There's nothing quite like communicating with donors. Though many would consider them an audience like any other, their needs, wants and motivations are distinct, characterized by a strong desire to make an impact while generously contributing to a worthwhile cause. Here's an insider's look at the complex and fulfilling world of fundraising and donor communications, one that has given me so much joy over the years and a niche that can be so often undervalued - even by myself.
I remember once saying that I would never, ever work in fundraising. Back when I was pursuing my public relations certificate at Humber College, we were presented with grand campaigns and captivating case studies about television show launches, the latest-and-greatest electronics, massive corporate initiatives or luxury events packed with celebrities and influencers - and these attention-getting possibilities stole the show. I believed that I needed to be a part of the glitziest, most glamorous and highest-profile projects to feel like I was being successful as a communicator.
At that time, fundraising to me felt too small. I assumed it would be a slow-paced working environment with low-energy teams and lacking the funding required to affect real change or do anything of substance. I was also an ignorant and aloof twenty-something who didn't feel like there were any social causes that I was particularly passionate enough about to define my career around, instead focusing a little too much on the trendy downtown "lifestyle" expected of an up-and-coming PR professional.
But as I worked through my early career, I realized how misguided this line of thinking was. Fundraising, development and donor communications were everywhere, and it was not at all what I had anticipated.
As I suspect it most often does, my first foray into donor communications came by sheer happenstance. Working with the Alumni Relations team at York University, we often crossed paths and projects with the fundraising folks who shared our building, but our work was separate enough that my exposure to what they did was limited. That was until capacity was bursting at the seams and additional communications support was needed. Being a strong writer and apt designer, I was pulled in to tackle some of the overflowing workload, which amounted to an ever-increasing flood of donor proposals and campaign materials.
I learned from those very first projects that communicating with donors was special - probably one of the most special tasks I had ever been given. My preconceived notions were shattered in just a few short weeks as I dove head-first into the world of fundraising.
A unique motivation drove them, an unmistakable "why" that brought them to our doorstep with an interest in making a difference and supporting a cause close to their heart. I had the opportunity to speak with many donors of all kinds in my role, and though the scale and scope of their "why" varied depending on how or how much they gave, listening to their varied reasons for giving back was nothing short of inspirational.
Perhaps they or a family member had been affected by a serious illness, so they wanted to support research to ensure future generations of families didn't have to experience what they did. Maybe they'd devoted their lives to a specific area of study, and they wanted to give back to ensure young people in need could access education and make their own mark in the industry. There could have even been an important social cause that they held dear, like the plight of a marginalized community or minority group, and donating was their way of doing their part.
The more I experienced these stories of generosity and giving, the more enthralled I became with the world of fundraising and the role that my communications could play within it. I was writing for generous long-time donors who had already shown their support time and time again, a first-time donor just starting out on their philanthropic journey, or even a prospective donor who had expressed interest in a cause but hadn't yet made the leap to become a financial supporter.
The message I was attempting to convey was the same across all of them - they wanted to know that their support was having, or would have, an impact, that it was making a tangible difference for its intended purpose. At the same time, donors wanted their stories of impact - and the stories of those they impacted - to be shared with the world in hopes of others getting on board with the vision and pledging their support. And that was the inspiration I needed - communicating in the fundraising world, when done correctly and ethically, could be a perpetual cycle of good deeds creating real change for those who need it most and influencing others to get on board.
Part and parcel with that message was one of gratitude. Donors deserve to be thanked for their generosity, and in my role, I wanted to be the one to express said thanks for their support and for the change they were able to make for those in need. It was undeniable that being a conduit for gratitude was uplifting. The positivity that I was able to spread through my words lifted my soul and ignited an even stronger willingness to be a more ingrained part of this world.
From that point on, communicating with and about donors became my niche and my passion.
Before then, my focus was on making myself look as flashy as possible and for people to see the value and influence of my work so that I could capitalize on my ambitions and continue clambering my way up the corporate ladder towards higher titles and better pay. But from that moment forward, I wanted my skills to mean something. I wanted to channel my aptitude and expertise as a communicator toward making a real difference - and so I sought out roles that allowed me to do that.
In postsecondary education, I was using the written word to help create scholarships and bursaries for exceptional students with financial burdens or lack of opportunity, to lay the foundation for state-of-the-art new learning spaces and classrooms where the future would be enlightened, to design new research initiatives with the potential to change the world. In healthcare, I applied my skills to secure cutting-edge new medical equipment to update lagging infrastructure, build new clinical spaces or recruit expert medical leadership to drastically improve care outcomes, or even rally the community together to support a better future of healthcare for patients and communities in need.
And these were journeys that I went on not only with the teams beside me but with the donors themselves - I could feel the weight of their expectations with every key or pen stroke, and it empowered me to always do my best work. Early in my communications career, I'd always say that "we weren't saving lives." But after working in fundraising, it suddenly felt as though maybe what I was doing could be helping someone else save someone's life, which kept me going.
Working in donor communications was a surprising entryway into building relationships and connections that broadened my network as much as they broadened my personal, professional and intellectual horizons.
I interviewed all measure of interesting individuals from throughout the organizations I worked in - professors, researchers, students, alumni, doctors, nurses, patients and families - and learned about their amazing individual journeys. I was able to connect, interact and network with some of the country's most influential people - top CEOs, executives and business leaders, politicians, community influencers and local business owners, and even a celebrity or two - in their roles as volunteers, board members or even donors themselves.
Whether in a proposal, case for support, stewardship report, email campaign, annual appeal letter or even a simple tweet, it was my job to take the words and intentions of this diverse group of people and translate them into a compelling story. It was my job to weave a captivating narrative that painted a picture of promise, hope and an unbounded future, one that couldn't be ignored. I had to invite donors into the fold, enticing them to learn more about a project, understand the role they could play, give generously, and celebrate the impact.
My initial feelings towards fundraising continued to be proven wrong as I also realized that fundraising, though it could be done on a small scale, was no less grand than any other industry.
You still have massive, national or multi-national organizations, raising millions and millions of dollars through some of the most innovative PR, marketing and communications initiatives in history (even partnering with some of the glitzy initiatives I mentioned at the start of this post to bring fundraising to an even greater audience). There are grand events like donor galas, awards ceremonies and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, massive advertising campaigns with billboards, transit ads and television commercials, and lucrative celebrity or brand endorsements with some of the biggest names in the biz.
On the other hand, though, you have your smaller non-profits, ones that, despite a narrower focus and a more modest operation, still advocate on behalf of equally important causes that deserve their fair share of the available attention and support. And while the former may provide all the hoopla that a fresh-faced young PR pro might want and expect, I've come to understand and appreciate the value of the smaller shops. There are fundraising efforts that so often get pushed to the side by their "competitors," but their donors and the people or projects they impact do just as much good for our society and, whether big or small, the messages we try to convey are still the same - impact and gratitude.
While my eyes were no longer fixed upon the next promotion, title or raise, these opportunities seemed to find me instead. My skills and expertise shone through without the cutthroat attitude that I had been so obsessed with in my career prior because now, working within a specialty that I had grown so fond of and had immersed myself in so profoundly meant that I was consistently performing at the highest degree. Because I cared more.
And though I no longer work specifically for a non-profit, I continue to grow my passion for donor communications through my freelancing work and the clients whose causes I support with my writing and other services. Even in my full-time work, I strive to make fundraising an intrinsic part of our operations, understanding that, even as a retail, commercial or corporate operation, giving back is something that we can all get behind and does more good for any business than sometimes we even know.
The lesson here is: don't be like the old me. You truly won't know if you enjoy a specific career path or "niche" unless you try it first. Something you thought perhaps wasn't for you might be right up your alley. Something you had counted out could be your path to opportunity and career satisfaction. I guess what they say about not judging a book by its cover applies here.