It wasn’t until I became a consultant that I realized the parallels between great fundraisers and great journalists. Over the years, as I have interviewed board members, staff and donor prospects I always think about how the very best journalists conduct their interviews; instilling confidence and openness that allows the person being interviewed to engage and open up.
Both professions require innate talents that can’t be taught in school. Moreover, these skills are not always viewed as the most important skills for which a nonprofit identifies as the traits they look for when hiring fundraisers.
My Top Eleven Characteristics of Great Fundraisers…. and Journalists
Curiosity is an important trait of intellectuals. The minds of great fundraisers, like journalists, are always active. Curiosity opens up new worlds and possibilities which are normally not visible. It takes a curious mind to look beneath the surface and discover new worlds and possibilities. A great fundraiser has a thirst for knowledge and information that moves him/her closer to donors, while discovering their underlying interests and motivations. Curiosity makes your mind observant of new ideas. Without it the ideas would pass you by. Fundraisers and journalists never tire of the conversations, research, fact finding, and exploration required to get to get to where they want to go. We fundraisers are always coming up with new questions.
I once worked for a CEO who called me “scrappy”. To the ear it sounded terrible, until I realized that the job required the greatest strengths of entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, ingenuity and enterprising ideas. For the journalist and the fundraiser the treasure may lie after multiple attempts and dead ends. A plan might not work out, so really resourceful people are always working on multiple plans at once. Resourceful people turn challenges into advantages.
3. Quick on the Feet
A client once called me into his office without notice or prep time to ask a trustee for a major gift. The board member responded to his request by looking at me aghast: “That’s more money than I have ever given, including to my college”. Unprepared as I was, I had a quick comeback which resulted in a challenge gift and tripling of his previous major gifts. Fundraisers work with a lot of unknowns when asking for money. Journalists do too, following leads on stories and more. Both professions require a quick-wittedness, perceptiveness and ability to think and react quickly. It always helps to have good questions and answers at the ready.
“The Universe delivers a lot of unknowns” says artist Taryn Simon. In the face of adversity, setbacks in evidence or willingness of others to cooperate or participate, the great fundraisers and journalists persevere. “No” is a diversion, not a dead end.
Sometimes, there are sacrifices that both fundraisers and journalists must make in their personal lives in order to get the job done. The news business is highly unpredictable, as is the fundraising profession; which relies on volunteers and generous donors who work on their own timetable and sets of life circumstances. Commitment is essential to inspiring those around you.
6. Worldliness and knowledge
Both of these assets are a result of number one: curiosity. In a global and diverse society, a lack of worldliness is a detriment in almost any field today. Ability to carry on a conversation on multiple subjects and tracks is a necessity, even if it requires major study prior to a meeting or new story assignment. Intellectual curiosity, travel, exploration and all forms of knowledge that relate to human life will prove useful to a good fundraiser or journalist.
7. Possessing a thick skin
This took me years to develop and is always a work in progress. For fundraisers, criticism may come from those most invested in the organization such as parents, board members or donors. Who likes to be pushed for money, or worse, pushed to raise it? It’s easy to lash out at the fundraiser. For journalists, there is no end to the criticism they receive of their work which is often as truth teller of the previously undisclosed. If that sounds eerily like the same role as consultant, it is. Just like politicians, developing a thick skin and ability to thrive through an abundance of criticism is both inevitable and a requisite.
8. Ethics and integrity
Whether in reporting or money raising, both professions must be steadfastly committed to the highest integrity in their work and actions. The consequences of a lack of public trust are devastating to both professions.
9. Compassion and kindness
If you are unable to demonstrate empathy, concern and an attempt to understand people’s positions, it will be hard to become best in class in either profession. Without these competencies how else can one build the trust in people that allows them to share their stories, feelings, hopes and desires? You cannot be a successful fundraiser without trying to think about a situation from a standpoint other than your own.
10. Listening skills; silence
Truly hearing the words, reading the facial expressions, body language and other signals is critical to getting to the truth and bottom line. It’s the inexperienced fundraiser who speaks more than poses questions and then truly listens. No one likes a journalist that is more impressed with posing tough questions than interpreting the responses. Listening is a skill that demands conscious attention and constant practice, especially when we feel like we’ve heard it before or it doesn’t capture our attention.
Having confidence in oneself allows both professions to ask the tough questions, get the details to seize opportunities for funding or writing the story. They are able to overcome shyness and fear of putting themselves out there at the risk of criticism and rejection. Confidence in oneself is a highly respected quality.
There are many more important assets to being a great fundraiser or journalist, such as passion and exemplary writing and communication skills. The mastery of both professions takes years of experience, dedication and smarts. The good news is that mastery can be developed over time.