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Fundraising's human equation

Authentic partnerships key to sustainability, success

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

When people get engaged with your organization’s work, their contributions will go beyond the occasional financial donation, say the authors of The Generosity Network.Jeffersonian dinners provide unique opportunities for people to connect around issues they care about.

Rare, indeed, is the person who enjoys asking for money. Organizations’ fundraising committees are often the hardest to staff, with calls for volunteers frequently answered by symphonies of chirping crickets.

But for the authors of The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fund-raising, money is nothing to be afraid of—it’s simply one of many resources organizations need to achieve their goals. In fact, they say simply asking someone for a check—limiting donors to, essentially, the role of a bank—undercuts the true potential of funding relationships. The goal should be for donors to become invested over the long term. Giving them a seat at the organizational table will encourage them to develop greater interest in the work being done, and that’s a much more meaningful investment than the occasional donation.

Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker think the word “help” should be stricken from fundraisers’ vocabularies. The authors of The Generosity Network say that asking a potential donor, “Will you help me?” immediately puts the players on uneven footing, making the person with the money the one with the power. McCrea and Walker say groups should focus on the opportunities they’re giving donors to connect with causes they’re passionate about. And there are few topics people are as passionate about as animal welfare.

Tracey Durning is co-founder and CEO of the Target Zero Institute (TZI), a not-for-profit social enterprise that helps communities achieve “no-kill” status (no euthanasia of healthy or treatable animals). A colleague of McCrea’s and Walker’s, Durning says she, too, sees a lot of passion in the animal community, but “passion can backfire—it can blind people.” Often, people want to help so much that they rush in, implementing ideas and programs that are off base or ineffective. Instead, people should “take two steps back to move 10 steps forward,” assessing the landscape and determining where the needs really are.

In this edited interview with staff writer Kelly Huegel, McCrea, Walker and Durning discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to fundraising, as well as how such new approaches are being applied to save shelter pets.

Animal Sheltering: You describe the “generosity network” as a “movement of people.” Can you talk about what that means to you?

Jennifer McCrea: What people really care about is joining with others and creating change. Making a difference and giving people the opportunity to have real meaning in their lives is an entirely different model than the one that I think has been practiced in the past. [That old model] is kind of manipulative in that you’re not building real relationships and partnerships—you’re just trying to convince people to write a check. … We really believe there are so many resources out there, not just money, but time, networks and creativity, people’s life experiences and their passions, that can be put to use to get all this good work done.

Jeffrey Walker: Why this is a joyful experience is you’re connecting people to their passion. That, in my mind, is what fundraisers, in the highest level, do. They’re not there to just raise money. They’re there to connect people who are passionate about a cause, subject or issue and bring them together with others that have common interests. ... We partner. The donors and the doers are the same. We’re there to share resources. And money just happens to be a resource; it’s not a power object.

For many organizations—especially smaller ones—there isn’t a dedicated staff member or volunteer who is an experienced fundraiser, and many people are tremendously uncomfortable with the prospect of fundraising. How do we make money an easier conversation?

McCrea: I think you have to take money out of the center of the conversation, because any time money’s at the center of anything, there’s going to be a power dynamic. Ostensibly, whoever has the money has the power and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t. [Always keep] the work, itself, at the center of the relationship, so that the money just becomes the gas that goes in the car. Money is just like technology—in and of itself it doesn’t do anything.

[But] an idea’s just an idea unless it gets resourced, so money’s a critical resource. While you need the seeds of a relationship, you shouldn’t wait very long to really engage people and ask them to make a commitment. Because people really develop their commitment in the act of giving. We think people get really committed and then they give, but it’s the reverse.

Tracey Durning: I actually think the problem in the nonprofit world—and I’m seeing it very heavily in the animal sector—is money becomes a block to partnership, which means it becomes a block to honesty and transparency and holding yourself accountable to specific impacts. Because it’s scary; you don’t want the money to go away. But because I work on both sides—the funding side and the nonprofit side—I can tell every group out there: The more honest you are, and the more of a collaborator and a partner you are with your funder, the more invested they’re gonna be. And the more they’re gonna believe what you tell them, even if you have setbacks.

Do you find that sometimes organizations are afraid to truly partner with funders and give them that power?

Walker: It doesn’t mean that you have to do everything that they suggest. But actually, the art of listening is really important. Open the experience. How do you start lowering those walls between these donors and these doers so that they can see they’re the same? They’re all passionate, and they’re all working on a higher cause.

Durning: At the heart of it, we’re all just human beings. And we would rather be regarded for who we are as human beings and relate as human beings rather than just for the specific thing that we can give you right now.

One relationship-building tool you talk about is the Jeffersonian dinner. It’s a gathering of roughly 12-15 people with a common interest, and the purpose is for the entire table to engage in conversation around that interest. Can you talk about the benefit of these dinners?

Walker: Everybody gets tired of showing up for a pitch or for a board meeting or these boring 1,200-person fundraisers where you just sit next to a person and talk about their dog or their cat and then eat rubber chicken, listen to some presentation and go home and you don’t build a relationship.

We created Jeffersonian dinners at Monticello … imagining having dinner with Thomas Jefferson. Nonprofits can use them as a tool. The rule of the dinner is that you talk to the entire table … about something that’s important, something that’s relevant.

We had Wendy Kopp, founder and chair of Teach for America, come in talking about not just Teach for America, but what it takes to keep and grow great teachers. … Everybody at the table, in two minutes each, just starts out answering a personal question. For example, with Wendy it was, “Who was your favorite teacher of all time?” And halfway around the table, we had eyes misting up because they were remembering this connection. And then a larger question comes up after people get their chance to do their small personal statement. “How do we keep good teachers?”

And all of the sudden, the conversation flows. You come up with a lot of interesting ideas and opportunities and these dinners are openings, not closings. They’re meant to help people understand that there are people at the table that have similar passions and that they could work together on something. It just opens up whole sets of potential relationships.

We know people are more likely to support specific projects, but some organizations have trouble raising unrestricted funds to cover operational costs. What about the bottom line?

Walker: You talk about a project or idea and you use that as the thing you can connect to. Tracey and I worked on Millennium Promise. … Partners saw, heard and connected to a particular village in Africa. Now, the money didn’t go exactly to that village. The money went to Millennium Promise overall, and went to fund all its great activities, and donors were OK with that as long as you were clear in stating that.

I think in the animal shelter world you can find different ways of connecting them to particular individuals doing the work. And they become your avatar.

You describe an avatar as someone in the organization who is emblematic of the work being done. Could you talk about that?

Walker: The avatar is the person that donors wish they were, but don’t have time to be, and so they want to work with them. They want to give resources, they want to track them. … It doesn’t always have to be the entrepreneur who starts or the executive director who runs the operation who is the person that connects to the donor all the time. Sometimes you can move that relationship to someone else in the organization who they may want to connect with. In universities, it’s other professors rather than the dean, for example.

What role do you see for social media as a tool for avatars and others to connect?

Durning: As someone whose background is communications, social media to me is sort of this amazing, instant, extremely cheap way to be communicating with lots and lots of people in a very authentic way. ... It’s hard to find a point of contact for people very often, so communicating through social media is a really simple way to say, “This is what we’re doing.”

I was on the phone with Target Zero city Baton Rouge … and I said, “Have you gotten the story out that in one year, actually less than a year, you have dropped the euthanasia rate by 24 percent? … If that’s not something that people are going to want to get involved with, I don’t know what is.”

Walker: Showing that progress is really a heartening act and one that brings more partners in.

If a shelter wants to undertake a partner campaign to reduce euthanasia, but they have no idea where to start, how would you advise them?

Durning: We really want to help. One thing we’re going to put on the website going ahead is the Target Zero Toolkit, so if an organization reads about us and they go, “Wow, we want them to come into our community in three years and help us accomplish this goal,” they know that there’s some basic guidelines that they have to meet. And one of them is that all the stakeholders are collaborating or willing to collaborate. We’re pretty explicit on the website about what you have to have in place for us to come there. But it’s all doable, and we can help you get there.

Walker: The key is also having an ongoing general theme that everybody’s working under. Multistakeholder collaboration models I think are the things of the new day. How to bring politicians together with nonprofits, together with foundations, together with 50-year-and-older business types that want to give back, to connect them to 25-year-olds that have the energy and the knowledge. This is the art of doing that and using social media to do that. Using dinners to do that. Using a common feeling of ownership of the goals. That’s I think a new way of looking at this collaborative change, which is going to have more impact.

Learn more about The Generosity Network, including a fundraising checklist and information on how to host Jeffersonian dinners.

Learn more about the Target Zero Institute.

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.