Say that again?
Rachel described to me how it’s a big deal to get funded as a start-up — raising $1 million in venture capital is a news story. People celebrate. Not just the founders: other people (who are not your relatives or partners) celebrate your accomplishment. This was mind boggling to me. And it was a genuine question.
Sure, there are stories about record-breaking gifts, goal-smashing campaigns, and the biggest fundraising events. Aside from wonderfully unexpected events like the ice bucket challenge, these stories are often local or limited to publications for and by the nonprofit or philanthropy sectors.
Do we celebrate?
Publicly? Okay, maybe if it’s a high profile donor, if there’s going to be a groundbreaking, if it means we get to build the school or the clinic. If it’s the kind of campaign with a thermometer. But then again, the celebration isn’t for or about the fundraisers.
It’s a balance with fundraising. If nobody’s giving money to your organization, then people wonder whether you’re worth giving their money to, but if you’re hitting it out of the ballpark — then people start to wonder if their dollars would make more of an impact somewhere else because it doesn’t seem like your organization needs it. That is an extreme oversimplification, but it is also not the point.
From what I can tell, getting funded as a start-up is a key milestone — kind of one of those initial make or break accomplishments. Since eventually the business should making a profit and all that. That’s the point right? If you’re disrupting an industry, in a capitalist society, then there should some financial measure of success, right?
For a nonprofit organization, raising funds is fueling your body to run the marathon that is working on a cure for AIDS or helping young people find their voice, helping refugees make new homes or preserving public lands for future generations — whatever is that piece of the better world you’re working to make real. Rightfully so, the story is not about the fundraisers. It’s the donors, it’s the mission, it’s the partners, it’s the community, it’s the team.
But when you’re on that team?
“She just schmoozes the donors.”
That was how a fundraiser I know was once introduced to a room full of her colleagues. By a colleague.
It’s bad enough when friends and family don’t understand your career and think you’re some type of volunteer who spends their day begging people for money. For a good cause. But still.
It is bad enough when anyone describes your work as “just” anything. It is worse when it is other nonprofit professionals who demean your profession.
And I’ve been one of them. For that, I am sorry.
Even if I didn’t say it, I thought it. Because I was uncomfortable with money, and because I, too, believed in that false dichotomy:
“There’s been a false dichotomy between social justice and money. You know, we all have sort of adverse reactions to the way that money and power are twinned in some oppressive structures. But we have to acknowledge…that we can’t do our work without money.”
– Matt Berryman, Executive Director, Reconciling Ministries Network
Fundraising is not about money. I once heard a fundraiser explain that when people are dying of a disease, or watching their loved ones struggle with a chronic illness for which we have no cure, giving money for research can be a way for them to regain a sense of control about their lives and about their situations.
In all of this uncertainty, sometimes we need to feel like there is something we can do but we can’t be in all places or maybe we shouldn’t.
We can’t all be medical researchers or community organizers or in every classroom. We can all contribute in the places we are in with the skills and knowledge and experience we have. And where we can’t, we can give others the resources to contribute their best to advance the causes we care about.
All of us in the third sector are embattled enough. Let’s make sure our colleagues aren’t facing unnecessary obstacles from within while they are playing a very necessary role.
During a giving season, let’s celebrate the dedicated professionals who won’t give up trying to create that win-win, for both our organizations and our donors. Not just the frontline fundraisers but all of the people who make it happen — whether they’re keeping the database clean or reconciling the checks with their designation or preparing the thank you letters to be signed.
To all of you fueling us for the endless marathons ahead: thank you, thank you, thank you.
We couldn’t do any of this without you.