manner.
The general rule is to contact potential donors about seven times a year, and not always with donation requests.
Contacts like a handwritten note or a newsletter that build on a positive relationship with the potential donor and look personal are best.
“What I tell people in the field is you should always have your top 20 donors and have a particular plan for them in terms of ongoing contact, because that’s your bread and butter,” says Rosenbluth.
Yet the risk for new development professionals of leaning solely on the advice of experts, she says, is that many will take such “rules” at face value.
“People new to the field tend to learn one thing and think it’s sort of generally applicable,” she says. “They make a mechanical fit. Experience teaches you to be more flexible, but first you need to understand the ground rules.”
Rosenbluth recommends an established educational program for those just getting started as fundraisers.
“It gives you more of the tools in terms of understanding the breadth of the field and the most important issues in terms of each type of fundraising,” she says.
One of the key benefits of a formal study program is the opportunity to learn from professionals who have accumulated advanced knowledge and experience in their field.
Once a new fundraiser has the basics down and one to two years of experience under her belt, then “collegial sharing can be really worthwhile, because you have case studies to draw from,” says Rosenbluth.
Next, it’s time to seek out a mentoring relationship, which Rosenbluth says should be arranged with thought and purpose.
“I think that identifying a mentor, someone you think is doing a fabulous job as a fundraiser, is the best thing,” she says. “A young person needs to actually ask someone to be their mentor and develop that relationship.”
With a focus on acquiring fundraising basics through formal education and mentoring, development professionals have a better shot at weathering economic lows.