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« How the Creator of Saturday Night Live Does His Philanthropy | Main | Making the Case Against "Income-Blind" Grant Applications in the Arts »
Tuesday
Jan192016

Got a Problem With Rich People? Here's How to Get Past That and Be Better at Fundraising

Have you ever walked into a donors' house and had any one of these reactions:

"Please don't let me break anything."

"Did I just walk into MoMA?"

"This bathroom is larger than my Honda."

I don't know about you, but I didn't quite grow up in a house with walk in closets. Ours was more "hand-me-downs I keep at the bottom of my bed." I came of age in the 1970s, in a rural New England town where yarn mills were still open for business. My family was what is now referred to as the "the working poor."

I remember government cheese, a donated Christmas tree one year and ornaments we made from tin foil. There was a constant state of worry. It wasn't wondering if we'd ever be rich or ski in Vail. It was wondering if, just for a moment, the water would steady and we could wade in a still-modest pond.

Today I have a modest pond because of opportunities, many of which were made possible by philanthropists whom I've never met. Scholarships by caring people who wanted to level the playing field. I'm here because of my family's love and support, free public libraries, being a white lady, and the good will and generosity of complete strangers. My success came because others didn't judge me for my lack of resources, but for what I had to offer. 

I became a global social change fundraiser to widen the field of opportunities. I wanted to move money to those who had been denied access. Money, to me, seemed to have a function: to be vibrant and fuel opportunities, not to be stalled and static in banks with ever-changing owners. While I've had some luck in life, I didn't want luck to be the basis of an economic system. I became a global social change fundraiser to level the playing field and to see if a few new fields could be harvested. In the process, I learned not to judge people based on resources, but instead on what they had to offer.

What does this have to do with entering homes with chandeliers and fireplaces that ignite with a flip of a switch? And how on earth can this help you raise more money?

If you didn't come from the kind of money you now encounter as a fundraiser, you're going to have a whole lot of feelings about it. These will include anxiety, fear, inadequacy, envy, resentment, hope and possibility.

To be great at fundraising, you have to acknowledge and address these. Your own feelings about moneyyours and otherscan, and will, impact your success as a fundraiser. It's your choice whether that impact accelerates you or holds you back.

Here are five steps that will help you make peace with the range of resources in the world:

1. Write down your money story. What kind of money did you have growing up? How's your money today? You won't automatically be a better fundraiser if you grew up with money, nor a struggling fundraiser if you grew up with less, or vice versa. Great fundraising is seeing your value and not your worth. You're moving money for the greater good. This doesn't require a certain bank account balance. It requires conviction, passion and belief. It requires that you don't allow the world you experienced be the world that defines you. It's a state of mind that comes from saying, "I belong here as much as anyone else."

2. Focus on similarities, not differences. You walk into a house and realize the couches cost more than your state college education. Think of how lucky you are that you get to sit on such soft, plush couches and then let it go. Think about what you have in common. You share similar values, hopes and dreams for the world. Great leaders focus on the similarities, not the differences.

3. Read. When I first started fundraising, I had no idea what a donor meant when they said they'd be selling G stock to make a gift, or needed to find out the balance on their offshore account and from there pull the interest. I'd sit there thinking, "Huh, people use something other than a paper check balance register from the bank? Who knew?" So I studied. I learned. Not because it would likely become my reality, but because I am a curious person and I wanted to serve the donors' philanthropic interests to the best of my ability.

4. Share what you have to teach. I don't know about you, but I have tons of knowledge about interesting subjects. When I start sharing what I know with philanthropists and we engage in a thoughtful, thought-provoking conversation, the Limoges china becomes "dishes," and the Van Gogh paintings become art I can ask them about. It is my job to manage whether I feel intimidated or small or nervous. The insecurities lift and I can build a great relationship when I move those feelings to the side and say, "You know, I watched the Roosevelt documentary the other night and am really struck by something I'm seeing play out in these elections that's similar to when Teddy Roosevelt ran..."

5. Don't assume you're the only one struggling to find your place in this world. When I first started really talking to donors, they started sharing their hopes, fears and feelings. I had thought I was the one of the two of us who was trying to find my way. Turns out most of us are. It was a little bit of arrogance on my part that I thought I was the only one who was seeking. In the early days, I assumed that if you had wealth, you didn't have a care in the world—a completely misguided assumption. Each of us is trying to find our place, to make a difference, to matter.

Open your heart and your humanity to the donors, and you'll be surprised at what you didn't know you didn't know. You'll experience your shared values instead of your net worths.

Kathy LeMay is Co-President and CEO at Raising ChangeKathy has raised $175 million from individual philanthropists for global social change.

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