Authenticity in Fundraising: Being a Great Fundraiser While Still Being YOU

by Andrea Kihlstedt

andrea-kihlstedtWho is the Authentic You? Can You Be A Great Fundraiser As Your Authentic Self?

If you’re a front line solicitor, often meeting with donors in person to ask them for gifts, you might sometimes wonder who you really are.

When you meet with someone conservative, you’re conservative. When you meet with a progressive, you’re progressive.

When you meet with a Cornell professor, you wear Birkenstocks. The next day with the banker, it’s heels and stockings.

When someone waxes eloquent about a political figure they support, you nod sagely but then vote for the other guy.

Today you’re for gun control, tomorrow you’re a supporter of the NRA.

In the heat of the last presidential election, I went to visit a major donor on behalf of a client. It turned out that she was a Republican and felt quite strongly about the outcome of the election. And as she walked me to my car and stood watching me depart, I was painfully aware of the Democratic sticker on my rear bumper.

Was it a mistake to drive a car with a political sticker?

Do you have to sell out to be a good major gift solicitor? Do you have to become vanilla? Or can you show your true colors?


Do You Wear Brightly Colored Socks?

My friend Dave Dunlop, who developed the famed major and principal gifts program for Cornell University, once told me that Si Seymour, the granddaddy of major gift fundraising instructed young fundraisers at Cornell not to wear bright colored socks! Why? Because they would call attention to themselves by doing so.

I confess to being partial to brightly colored socks. Should I reform my ways? Was the great Si Seymour wrong?

Do you have to give up your identity be a great major gift fundraiser?

Does it pay to pretend to be like your donor?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t pay to pretend to be like your donors. Even when you try, you’re not likely to succeed. It’s more important just to be yourself.

Now does that mean wearing your most outrageous outfit? Or letting loose with an F-bomb because you do that sometimes in other circumstances? No, of course not.

Follow these simple simple suggestions and you’ll find that your conversations will be more authentic and more rewarding than when you pretend you’re someone you’re not.


How to Ask for Gifts While Being the Authentic YOU

  1. Your major donor conversations should be all about the donor. If you’re curious about who the donor is and what they value; if you make it your job to understand and help them achieve their goals, they won’t care a hoot if you are wearing bright socks or gold necklaces or Birkenstocks. They won’t even care if you agree with them politically or are in their socio-economic group. They’ll just feel good that someone who is genuinely interested in them has come to visit.
  2. Don’t argue, but don’t lie. If you are visiting a donor whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, resist the urge to “take the donor on.” If they ask about your views, share them. But a visit with a major donor, unless you know your donor enjoys a good debate, is not a time to argue for your views. It’s not even a time to show how smart and well-informed you are. It’s simply time for you to wonder about the donor. Because the visit is All About the DONOR.
  3. Substitute curiosity for judgement. Curiosity is the primary skill of a great major gift fundraiser. When you’re genuinely curious rather than judgmental, you’ll find yourself enjoying the company of people who are very different from you.
  4. Resist the urge to make fun of your donors. When you are talking to colleagues, discipline yourself not speak ill of your donors. It may be that you just met with a donor who has blue hair and rouge-pink cheeks and whose ideas seem cockamaimie to you, but you’ll do better at fundraising–and in your life–if you choose to share stories about her generosity or spirit or good humor rather than smiling to her face and laughing behind her back.
  5. Get out. Finally, If you find yourself unable to enjoy conversations with people who don’t agree with your views and who live in ways you don’t approve of; if you find yourself demeaning the very donors you are building relationships with, it’s time to get out of this business.


And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy some more brightly colored socks.

Andrea Kihlstedt


How far will you go to be like your donors?  Let us know your thoughts on Twitter and Facebook.



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