Fundraising as a Profession--What Does it Take to Succeed?

fundraising as a career Mar 05, 2021


One thing that senior development professionals have learned is that perseverance is a highly needed quality. Major and planned gifts, in particular, require building long term relationships; perseverance pays off. If donors think the organization has forgotten about them they may just move on to the next organization.

If your development office needs to undergo a computer conversion, perseverance is definitely going to be required! This is a tedious and frustrating process and one that never seems to be completed in the expected timeframe.

So how do you cultivate perseverance? Part of the secret to perseverance is setting goals and realistic benchmarks to measure success.  This will keep you from wanting to throw in the towel when the going gets tough. Strategic planning is one way to develop reasonable timelines for yourself, and help you understand that often good things take time. CEOs and development officers are often under a great deal of pressure to raise money quickly.  Entrepreneurial board members who are shrewd business people are often accustomed to working on the basis of instant decisions, and may want the development office to just “go out and do it” without adequate planning. Be careful not to get so caught up in keeping your head above water that you do not have the time to plan. A recent survey asking development professionals what their biggest challenge is shows that lack of time for planning as the leading challenge listed.

Working on long-term goals for a specific amount of time each day can help. And understanding that you should focus 90-95 percent of your time on the 5-10 percent of donors who account for 90-95 percent of all the gifts your organization will receive helps as well.

Of course sometimes the organization itself needs to cultivate patience and persistence, so helping to build a philanthropic culture within the organization is a big part of your role. At the end of this chapter, there is a quick and easy assessment to help determine the organization's commitment to building a philanthropic culture. One of your major tasks may be helping your board and executive staff understand that fundraising is all about building relationships and that if you persevere in this relationship building, your organization will benefit tremendously. If you can impart this knowledge to your organization’s leaders, you will rise to the top of your field. You must take the time to plan strategically; otherwise your organization will be left behind in the dynamic and ever-evolving world of the nonprofit sector. Leadership should look at the return on investment of careful, strategic planning.


 This may be the hardest to define and the hardest to cultivate in a development professional. Perhaps the closest thing to this may be a “perception of poise.” A more contemporary definition may be closer to “positioning yourself.” Presence can also be described as the ability to command attention and being respected as a professional.

So what can you do to develop a sense of presence?

First, look and act professional at all times. Development professionals, especially when meeting with donors or potential donors (which may be all of the time) should wear a suit and tie, or for women, a suit, nice dress or pant suit. Although some nonprofits adopt a more casual atmosphere, dressing for success is important for the development professional because you will be very visible in the community. And of course, you never know when that million dollar donor may walk in the front door! Being well dressed and well-groomed will give you a sense of pride and confidence that is necessary for a sense of presence. This does not necessarily mean that you need to spend a lot of money on clothes and new car, but looking good and driving a respectable looking car can help add a sense of presence. Good posture, an open and welcoming facial expression can be very meaningful, especially when you remember that you only have one opportunity to make a first impression!

Of course, presence is about much more than just looking good. Knowing the job will make you appear more confident and knowledgeable, adding to the presence factor. So, not to belabor the point, education and training are critical. Read, attend workshops, and join a professional organization such as AFP!

Some practical tips to help you become successful at fundraising:

  • Make a conscious decision to work only for organizations whose mission you feel passionate about. Remember the adage—“do what you love and the money will follow.”
  • Strive to be a change agent within the organization for which you work. Develop a plan to educate the organization's leadership about philanthropy.
  • Remember that the donor's interest is always the foremost consideration in any decisions involving fundraising.

There are several key traits that successful fundraisers have in common. These traits include impeccable integrity; being a good listener; the ability to motivate staff, volunteers and donors; being a hard worker; a true concern for people; having high expectations for yourself, your organization and other people including staff, volunteers and donors; perseverance; and presence. While some of these might seem to be innate qualities, there are things you can do to develop these qualities.

Success is measured in many ways—financial success, personal growth, happiness and a feeling of doing a job well, making a difference. How do you measure success?

To learn more about getting started in or advancing in your fundraising career, take my course, Fundraising as a Career, sign up here

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