catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 14 :: 2013.07.05 — 2013.07.18


Fundraising because I can

My first recollection of fundraising was for sixth grade camp. We were to sell milk chocolate candy bark, which came in flat boxes roughly the size of a Father’s Day tie gift. I was horrible at it, for a number of reasons: I was very shy. We had just moved to a new town, and I didn’t know anyone except my mother and aunt and uncle, who could only buy so much bad chocolate. And I’d been raised not to talk about money — not whether I had any, not whether anyone else had any, and certainly not whether I needed any.

We were self-reliant, get-by people. So it should surprise no one that I developed an aversion to fundraising, assuming that I couldn’t do it and, on some level, that I shouldn’t do it.

I’m not sure how that changed. Certainly I backed my way into fundraising, starting with leading a Girl Scout troop. I still didn’t much care for the activity, but it sure did make a difference in what we were able to do with the girls if there was a little somethin’-somethin’ in the bank account.

And then I got involved in two annual events — one at church, one community volunteering — that could include fundraising, but there was no performance anxiety. We were really planning social or service events, I could tell myself.

The community event brought together a hundred or so women to do volunteer service at agencies serving women and children. During the day, we cleaned daycare centers, built Habitat houses, cooked and baked to stock the freezer at an adult foster care home, assembled kits for Girls on the Run. If we happened to have an auction over lunch that brought in some money, that was incidental. It was an added bonus to be able to present the proceeds to the agency we’d chosen as recipient that year. It didn’t really matter how much we collected, because any gift at all was just that: a gift.

The same applied, in a different way, to the church event. We made it a purely social evening, with a sit-down dinner. We asked members to donate items for an auction that signified their gifts: artwork, hand-knit baby blankets, pecan or apple pies, plants propagated from their gardens, hours of babysitting, carpentry, or yard work. What was really important, I’d tell myself — and others — was that people came together for that evening, that they learned about each other through the auction items. The agency or program we were able to support with the proceeds was, again, an incidental bonus.

It wasn’t until the last year or so that I committed to a fundraising effort that had a specific goal and consequences for not reaching it. Through a series of connections, I got involved with renovating an abandoned house (vacant for more than a decade) into a neighborhood center. The neighbors themselves described the vision: a non-institutional place where they could gather for social and educational purposes. They envisioned book clubs, quilting bees, knitting nights and art classes. They could imagine tutoring for their kids, and for themselves, too, in computer use, home repair and household budgeting.

The building was stripped to studs, without wiring or plumbing. It was a blank canvas upon which it was all too easy to see the neighborhood center. “How hard can it be?” That’s the question I’ve often asked myself, and in this case I set out to answer it, with a team of women who were all entering their own personal uncharted territory.

We needed $75,000 to make the neighbors’ dream a reality. At this moment, we’ve raised nearly $55,000 and are waiting to hear about two grants that will scope the work remaining. It matters that we make our goal — first because if we don’t, the project won’t happen, and now because all of the donors thus far are counting on us. Pressure? Yes. And a lot of learning along the way.

We’ve had a carwash, a rummage sale, a “home products” shopping event and an auction, and we’ve made and sold about a zillion pigs-in-the-blanket. Those were all fun, because they’re social, but they were also fairly familiar territory. What was new was breaking my own taboos by talking about money — and talking about needing money. I did it in writing for grant applications; I described the need in face-to-face meetings with potential donors; I presented to a couple hundred attendees at a giving circle — all about how we needed money. And here’s what I learned…

First you have to be willing. I was one of those people who said, “Oh, I could never do fundraising. I’m just not good at it.” There was a time when I would have said I wasn’t good at changing diapers, or coaching through geometry homework, or cleaning up vomit. It was because of my commitment to my kids that I recognized that you don’t always get to do what you’re comfortable with or what you want to see yourself as good at. The first step in fundraising is to listen for your level of commitment to the cause; if it’s high, you’ll be willing to work through your discomfort.

Then, cultivate your optimism. This can take you too far, of course. If the cause you’re committing to is, say, relocating the Golden Gate Bridge to your backyard, you can expect to be pushing a large rock up a steep hill. But once you’ve assured yourself that the project you’ve got in mind is worthwhile and achievable, it helps your sanity (and the willingness of others to commit) if you can always hold and talk about your goal as completely doable.

Next, become a storyteller. There’s a narrative to every project — or there’s a term paper. Stories are interesting to people; term papers aren’t. The temptation, if you’ve done your research and know about the ages and racial identity and median income and home ownership rates in the neighborhood, is to make all of that part of your story. But people get lost in the big picture. What makes it real is the story of individuals: the woman in the neighborhood who loves to bake and would love to teach others, the man who already shows kids how to repair bikes and needs a place to do it, the teenager who’s come alive pitching in on the construction. Save your research data to answer questions when they’re asked.

And then make yourself vulnerable to community. A number of years ago, I was facing a major surgery. My friend Julie was telling me her plans to deliver dinner to my kids the first night I was hospitalized, part of a grand conspiracy by friends to feed and care for us. “Oh, we don’t need that,” I said. “The kids are old enough to fend for themselves, and my husband is a competent cook.”

“Shut up!” Julie said, for the first and only time in our relationship. “This isn’t about you. It’s about us. We’re your friends and we’re worried and we need to do something.”

So I shut up. And I (and my family) received an outpouring of home-cooked food, DVDs and yarn for entertainment, and uncounted other signs of love and care throughout my whole recovery.

When I ask others to support a project, I need to let go of the notion of personal ownership, which also lets me let go of any sense of personal neediness. What I’m doing is opening doors for people who “need to do something,” but haven’t had the time or the energy or the connections to figure out exactly what. Whether they choose to go through the door, of course, is another issue; not everyone says yes.

But if they do, we welcome them into the community of support, the team of doers. And we have received an outpouring for which we are immensely grateful. 

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