'Tis the Season: The 10 Most Excruciating Parts of Fundraising

photo:  Zdorov Kirill Vladimirovich/shutterstock

photo:  Zdorov Kirill Vladimirovich/shutterstock

Let’s make a list. It’s that time of year!

As fundraisers, we are constantly told to look at the bright side: If at first you don’t succeed; smile though your heart is breaking, etc. But as a former president and chief fundraiser for a large multidisciplinary arts organization, I have decided, in the spirit of the season, to present my “bottom 10 list” delineating the worst, most excruciating parts of the job.

10. The No-Call-Back Donor. Doesn’t it just kill you when you have followed up a request at least 10 times and you finally, actually make contact, and then the cell connection starts "breaking up?" The reality, of course, is that the donor has thrown the phone into the East River to avoid talking to you. Little does she know that you are sending a gift replacement phone, via next-day delivery, that only dials your number. She’ll see who calls who back!

9. The "We-Love-Your-Proposal-But-It-Doesn’t-Fit-All-Of-Our-Guidelines" Donor. I literally, honestly, had to be physically restrained when a foundation program executive (no names!) lavishly complimented our perfect match-up with four out of five of their criteria, but since we missed on number 5, we got the boot. Are you kidding? I mean, really. Don’t the Hopi say only God is perfect?

8. The "We-Are-So-Sorry-But-We-Decided-To-Stop-Funding-The Arts-After-All-There-Are-So-Many-Needs-Out-There-Especially-In-The-Current-Political-Environment" Donor. OK, OK. We get it. We know there is mayhem everywhere, and the needs are great, from defending Planned Parenthood and civil liberties to fighting global warming and malaria. The human race is in real trouble. But can we all take a deep breath (not in any way forgetting these issues), and just consider history for one moment? The human race has always been a disaster, and what is, in fact, the only thing that endures as a positive symbol of the worth of humankind? Art. From Sophocles to Shakespeare to Da Vinci, Mozart to Jane Austen to Alvin Ailey and beyond, art represents the best of our presence on this planet. Today, arts funding from the public sector is 20 percent lower than 20 years ago. And in the private sector, the arts are the recipient of only 5 percent of philanthropic dollars. Hey, donors: I know you are swarmed, but can you just try to see the big picture, here? Without the creativity of a vibrant arts community, the situation is just going to get worse.

7. The "Evening-Was-Perfect-But-Who-Chose-The-Menu-and-Why-Was-I-Seated-Fourth-Row-Center-When-You-Know-I-Need-The-Aisle?" Donor. Don’t you just wish that people could get through one meal without melting down about the spices, the gluten, the starch and the service, and then harping on the seating and the table décor? Over the years, we sold thousands of tickets to people who sometimes hated our shows, but you rarely heard from them. Thank God. They would just live with the fact that they didn’t like the show. But give them an appetizer or seat that doesn’t meet their expectations, and you get a death threat in the mail. I know that this is all part of the deal, but after all, this is about you supporting the arts!

6. The "We-Expect-Our-Grant-To-Be-Transformative-For-All-Of-Civilization-But-The-Maximum-Amount-Given-Will-Be-$25,000-For-One-Year-Only" Donor. This crowd is really drinking the Kool-Aid. They want assurance that their funding will bring about world peace and the eradication of yellow fever for only a minor investment, which also includes a promise that you will spend 10 percent of the funds on an evaluation consultant and another 10 percent attending a convening with your fellow grantees so that they can teach you how to do more with less!

5. The "We-Are-Revising-Our-Guidelines-So-Call-Us-In-Six-Months" Donor. And then, of course, six months turns into two years. And then they turn you down! I have always said that delayed gratification is the fundraisers’ creed. If you are looking for a fast turnaround, you have come to the wrong profession.

4. The "Corporate-Merger-After-Merger-After-Merger" Donor. When I came to New York, banks were generous donors. We had a lot of them, and they actually liked the arts. Then they started devouring each other, and one by one, they were gone. Where are you, Manufacturer’s Hanover, Chemical Bank, Dime Savings, European American, Bankers Trust, Fleet, and Independence Savings? We need you to come back and save the day!

3. The "We-Need-Celebrities-Associated-With-This-Project-Or-There-Will-Be-No-Good-Photo-Ops" Donor. Frankly, we fundraisers know that the only people harder to deal with than demanding donors are demanding celebrities. And when you have both to contend with, life is simply hell. We have all known celebrities who demand first-class airfare for themselves and their entourage, $10,000 hair and make-up budgets, and then refuse to sit at your board chairman’s table. This would be manageable. But on top of everything, we have donors who need all the best seats, want total exclusivity, and who insist that all the celebrities sit at their tables. The truth is, when it comes to service, everyone thinks he or she is a celebrity.

2. And Sometimes We Let The Donors Down. Our failure isn’t always about them. How about when you have worked your heart out, driven your staff crazy to raise money for “the most historic, important project in history” and it’s a complete and total disaster? Try explaining that to the same donors who trusted and believed in you. Why should they make another contribution? “Well, that’s show biz,” we say, but nothing can undo the boos, bad reviews, and behind-your-back chuckles from colleagues lining up to get your donor’s attention. 

1. Rejection. And, yes, last, but not least: What’s the worst, the very worst, the quintessential worst part of fundraising? Of course, it’s rejection.  

On the flip side, even with all the problems, when you actually raise the money, the rain lifts, the clouds part, and you feel pretty good. Your sunny disposition returns, and you tell your team, “Anything is possible—you just gotta believe.”

"What a great job I have done," you say to yourself. "Of course I can do this!" 

It’s just a matter of staying positive!

Karen Brooks Hopkins is the President Emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nasher Haemisegger Fellow at the National Center for Arts Research at SMU, and Senior Advisor to the Onassis Foundation. Read her earlier article: “Why Would Anyone Want To Do This Work?” A Fundraiser’s Lament