The privilege of being a fundraiser

publication date: Mar 21, 2017
author/source: Cathy Mann

Cathy MannI love writing direct mail letters.

I love hearing people’s stories and why they’re passionate about the causes they support. And I’m curious, so writing direct mail letters gives me an opportunity to meet interesting people doing cool things.

If you know me, you may know that, given the opportunity, I can talk the ear off an elephant. But when I’m interviewing people for direct mail letters, I work really hard at listening. And when the stars are aligned, I barely even have to ask questions. I do my best to simply have a conversation and let the story unfold.

The stars were aligned today when I interviewed a volunteer who serves food at ehm (formerly Evangel Hall Mission), which offers a drop-in centre for street involved adults. I’ll be telling her story in ehm’s upcoming direct mail letter. I met her at her house because today was her baking day. Assembled on the counter when I arrived were 11 dozen muffins, ready to be served tomorrow morning at the breakfast shift.

Kathy makes 11 dozen muffins every week on Tuesdays and brings them in at early o’clock on Wednesday and serves them with a smile. I haven’t written the direct mail letter yet because I was so inspired when I met with Kathy, I just have to share the experience with you.

Often, when people are interviewed for a direct mail letter, they are trying to impress. They are somewhat guarded and use big words. I get it, they want to sound smart, competent, compassionate. Their name is going to be on the letter, after all. I do my best to get them just to talk, as if they were chatting with their friends. When you chat with your friends, you’re real. And that’s what you want to capture in a good direct mail letter – authenticity.

What touched me most about Kathy today was her honesty. I was humbled that she felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable with me. I was honoured to sit quietly while she shared memories about difficult times in her life and how those difficulties influence what she does today at ehm and in other areas of her life.

“Pain is a sacred place and what an honour it is that people are willing to share it with me,”

- Johnathan Galles, ehm’s Spiritual Care Advisor

Kathy shared a little bit of her pain with me today. And Jonathan’s words came back to me after I left my meeting with Kathy. I went from the smell of home-baked muffins at Kathy’s home, head-long into life: I picked up dinner to take to a 70-something year old friend who recently suffered a concussion after what he thought was an inconsequential fall. It turns out his brain bled and it’s quite serious. It’s moving in the right direction but he might require brain surgery. I feel quite protective of him and his wife. I watched them nurse their daughter, an old friend of mine, for three years as she lived with and ultimately died, in her mom’s arms, from ALS. I am still nursing pain from the loss of that friend (Jo-Anna) and in awe of the gentle, loving and relentless care her parents gave her.

After the hustle and bustle of picking up dinner, visiting with my friends, walking the dog, putting away the groceries, my visit with Kathy still had an impact and I needed to write about it before going to sleep.

Kathy gave me the gift of sharing and it felt like an honour, just like Jonathan said. I didn’t have those words formulated at the time.  So, I hugged Kathy – hard – as I was leaving and hugged her again, for good measure. Because sometimes hugs are available when words escape you.  

But I wanted to use my words because listening to and talking with Kathy had a deep impact on me today. It reminded me of the importance of embracing our own pain and acknowledging our own vulnerability and bringing that to work with us, when the time is right.

The humanity of fundraising

As fundraising becomes more professionalized, as a collective, we are neglecting the human element of the work we do. Increasingly, at workshops and in courses, we learn the tactics of fundraising. We learn how to use data to be more efficient at understanding our donors. We learn strategies to raise ever more money. But rarely do we have the opportunity to attend professional development workshops that invite us to step back, explore and embrace our humanity. I am guilty of this, too. I run a fundraising program at Ryerson University that teaches students strategies and tactics. There is no mention in any of the course curricula about exploring our deeper selves. There is an exercise in the introduction to Fundraising course where students have to write personal journals exploring the experience of making a donation. And I’ve heard from students that assignment led to some personal “Aha” moments for them. But it’s incidental. And one isolated example in a 7-course program.

So, we are left to our own devices to explore our vulnerability and acknowledge our pain and figure out when and how it is appropriate to bring to work. As I get older and after many decades of working hard at healing pain from my own past, perhaps I’ve reached a place where I can more easily be witness to pain. And perhaps I’m there because I’ve had people in my life who have graciously witnessed my pain, and supported me as I shared that pain. It’s not everyone who can pull this off. And I am grateful every time it happens. As someone who has spent her life perceived as “together,” it is such a relief to have people in my life who I can share the deepest parts of me that I largely keep hidden, as so many of us do.

As fundraising professionals, we are so often in situations where we are offered the gift of bearing witness to pain. Whether we are working on direct mail letters or talking to major donors or attending special events or sometimes just talking at a party about the work we do. And if we are unable to be present in those moments, we are missing an opportunity for deep connection. And while I don’t want to suggest that we exploit the sacred gift of sharing pain (because it would no longer be sacred, would it?), if we are unable to be present, then we miss an opportunity to build relationships. And that’s what fundraising is all about, right? Relationships.

I once attended a conference where a speaker insisted that in order to be a successful professional, you should only ever wear navy blue! Really, she said that. I found that statement so ludicrous that I was prepared to ignore everything else she said. However, something caught my attention and has stayed with me for almost 30 years. She suggested that if you’re over 25 years old, you have enough skills to take you through your career, that you don’t need to develop any new skills … but that what you needed to work on was yourself. As someone who completed her Master’s degree at the age of 51, I think there is room for both. But, those of us in fundraising would do well to heed her words: work on yourself – if not for you, then for the cause you care about. Working on yourself allows you to bring empathy or rational compassion to work, recognize the trust someone has placed in you if they share their pain and make you a better fundraiser.

Thank you, Kathy, for giving me such a sacred gift today.

As the President of Cathy Mann & Associates Inc, Cathy helps clients develop the infrastructure and culture of philanthropy required to build sustainable development programs.  In her role as Academic Coordinator and an instructor at Ryerson University’s Fundraising Management Certificate program, Cathy breaks down complex matters into achievable actions.  During her 5-year tenure as Executive Director, Frontier College Foundation received the 2007 Award for Excellence in Fundraising for Small Shops from the International Association of Fundraising Professionals. Cathy is an active volunteer and frequent speaker.  With the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Toronto Chapter, she held many roles:  V.P. of Professional Development, mentor and founder of its Inclusion and Equity Committee. Occasionally, she plays her ukulele in public.




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