In Fundraising, Savvy Trumps Conviction—Or Does It?

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In a recent LinkedIn discussion group for fundraisers, many people shared their observations about whether commitment to the mission was essential to a fundraiser’s success.

People who believe “it’s all about technique” wrote:

  • Because I see fundraising as a profession rather than a passion, I don’t believe it’s necessary to be personally vested in a cause in order to effectively raise money for it.
  • I’ve raised lots of money for many things I have absolutely no passion for, and even some things I don’t personally agree with.
  • Development happens the same way across the spectrum of convictions….You ask!…Savvy trumps conviction.
  • We are supposed to be professional fundraisers. We should be able to be as effective on either side of a partisan issue when it comes to fundraising.

People on the “belief in the mission is essential” side of the spectrum wrote:

  • I have to feel the passion for the cause and mission that I am raising support for. If I tried to raise money for a cause I didn’t believe in, I would not last very long.
  • Following your heart—a developing sense of your “calling” (a combination of interests and deeply held values, refined through careful reflection)—is a more helpful way to choose a job.
  • To be successful in any organization, one must personally buy into and publicly support its mission, vision and values

I find myself on the “commitment to the mission matters” side of the argument. Technical mastery is important, or course, but it will only get you so far. Here are some of the benefits of being in a job you are passionate about:

Your story amplifies the organization’s story. Imagine you are at a cocktail party with donors and board members. A donor asks you why you work at this particular organization. Here are some answers to that question that I have heard from fundraisers who have a heart-to-heart connection with the mission they serve.

  • A woman who works for a wildlife conservation organization in Denver says, “My son was a student at Columbine High School when the massacre happened there. Every weekend, he and I would go up into the mountains. It was the only way we kept our sanity.”
  • A young man who worked for a small organization in Washington, D.C., whose goal was abolition of torture said, “I travel all over the world. I used to love to talk to people wherever I go and help them understand America. But when the torture happened at Abu Ghraib prison, I didn’t know what to tell people. So I thought I needed to work to make sure something like that never happened again.”
  • A woman who works for a homeless shelter said, “I was always drawn to helping homeless people. It wasn’t until after I started working here that I remembered that I spent a part of my childhood living with my mom in our car—I had completely blocked it out of my memory.”

This kind of story makes the donor feel good about supporting the organization. It gives you credibility as a spokesperson for the cause. And it encourages the donor to reflect on—and talk about—what motivates their commitment.

Your commitment makes it easier to get appointments with donors. My mother was a fundraiser for the American Friends Service Committee. (Yes, it is genetic!) To many of the donors she visited, she exemplified Quaker values. Sometimes when she went to see them, the donors called for their kids to come and listen when she talked about the AFSC’s work; they saw her as part of the moral education of their kids. You may or may not want sulking pre-teens in the room when you are giving your pitch. But you can be sure that they were more willing to make time for that appointment than if they saw her as a “fundraiser.”

Being in tune with the organization’s culture helps you keep your job. A man I knew worked for an organization with strong feminist leanings. He insisted on referring to his female colleagues as “gals,” even though many of them had been fighting patriarchy since before he was born. He wasn’t effective as a fundraiser because he didn’t fit in, and he didn’t last.

So, yes, savvy does trump conviction. You can do a job well without being committed heart and soul to the mission, but you can’t succeed if you don’t understand the craft of fundraising. If you work for a hospital, university, or other organization whose value is universally appreciated, maybe the heart connection is less important. On the other hand, if you are committed to the cause you are working for, there are doors you will be able to walk through that will be locked to a fundraiser who is merely a technical master.


Paul Jolly is a fundraising consultant at Jump Start Growth. He has worked with various Quaker institutions, The Wilderness Society, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, among others. 

  • Laura

    Working in the mental health field, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had to learn a lot about fund raising and sometimes I struggle with thinking of my organization as a “brand,” with wrapping marketing terms around a cause I hold dearly. But put me in a room where people want to hear about mission and need and I run circles around the professional fundraiser who has superior technical skills. To make a difference, you have to care about those you serve or it’s phony and people know it.