Here’s part one of this interview with Claire Axelrad! If you’d like to learn more from Claire, come to the Fundraising Career Conference!
MT: You reminded me of this book called Grit by Angela Duckworth. I don’t know if you’ve read that. But she talks about what makes a person successful in the world, whether they’re trying to become a world class swimmer or a high level salesperson or whatever it is. She found that it was their ability to be positive, focus on the small successes they do make despite all the many setbacks. They continue to work and try and grow and learn from their mistakes is what makes them gritty and sets them apart and allows them to continue.
CA: That’s what Malcolm Gladwell talks about too, in Outlier. He talks about what is the difference between the superstar athlete and the ordinary athlete? There’s so many people that are talented musicians but not all of them become stars. What makes one of them become a star? There is some luck involved.
But a lot of it is grit. It’s practice doing it over and over and over, which is why I say I’m looking for people that aren’t afraid to work hard but there’s also that buoyancy, that resilience, that pick yourself up and do it again. You know?
MT: Yes, I do.
CA: And partly that’s why you look for people who are passionate about the mission because they’re going to be more willing to do that over and over again if they feel like what they’re doing is something that their heart is really in it.
MT: What can readers do right now to get more hire-able in fundraising?
CA: Well, one of the things that people always say is volunteer. Go volunteer. Get some real life nonprofit experience. I think that’s always a really good thing to do. I also recognize that it’s really hard for a lot of people who are in full time jobs now to find the time to volunteer. So the other thing that I say is read fundraising books and blogs. Become familiar with the lingo in the area of fundraising into which you’d like to be hired.
So that when you’re in an interview, you can start talking about it chapter and verse and your interviewer is going to be like wow, this person really knows this stuff. She’s got data on donor retention that I wasn’t aware of that we could use to benchmark our donor retention against. So I think that’s a really good thing to do and I don’t think enough people do that.
One person that I hired once for a marketing director sent me a link to his blog where he had written a whole bunch of articles about marketing that I thought were really, really smart. I thought, oh, I want this guy. He seems to really get it. So anything that you can do that shows that you get it.
The last thing I would say is what I alluded to earlier, which is go on research interviews. Especially if you’re transitioning from another profession into fundraising. Go talk to people in fundraising. Just say, I’d like to come talk with you about what you do as a development director on a daily basis. I’m thinking about making a move into this career and I’d really like to get a grasp of what it entails. I would always take those types of interviews. Then it shows that you know what you’re doing.
When someone comes in with a sales background, which sometimes can be very translatable into fundraising, but clearly has no idea about anything to do with fundraising, I’m kind of like, come back when you’ve done your research.
MT: That’s wonderful. When people are connected to the research, that resonates with you even if they don’t have the necessary experience. They want to explore what it really means to get involved in fundraising.
CA: Right, because I’m looking for people who are problem solvers. I’m looking for people who want to figure out how to get things done. So show me you can figure out what it takes to do this job. I don’t expect you to know everything, but the fact that you’ve tried to figure out something on your own is a good start.
MT: Next question. How did you get to be a good manager? Did you take a course or read a book or get mentored by someone? So sometimes people get promoted and they can’t hack it. So what did you do?
CA: I don’t know. I think I got lucky. I did all of those things that you said. I think early on, what I did, was I got some really good advice. I was a lawyer and I decided I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. So I decided to do this career transition. I did a lot of research interviews. At one point, somebody suggested to me – it was Hank Rosso actually, who was the founder of the Fundraising School, which is now part of the University of Indiana School of Philanthropy.
But he said, when you get hired, when you get your first job, tell them as a condition of your employment, in addition to whatever salary they agree to give you, that they send you to the Fundraising School and that they send you to one major giving course. So I did that, and the Fundraising School was just so eye opening to me. It was a week long course and I saw, wow. There are best practices. There’s a right way to do things. There’s a wrong way to do things and I think it gave me some level of confidence that I could learn this and I could master it.
Then after that, I joined the Association of Fundraising Professionals. I went to the monthly meetings. I networked a lot with my peers. I found people willing to sort of serve as informal mentors. As I got promoted and was hiring and firing people, I read a lot of Peter Drucker who is a management guru that has something amazing to say on just about every subject.
I had some really good bosses that I learned a lot from, just by emulating what they did. Then I left jobs where the management sucked and I realized that I couldn’t learn anything from those people, that it wasn’t a good place to be. So I think a lot just comes from experience, that you have to be committed to continual improvement. I think that when people feel stuck, that’s when they leave the profession.
MT: Yeah. That’s something we’re going to be talking about in the Fundraising Career Conference in 2017, actually, is how do you sort of get unstuck in your relationships at work? How do you build trust? How do you make it feel like you’re actually moving ahead because you’re being surrounded by supportive people instead of adversarial relationships?
CA: Sometimes you can’t. I do a lot of coaching, and I find that is one of the biggest challenges for people to overcome because all of us have a certain amount of inertia and we’re in our jobs. It’s comfortable and we don’t want to make a move because that’s a lot of trouble. Then we have to relearn everything. But we’re unhappy in our jobs.
Sometimes you’re unhappy because the powers that be don’t really want to do fundraising for whatever reason, and there’s many of them. That’s when you have to kind of take a deep look inside and say, why am I staying here? Is this going to be a good thing for me to stay here? It’s generally amazing how if you can make a move and get out of that space, suddenly you realize that all the things you thought were problems are not problems anymore.
It’s not you. It’s the environment that you were in.
MT: So speaking of bosses, how did you keep a good relationship with your boss? Obviously it’s a two way street. But what did you do to keep up your end of the bargain?
CA: I think the number one thing is to make your boss look good and help them solve problems and come to them with solutions. That’s I think really – like my boss would come to me every year when it was time for her evaluation with the board and say, “Can you give me all this data and statistics?” I would basically give her all the stuff that I had done all year. She would report it to the board. It made her look really good.
But certainly I know that that’s what I liked, was people who report to me. I love the people who come to me and tell me about the problem at the same time they’re telling me about the solution. Here’s what’s going wrong and here’s what we’re going to do to fix it. Then I can say yes, that’s great. Or I can say, I don’t think that’s a good idea. But wow. It’s so much better than just dumping a problem in my lap.
MT: Right. That’s why you look for problem solvers.
CA: Yes, absolutely.
MT: That’s actually really good advice. A lot of us when we’re in these fundraising jobs, we think, how dare that person take credit for my work? When that’s really not the right attitude when you want to make a good relationship. You can put whatever you want in your resume and say I did this, because you did do it. But when it comes to the day to day and helping your boss report to the board or whoever they’re reporting to, it’s okay to take one for the team at that point. It really doesn’t matter.
CA: Well, right, and you know, I really feel like it’s very difficult to assign credit when it comes to fundraising because it’s such a team effort. I don’t even mean just the development staff. I used to tell all of the program staff that they were the ones that were responsible for the money coming in. People don’t give to me because I’m out there asking for money.
They give because of the services that you are all providing, and they’re great services. They recognize that. So why would I get credit for raising the money instead of the program staff getting credit for raising the money? So Hank Rosso used to say, fundraising is servant to philanthropy. Really, development staff are servant in the cause of bringing in the philanthropy that is needed to further the organization’s mission.
Philanthropy just means love of human kind. So everybody working within a nonprofit is in the love of human kind business. So if what I’m doing helps the executive director go to the board and say we’re doing what we need to do to fulfill our mission, that’s my job.
MT: I heard at the Bloomerang Conference earlier this week, people don’t give to you. They give through you to make something happen in the world that they want to have happen.
CA: That’s right. That’s something that came from Hank Rosso years ago and I’ve used that through all of my fundraising. This idea that people give through you. Everybody really succeeds in the social benefit sector through everybody else as well, which is why this notion of a culture of philanthropy has gained so much traction in recent years, I think. Because it’s this notion that we’re all on the same ship. We’re all headed in the same direction, and let’s act like we are. Let’s do something so that we’re all pulling the oars at the same time.
Because too many nonprofits, they’ve got people pulling the oar in one direction. On the other side, they’re undermining that by pulling the oar in the opposite direction. There’s fighting between the marketing department and the fundraising department. There’s fighting between different fundraising arms of the same university or hospital. It’s ridiculous.
MT: So how did you create a culture of philanthropy when you were in charge of fundraising? What did you do?
CA: Part of what I did was talk a lot to everybody about what philanthropy really is. Talking to the program staff and telling them, hey, you guys. You made us successful. We raised more money than ever this year and it’s because of what you did this year. So that they felt a part of the process. I would always speak at all staff meetings and I would invite people from other departments to sit in on the development staff meeting.
I would send representatives from the development and marketing team to go sit in on their staff meetings. We would ask them for stories about impact, what their work was. Demonstrating that we thought their work was important, and we wanted to know what they were doing that was really good and explaining to them that when we shared that with the general public, that inspired the general public to give more money so that they could then go and do more of their great work.
So that they saw that it wasn’t us just being like these money grubbing people who all we cared about was money. It all had to do with the recognition of their good work, and we also would do things where we would have like on Fridays, we would get together at the end of the day for a glass of wine and some bread and cheese or whatever. People would go around and share stories of the good things that had happened that week.
So sometimes the program staff would share a story about a really positive outcome. The development staff would share a story about a great gift that had come in. We all felt like we were in this together, trading the good things that had happened, and we could play off of one another. I could say to Sheree, you know that story that you told me about that holocaust survivor that you helped? I told it to this donor. Guess what? They’re increasing their gift this year.
So they felt like that had been really helpful.
MT: What you’re saying, just that building these relationships with people one on one, over time, and helping them understand how they fit into the larger philanthropy picture allowed them to create this culture of philanthropy.
CA: Right. I have lots of ideas of ways to do it now because I’ve thought about it a lot more since I actually left the trenches and I’ve had time to think about it. I think about doing things like Jimmy Fallon. I don’t know if you ever watch him. But every Friday, he writes thank you notes. I thought, why not every Friday, at the end of the day, come on over the loudspeaker? It’s TYIF, thank you it’s Friday or something.
It’s time for everybody to write thank you notes. It’s kind of like a gratitude practice where you could write a thank you letter to a donor, but you could also write a thank you note to another staff member who had helped you, to just make gratitude part of the culture of the organization. Make people appreciate working with each other. I think that’s a really nice thing to do. I recently read something on Beth Kanter’s blog about the power of communal meals together. Having a practice of the staff coming together and having a potluck and sharing a meal, and how that contributes to a really positive culture in the workplace.
I think there are actually a lot of strategies like that that you can implement, that really just make it feel like a friendly workplace. Not an us versus them kind of workplace.
MT: I see what you’re saying. Just sort of get people involved in this gratitude practice so that as fundraising professionals, and as nonprofit professionals, we’re always looking for the problems so we can solve them generally. We’re so problem focused when we could really be more gratitude focused, and relationship building starts with appreciation. So I love that you would involve them in this appreciation practice. Thanking staff and volunteers, not just donors.
CA: Right, right. I mean, I actually wrote an article in Nonprofit Pros this week about donor cultivation, saying how to be successful in fundraising is to start by keeping a donor gratitude journal. The idea that every day you write down one thing that you’re specifically grateful to a donor for. Rather than just this sort of automated process of receipts were generated or letters were generated out of the database.
But that you actually, specifically think, oh my gosh. I’m grateful to Joann because she helped me complete this challenge grant I was working on. Now this program is going to come to fruition. Or I’m grateful to Jerry because he’s like a great supporter and he also brought in a coffee cake for the staff this week. The more that you can specifically think what you’re grateful for, the more you’re thinking about these people as people. Not as their label of donor.
MT: So you’re building time in to practice this gratitude. Like saying, Friday afternoon, that’s my gratitude time. Systematizing it is the way to go. That makes it feel like you can’t forget this. This is about building a relationship.
CA: Right, and I used to do something like that at my staff meeting, too, where we would give each other virtual roses and at our staff meeting, we would go around and say I want to give a virtual rose to Lillian because she really pitched in this week when we had all this barrage of gifts come in. She stayed extra hours and made sure that everybody got their acknowledgement on time. She deserves a rose for this.
So then that way, everybody on the staff knew that Lillian had done this great thing and she had gotten this public recognition.
MT: Public recognition for the thing they did right is a good way to make sure that they keep doing it.
CA: Right. But the same thing is, you know, true for your donors. I really like to pass compliments on. There’s so many compliments. We get complimented so much behind our back and never hear the compliment. You know?
MT: It’s true. It’s true. No, it is. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people tell me, I love Claire Axelrad’s blog. I think she’s an incredible writer. So I’m just going to pass that onto you right now.
CA: Thank you.It’s kind of like I always feel sad at funerals and memorial services because all these nice things were said about the deceased person. I’m thinking, how sad it is that they never got to hear this.
MT: Yeah, it’s like maybe if they were in hospice, if they had a little warning, they could have put together something for them before they croaked.
CA: Right. So it’s sort of like the culture of philanthropy to me is very much like a practice of gratitude where you just try to bring it to the top of your consciousness and the tip of your tongue what you’re grateful for so that it gets out more. If it gets out more, then you build better relationships with people. That’s what keeps people connected.
MT: That is just a perfect note to end on, Claire. Thank you so much for this interview today. I feel like it’s going to help a lot of people understand better how to get hired in fundraising and how to really put their best foot forward when it comes to before, during, and after the interview. This year you’ll be speaking again about interviews.
I’m so happy that you’re going to do that because people really need to hear what you have to say. You have all this knowledge. You’ve hired so many people. You’ve made good hires, and you’re really good at this.
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