Fundraising is for Everyone
Fundraising doesn't take place in a vacuum: Everyone needs to take part.
Everyone working for a nonprofit organization is a fundraiser, whether they know it or not. Any contact you have with a donor becomes part of that donor's relationship with your company. If you make a positive impression, the relationship is enhanced. No matter if your career goal is artistic director, production manager, or trustee, you'll be more successful at your job if you know a bit about fundraising. The ability to raise money will help distinguish you from your peers.
Fundraising is one of the most transportable skills in the nonprofit field. You'll find hospitals, environmental organizations, schools, and social service organizations on the resumes of highly successful opera fundraisers. And relatively speaking, it is one of the better compensated areas in nonprofit management.
I seriously doubt that anyone grows up wanting to be a fundraiser. Somehow it just doesn't seem as exciting as being a doctor, lawyer, truck driver, or opera diva. Yet the qualities that make a good fundraiser lie latent in most of us, so it might be worth learning how you can explore, develop, and celebrate the fundraiser within. Whether you are a fundraiser, seek to become one, or plan to hire one, keeping the basic qualities in mind will help lead you toward success. A fundraiser is:
All fundraising begins with good research, which is why a good fundraiser needs to be curious about people, if not a little nosy. Have ever you Googled your neighbors, co-workers, and former classmates? Do you carefully read those long donor lists in the opera program? If so, you have excellent potential as a researcher and fundraiser. Knowing all you can know about people, their history, families, and money (amounts and sources) is essential to cultivating major donors. Getting a contribution from someone who is interested in opera is hard enough, so you won't want to waste time on people whose interests lie elsewhere. Knowing that Mr. Chief Executive's company had its initial success from Hong Kong real estate might make him a good prospect to support a Turandot production.
Being able to freely associate the disparate bits of information you glean from conversations and the media is another important skill. This is where some of the best fundraising ideas come from. If Ms. Park Avenue just auctioned off part of her collection of German Expressionist art, she might be a prospect for funding your next Wozzeck.
Expressing enthusiasm for your company's programs and goals is essential to raise funds successfully. If you can express what your opera company is all about in a succinct, passionate manner, you'll not only be able to sell a subscription, but you'll also be able to ask for a contribution. Expressing your enthusiasm goes beyond memorizing the so-called elevator speech. How you follow that two-sentence statement with examples and glowing descriptions of performances that have spoken directly to you is what's needed to close the deal.
If you don't believe wholeheartedly in what the opera company is doing, how are you ever going to convince anyone to support it? As they say in the advertising business (or is it politics?), "Once you can fake sincerity, you've got it made." But seriously: dedication involves more than showing up for work, performances, or board meetings. It means holding and articulating a deep-seated belief in the intrinsic value of your opera company.
Understanding and expressing that intrinsic value is essential to fundraising success. Fundraising, like sales, is about an exchange of values. In sales, you give me money, and I give you a ticket or something else with tangible value. In fundraising, you give me money, and I give you something with immeasurable intangible value -- the opera company and all it does! The latter sounds like a much better deal to me, yet many people who wouldn't hesitate to ask friends to buy a benefit ticket balk at asking for a contribution, believing it's easier to ask for money when the donor receives something in return (like one of those yummy benefit dinners).
There is no such thing as a disorganized successful fundraiser. If you have a penchant for arranging your sock drawer according to the colors of the spectrum or by degrees of wear, you may have a future in fundraising. Fundraisers need to keep thousands of bits of information about donors at their fingertips, while also maintaining an encyclopedic knowledge of their companies and every opera they perform. How do they do this? They take lots of notes. They stay up late at night. They embrace their software (no matter how much they may also hate it). Put two fundraisers in a bare room and within minutes they will be talking about software.
Getting Started in Fundraising
So now you've recognized that you are a curious, dedicated, enthusiastic, and organized individual. How do you get into fundraising? Universities' continuing education departments and nonprofit support centers offer classes on the nuts and bolts of fundraising. These are great for learning the fundraising lingo and techniques, but nothing beats experience.
Volunteering is a great entry point into fundraising, either helping the development operation at your opera company or at some other nonprofit. Many development professionals will welcome help staffing events and cultivating donors. Organizations with little or no fundraising staff will be particularly welcoming if you are a really good writer. If you'd like to help with research by suggesting donor prospects, make sure you have thoroughly researched each prospect.
Suggesting someone because they are rich and give away a lot of money isn't helpful. Suggesting someone who has given to the performing arts or other opera companies is helpful.
It's really quite a thrill when your solicitation results in a donation. And you get a second thrill when you see the opera on stage and know that you had a hand in making it possible. Fundraising really is for everyone. Give it a try -- you never know when a second career is just around the corner.
You can learn more about finding the right people to help you fundraise in my The Quick Wise Guide to Fundraising Readiness.
Also see: Why Would Anyone Want to be a Fundraiser.
*This article is Copyright © 2006 by OPERA America. It originally appeared in that organization's October 2006 issue of Newsline and is used here by permission.