What makes a fundraiser? By Paul Lagasse

What Makes Fundraisers Tick? The psychology of giving has long been of interest to fundraisers, and more recently, the field of neuroscience has been providing a stream of exciting insights into the workings of the human brain that have dramatically strengthened an understanding of how people give, why they give and how giving makes them feel. But what about the psychology of the people who make the ask? Until recently, there has been comparatively little empirical or even anecdotal research into the fundraiser’s mind. An effort to address that imbalance is now underway at the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom (www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/philan thropy). Funded by a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust (www.leverhulme.ac.uk), Beth Breeze, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Philanthropy, is in the midst of a three-year research study, The Formation of Fundraisers: The Role of Personal Skills in Asking for Money. The purpose of her research is rather simple, she says: to answer the question “How do the personal and social skills of fundraisers interact with their professional/technical skills to affect the amounts of money raised for good causes?” Put another way, are fundraisers born or made? Breeze explains that there is a growing body of literature on how to do fundraising—the technical aspects of the job, such as strategies and techniques—but almost nothing on how to be a fundraiser. What personal qualities and “soft skills” are required to succeed in encouraging the transfer of resources from private wealth to the Fall 2014 / www.afpnet.org

public good? At the same time, the study of charitable giving has been dominated by economistic studies that involve modelling factors, such as donor wealth and the effect of tax breaks, rather than attempting to understand or account for the impact of those who enable gifts. As she points out, it is not possible to understand the economics of charitable giving without accounting for the role of fundraising. For example, dire predictions of dips in voluntary income during recessions often fail to materialize due to the energy and drive of fundraisers. At the National Convention of the Institute of Fundraising (www.institute-of-fundraising.org.uk) in London held in July, Breeze presented her findings thus far. Her session, “Who Asks? An exploration of the personal characteristics of U.K. fundraisers,” revealed various personality traits and personal qualities found in development professionals. n

They are emotionally intelligent, which includes having high levels of self-awareness, the ability to regulate emotions, being highly motivated and exhibiting high levels of empathy.


They have had formative experiences as a child or young person, such as fundraising or borrowing items from neighbors, which mean they are comfortable with asking.


They have a life outside their day job, such as singing in a choir, enjoying noncompetitive sports and taking evening classes.


They are avid readers—including reading popular psychology books.


They can read people and situations, understand body language and “hear the unsaid.” Advancing Philanthropy


illustration by joyce hesselberth


undraisers are skilled at understanding the motivations of donors, but are they equally attuned to their own emotions and intentions before they walk through a donor’s door? Is that even important? Maybe more than you think.


They are experts in reciprocity. They enjoy gift-giving and are far more likely to donate blood than the general population.


They have a great memory for faces, names and personal details.


They are “Janus-faced”—charming, laid back and fun in front of donors but ruthlessly well-organized behind the scenes.


They are enablers/scene-setters rather than visible leaders seeking recognition.


They are not egotistical, preferring to save the plaques for donors, not the askers.


They are appreciation experts. Despite the job title of “fundraiser,” they actually spend more time on thanking and stewarding donors than on raising funds.

So far, the research has involved 32 in-depth interviews and a major survey of some 1,300 U.K. fundraisers. What has surprised Breeze the most? “I’m surprised by how different fundraisers are. There is no one personality type, but there are shared commonalities. I’m also struck by how similar major donor fundraisers are to major donors. They want to use their time and skills to achieve change and to feel they have led a purposeful life.”

The Salesmanship Dilemma


he differences between the nonprofit sector and the for-profit world have become something of a mantra among fundraisers. Charities work for a greater good, you say, while businesses are only interested in their own profit. Fundraisers are motivated by a desire to change the world (or at least a corner of it), while salespeople are focused primarily on raising their company’s bottom line. However, nonprofits and businesses share some important things in common—most obviously, the need for money. Because fundraisers and salespeople seek to achieve vastly different ends, fundraisers argue, their means must differ as well. Otherwise, fundraisers fear, what are they except a salesperson by another name? “We’re both trying to encourage someone to make a decision, but for very different reasons,” says Brian Saber, president and co-founder of Asking Matters (www.askingmatters.com). “What we’re ‘selling’ in the nonprofit world is helping others and goodwill.” A major difference between fundraisers and salespeople, Saber points out, is motivation. “In for-profit sales, you learn to love the product, and you go sell it,” he says. “In the nonprofit world, you believe in the organization, and you sell it, but your reasons for doing so are much more personal.” As the person in charge of training for the silent phase of a major capital campaign, Mat-


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thew S. Cottle, CFRE, director of advancement planning and special projects at California Polytechnic (Cal Poly) State University (www.calpoly. edu), had to confront the issue of fundraiser motivation head on. Because of a dearth of available development officers with major-gift experience, Cal Poly has been recruiting people with commercial sales backgrounds and training them to understand the differences between the transactional approach used by salespeople and the relationship approach preferred by fundraisers. Explicating the differences between fundraisers and salespeople, Cottle says, has helped him more fully understand the role of the fundraiser in the donor relationship equation, as well as the risk posed by the cultivation of a transactional mindset that values the fundraiser’s need to secure a gift above the donor’s desire to join a group that shares the same passion. “A donation indicates a shared aspiration and a shared emotion,” Cottle says. “If we don’t understand our own emotional responses, we run the risk of allowing the relationship to veer off in unanticipated directions.” Another critical element is the fear of rejection. If a fundraiser’s fear of rejection were to prevent him or her from securing a major gift from a high-net-worth individual, the result for the organization’s bottom line could be disastrous. “Because you care so much, it can feel like a personal rejection if a donor turns you down,” Saber www.afpnet.org / Fall 2014

The Importance of Confidence Fundraisers also can learn more about themselves through simple first-hand observation. Tom Ahern, principal at Ahern Donor Communications (www.aherncomm. com) in Foster, R.I., has identified three key common personality traits of fundraisers gleaned from conversations, both formal and informal: n






Ahern says that empathy is fundamental to the psychological makeup of a fundraiser. “You need to be able to

says. “It becomes a reflection on you, and that gets in the way of asking.” Not only can fundraisers learn from salespeople how not to take rejection personally, Saber suggests, but they also should seek to minimize the risk of rejection by taking a more strategic approach to the way they identify and cultivate prospects. And that means taking advantage of knowledge that’s already out there. “Good fundraisers know that money is a by-product of putting the right opportunity in front of the right person at the right time,” says donor communications expert Tom Ahern (www. aherncomm.com). “And that’s straight out of sales and marketing.” Ahern, whose background is in commercial sales and marketing, points out that his field is built on a century of empirical research into human behavior that allows people to predict the outcome of a marketing campaign with a high degree of accuracy. Furthermore, he argues that, whether or not development professionals realize or admit it, fundraising is a specialized kind of sales and marketing. The difference, of course, is the use to which fundraisers put the neutral data—the reasons they seek to place a suitable philanthropic opportunity in front of a strong prospect at a moment that is opportune for both the donor and the organization. Both salespeople and fundraisers are in the business of persuading people to part Fall 2014 / www.afpnet.org

close the empathy gap with your donor,” he explains. He cites a dictum of marketing guru and author Seth Godin: People support what they see in themselves. And when the benefit is intangible, such as in the case of a charitable gift, it is the fundraiser’s empathy that reinforces the donor’s self-image. The fundraisers that Ahern knows and works with are all deeply proud of the work they do, not only of the causes they support but also of their knowledge of the craft. “They are seriously into learning and making things better,” Ahern says. “They’re not satisfied with the status quo.”

with their money, but for very different reasons. Whereas a salesperson can promise a tangible benefit for the person with the money to spend, a fundraiser instead can only offer an intangible benefit to the donor in exchange for the promise of tangible results for other people. And if sales is about persuading people to do something they may be in some way resistant to doing, fundraising is about encouraging people to do something they passionately want to do. “My motivations are to alleviate suffering and help people better their lives through education,” says William F. Bartolini, Ph.D., ACFRE, senior adviser for principal giving at George Washington University (www. development.gwu.edu) in Washington, D.C. “Earlier in my career, when I sold shoes and kids clothes, the sales were transactional. I provided a service, people bought the product, and I got a commission. It was a job. But that’s changed now.” In providing a donor with an opportunity to achieve self-actualization, a fundraiser achieves self-actualization as well. “I’m engaging donors in a cause and sharing my passion and enthusiasm with donors,” Bartolini adds. “I’m helping change lives. How great is that?” Advancing Philanthropy


Along with pride in their work, fundraisers also exhibit a deep-seated confidence in what they do and how they do it. “Confidence isn’t about going into the room and asking,” Ahern adds. “Confidence is about persistence.” To illustrate, Ahern

cites his mentor, fund development consultant Guy Mallabone. “He treats everything as a campaign,” Ahern explains. “He will take years to match a philanthropist to a project. And he’s not going to quit until he finds out what that philanthropist cares about.”

Know Thyself


ne of the best ways to do your job more effectively and successfully is to fully understand what skills, behaviors and strengths you have—and those you need to improve. You can determine your own asking style by taking a free, 30-question, self-assessment test on the Asking Matters website at www.asking matters.com/whats-your-asking-style. How would you answer the following (true or false)? n

I have a good memory for facts and figures.


I am at my best when I am spontaneous.


Having time alone is important to me.


I am curious about what makes people tick.


Once I make a decision, I tend to stick with it.


I use my feelings to convince others.


I make lists and check items off when they are done.


I adapt readily to the style of those around me.


I have the patience for step-by-step work.


Goals are important to me.


I use the energy of others to spark my thinking.


I think of myself as well organized.

To learn more, read Asking Styles: Harness Your Personal Fundraising Power by Andrea Kihlstedt (CharityChannel Press, 2012), paperback, 87 pages. Also, what makes the best major-donor fundraisers the best at what they do? What do they


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know, what do they actually do, what skills do they display and what personality characteristics do they have? The Institute of Fundraising (IoF) in London conducted its own research and analysis, interviewing heads of major-donor teams from both large and small charities, shadowing major-gift fundraisers and seeking the opinions of coaches and consultants to draw up a list of 30 key competencies, personality traits and behaviors of leading major-gift fundraisers. These competencies were then developed into an online self-assessment tool (https://www.spidergap. com/assessments/6118), which major-donor fundraisers can use to benchmark how well

What makes the best

major-donor fundraisers the best at what they do? they exhibit the habits, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and essential knowledge of an effective major-gift fundraiser. In addition, the tool will help them identify their strengths and highlight areas of the major-gift process that a fundraiser may want or need to develop most. The self-assessment takes about 10 minutes to complete, and your results will not be shared or distributed by the IoF to anyone or any organization. For more information, please contact Philip Allen at [email protected] www.afpnet.org / Fall 2014

Unfortunately, Ahern points out, these same characteristics often put fundraisers at odds with their own organizations. As revealed in the 2013 CompassPoint study UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising (www.compasspoint.org/un derdeveloped), many fundraisers feel their prerogatives are being usurped by people who do not understand their job. This, in turn, damages their pride and rattles their confidence. For example, although there is abundant evidence demonstrating that the most effective length of a well-written fundraising letter is four pages, Ahern reports countless fundraisers who have lamented to him that their executive directors and boards insist that letters not exceed one page. “A fundraiser’s job is to have a free hand, yet nobody trusts them,” Ahern says. “So, instead of being bold and innovative, they end up caring about whether or not they can get something approved.” It is a tension that can significantly affect the attitudes and behaviors of a successful fundraiser.

The Extroversion Myth Another challenge that can undermine a development professional’s confidence is the persistence of the stereotype that successful fundraisers are extroverts. While experts agree that there is no apparent correlation between success and extroversion, the myth continues to hobble fundraisers and volunteers who consider themselves to be even moderately introverted. If, as Ahern and others contend, most fundraisers don’t see themselves as extroverts, how many of them also secretly internalize the conclusion that they must therefore not be very good at their jobs? (Interestingly, in 2012, an informal survey of ACFREs revealed that, out of 53 responses, 16 consider themselves introverts, 23 see themselves as extroverts, 13 say they are both and one says, “It depends!”) “I have known some wonderful fundraisers who are introverts, and I’d like to suggest that a person doesn’t have to be an extrovert to be a good fundraiser,” says William F. Bartolini, Ph.D., ACFRE, senior adviser for principal giving at George Washington University (www.development.gwu.edu) in Washington, D.C. Rather, he explains, successful fundraisers are people with strong empathy and communication skills, regardless of their confidence level. Furthermore, those skills can be learned, practiced and improved over time, which in turn leads to greater confidence. A skilled communicator adjusts his or her style to suit the prospect’s comfort level, notes Bartolini, a self-described extrovert who studies the psychology of fundraising from the perspectives of the fundraiser Fall 2014 / www.afpnet.org

as well as the donor. He points out that these changes occur routinely in everyday conversation, such as whenever you adjust the volume or pace of your speech in response to cues that you pick up during the course of a conversation. “Matching up my style doesn’t mean that I’m being manipulative or that I’m changing personalities,” Bartolini says. “If I were matched with an introvert, I would dial down my extroversion and rely on my empathy and communication skills, but I wouldn’t pretend to be an introvert.”

Putting Your Personality to Work New York-based fundraising consultant and author of Asking Styles: Harness Your Personal Fundraising Power (CharityChannel Press, 2012), Andrea Kihlstedt (www. andreakihlstedt.com) echoes Bartolini’s belief that fundraisers can and should adapt their approach to the donor. Ideally, she says, the approach should suit the personality of the fundraiser. “Not everyone has to ask in the same way,” she says. “There are many ways to ask, just as there are many types of people.” Kihlstedt says she was inspired one evening to develop a method for tailoring gift solicitation techniques to different personalities—“a simple fundraising version of the Myers-Briggs assessment,” as she envisioned it. At the time, she was reading with her husband, who is highly analytical, in contrast to her strongly intuitive personality. “Was it possible that we both could be good at asking, even though we’re so different?” she wondered. Seeking an answer, Kihlstedt and her colleague Brian Saber, president and co-founder of Asking Matters (www.askingmatters.com), eventually distilled the variables into an easy-to-understand, four-quadrant grid that plots solicitation styles according to two key personality traits: how a person relates to others (extroverted or introverted) and how that person takes in information (intuitively or analytically). Kihlstedt and Saber characterized the four personalities. (See Chart 1.) 1. Rainmakers (extroverted, analytical) decide objectively, are comfortable talking to anyone, require hard data and connect by incorporating the style of the donor. 2. Go-Getters (extroverted, intuitive) decide by instinct, enjoy being with people, are passionate and connect through energy and personal magnetism. 3. Mission Controllers (introverted, analytical) decide objectively, are private and thoughtful, require hard data and connect through detailed presentations. Advancing Philanthropy


“The idea is to try to

identify your

strengths and use them, not to force yourself to be something that you’re not,” she explains.

“It makes a huge difference.” 4. Kindred Spirits (introverted, intuitive) decide by instinct; are private, thoughtful and passionate; and connect through commitment. Kihlstedt and Saber found that their model was an accurate predictor of success in practice. “The idea is to try to identify your strengths and use them, not to force yourself to be something that you’re not,” she explains. “It makes a huge difference.” “The image we have of the prototypical super-duper fundraiser is really not accurate,” Saber agrees. Whenever he polls fundraisers about their personality styles, he says, Rainmakers—the traditional fundraiser stereotype— actually make up the smallest percentage. In fact, Saber says, more than 50 percent self-identify in one of the two introverted Asking Matters’ Asking Styles, Mission Controllers and Kindred Spirits. (See sidebar.)

Chart 1. Asking Styles

Regardless of Asking Style, Saber observes, every fundraiser shares the ability to hold a conversation. When meeting with a donor, it does not matter whether you are a smooth and polished speaker or an awkward and hesitant one. “You have to be authentic to be compelling,” he explains. “The No. 1 thing donors want is authenticity, because they want a relationship.” The Asking Matters approach encourages fundraisers to view their particular conversational behaviors as strengths that they can use to their advantage when trying to build connections with donors. “Few people will be masters of fundraising,” Saber says, “but anyone can be a master of conversation, and that’s more important.” In addition, the Asking Matters model can be used to identify the personalities of donors, which can help an organization choose a fundraiser with a similar style when soliciting a gift. Organizations that use the personality matrix to pair fundraisers and donors report seeing boosts in the average size of individual gifts—the kind of success that can, in turn, boost a fundraiser’s confidence in his or her skills and asking style. Saber points out that this pairing approach is not manipulative. “It’s a way of helping people talk with others with whom they’re naturally comfortable,” he explains. “I’d feel terrible if anyone gave me money that they didn’t want to give me.” In his experience, Saber has found that most donors find a solicitation meeting awkward even when they know up front they will be asked to make a gift. Matching the personalities of the fundraiser and the donor facilitates empathy, which makes the conversation easier for the participants.

What’s Your EQ? When Matthew S. Cottle, CFRE, director of advancement planning and special projects at California Polytechnic (Cal Poly) State University (www.calpoly.edu) in San Luis Obispo, Calif., trained commercial salespeople to serve as gift officers during Cal Poly’s capital campaign (see


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www.afpnet.org / Fall 2014

sidebar), his curiosity was piqued about the psychology of fundraisers. His interest led him to research the concept of emotional intelligence (EI), also called emotional quotient (or EQ). EI measures people’s awareness of not only their emotions but also the emotions of others, in addition to their ability to use that awareness to guide their decision making and actions. Conceived in the mid-1980s and made popular in Daniel Goleman’s influential book Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books, 1995), at its heart EI encompasses five skills: 1. Self-awareness: the knowledge of your emotions, moods and abilities 2. Self-regulation: the ability to adapt your emotions to a given situation and to think before acting 3. Social skill: the ability to engage in relationships and to steer social situations toward desired outcomes 4. Empathy: consideration for the feelings, concerns and perspectives of others 5. Motivation: the drive to achieve a goal or objective Bernard Ross, director of The Management Centre (www.managementcentre.co.uk) in London, with Clare Segal, co-author of The Influential Fundraiser (Wiley, 2008), is a long-time advocate of applying EI in fundraising. “Our experience confirms that emotionally intelligent fundraisers and influencers are simply more successful,” writes Ross in his two-part blog post, “Emotional Intelligence in Fundraising” (www.management centre.co.uk/bernard_ross_blog/focus-your-passion). Ross sees EI as an essential component alongside emotional engagement, which enables fundraisers to communicate their passion for the cause. EI provides development professionals with a useful tool kit for managing and channeling their emotions and being attuned to how others respond to them. Furthermore, Ross says, successful fundraisers recruit staff and volunteers with high degrees of EI to create an emotionally responsive culture in the organization. Without EI, Cottle adds, it is too easy for fundraisers to be unaware of how their own response to a situation can affect the successful outcome of a gift solicitation. He recalls a visit many years ago with a prospect whose personal philosophy was significantly at odds with Cottle’s own. Because he could not separate his reaction to the prospect’s opinions from the purpose of his visit, Cottle resisted following up with the prospect and ultimately lost the gift. Lack of emotional self-awareness is an all-too-common problem, he points out. Fall 2014 / www.afpnet.org

Fundraisers need to understand their own attitudes and emotions lest they risk deceiving themselves—and their donors. It reminds Cottle of the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988): “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself— and you are the easiest person to fool.” Paul Lagasse is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. (www.avwrites.com).

What Do You Think?


t the conclusion of her session “Who Asks? An exploration of the personal characteristics of U.K. fundraisers” at the National Convention of the Institute of Fundraising in London, Beth Breeze, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom (www. kent.ac.uk/sspssr/philanthropy), asked attendees to consider the following: n

Do you believe that fundraisers are born or made?


How can you tell that someone is a good fundraiser?


How can you tell someone hasn’t “got it”?


What distinctive qualities do good fundraisers tend to have?


Are there any essential qualities that fundraisers must have?

At one of your chapter meetings, consider discussing these issues. What do you think they will reveal—about yourself, your peers and the profession? Advancing Philanthropy