Putting business rigor in philanthropy – and my brother-in-law in his place

Publication in Milwaukee Business Journal, August 11, 2017


Increased competition…savvier customers…corporate consolidation.  These realities drive constant adaptation by business professionals.

We feel your pain, business-brethren:  those of us in the fundraising profession are buffeted by similar forces.  Over here, a growing universe of nonprofits competes for limited funds.  Donors are harder to reach, ask probing questions, expect specific impacts.  Like you, we’re faced with ever-higher demands to produce – except our “sales quotas” come without a tangible product to “sell” (the equivalent of being Ginger, mirroring Fred’s every move, only backwards and in heels.  Not that we’re complaining).

I have an EQ-challenged brother-in-law (don’t we all?) whose most recent display of cluelessness was about professional fundraising. He revealed his dated, Mad Men-ish idea of it all:  genteel fundraisers rising late, making a tee time with good-old-boys, dancing at black ties and hobnobbing with blue hairs, being showered with funds from corporations and foundations.

Sounds more like a party than a profession.

Fundraising qualifies as a profession; it’s a discipline that requires a substantial body of knowledge, a repertoire of skills and continuing education to stay current.  These days, fundraising competence is certified, ethics codified, best practices verified.  It’s serious business, because there’s too much at stake.

Penelope Burk, one of the accelerators of our field’s professionalization, is visiting Milwaukee soon.  In 2003, she sparked a revolution of sorts with her research on donor attrition.  Analyzing thousands of donor relationships, she documented something that will sound familiar to salespeople everywhere:  it’s easier to keep a donor than to get one.  Her book “Donor-Centered Fundraising” launched a statistically-supported fundraising rigor that has transformed how fundraisers spend their time ever since.

Burk is just one of the national-level speakers who will further professionalize our region’s fundraisers during Fundraising Day Wisconsin, an educational conference presented August 17 in Pewaukee by the Southeastern Wisconsin and Madison chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (note:  professionals!).  At this event, dozens of fundraisers, nonprofit executives, and volunteer board members (and very few brothers-in-law) will hone their fundraising craft.

Hope to see you there (I’ll be the guy dancing backward).

On Philanthropy appears monthly in the Milwaukee Business Journal; Doug Diefenbach writes on behalf of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter.

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