Qualities and Habits of Highly Effective Fundraisers (and One Really Bad Habit)

Qualities and Habits of Highly Effective Fundraisers (and One Really Bad Habit)

Qualities and Habits of Highly Effective Fundraisers (and One Really Bad Habit)

This article was written by Shelagh Murray, Senior Fundraising Consultant at AskRIGHT, and was initially published in the July 2017 edition of Fundraising New Zealand Magazine.

Qualities and Habits of Highly Effective Fundraisers (and One Really Bad Habit)

Every fundraiser is different. We have different personalities and different strengths and weaknesses. We also have our preferred strategies and tactics – ways of doing things with which we are more comfortable. The organisations for which we work also are different – each has its own culture, needs and stories. Getting the right ‘fit’ between a fundraiser and an organisation is a complex mix of culture, work habits, and personality. In 2014, Universities UK (the representative organisation of British universities) published a report, Strategic Fundraising, which indicated there are five main drivers of long-term success in fundraising:

  1. Involvement of the senior leadership is crucial, as is engagement with the wider community.
  2. Fundraising is an organisational commitment.
  3. Every institution is different and one size does not fit all. Accordingly, fundraising should be based on a distinctive identity, mission and history.
  4. Fundraising is fundamentally about relationships and for donors to keep giving they need to be actively engaged.
  5. Fundraising should be sustained and consistent – it is for the long run.

I want to focus on the fourth of these – relationships – and the habits that great fundraisers develop to maintain effective relationships.


Fundraising is fundamentally about relationships

Relationship Fundraising by Ken BurnettOne of the books I first read when starting my career in fundraising was Relationship Fundraising” by Ken Burnett. This book changed how I viewed what I did and how I did it. Ken Burnett defines relationship fundraising as a donor-based approach to raising money. It is fundraising where people matter most and an approach to the marketing of a cause that centres on the unique and special relationship between an organisation and each supporter. Every activity is geared towards making sure donors know they are important, valued and considered. This has the effect of maximising the funds you receive from every donor in the long term.

Ken Burnett states that the process of building and sustaining mutually beneficial relationships with hundreds, even thousands of individual donors, has a number of cornerstones:

  • Be honest. If any business should be honest, it is fundraising.
  • Be sincere and let your commitment show. Donors are donors because they care enough to take action and support your cause. Let them see that you care too and that is why you’re there as well.
  • Be prompt. Reply quickly and efficiently to any request. Answer letters the next day. If important, telephone and let the donor know what action you are taking.
  • Be regular in your communication. This keeps donors in touch, informed and involved.
  • Be interesting and memorable. Use compelling material about your cause, present it well and make it stand out. Use unforgettable visuals.
  • Be involving. Don’t let donors take a passive role. Ask for their opinions, contributions and even complaints. Encourage feedback in any way you can.
  • Be cheerful and helpful. Be helpful, don’t let donors feel that asking is a trouble. That’s what you are there for – to help them.
  • Be faithful. Always stick to your promises. Let donors see that you are honourable and trustworthy.
  • Be cost-effective. Donors expect and appreciate good stewardship of their gifts. Be open and informative about costs and show donors that their money is in good hands.

If you can say that you do all of these things then you are not doing too badly!


“What makes a good fundraiser?”

Burnett answers his own question of “what makes a good fundraiser” with a long list of qualities but I think there are five real stand-outs: intuition, the ability to listen effectively and to ask great questions, effective story-telling and supportive networks.

Intuition is vital: who is the right person to ask, when is the right time to ask, when is the right time to wait? Intuition is not a spiritual gift inherited or learned, it is the logic that comes from active listening, study and experience, computed so quickly by the human brain that it reaches a conclusion without laying out the logical steps. Unless you feel your intuition is off-course because of a personal bias, trust your intuition.

The ability to listen is essential in any relationship, and in fundraising, listening to your donors and prospects and understanding their motivations and reasons for giving and their ideas for your organisation will reap results. Donors appreciate being heard and feel more connected. When they feel that their ideas to benefit an organisation, as well as their concerns, have been heard they are more likely to be more engaged and donate. Being a good listener, therefore, gives us good information while helping to develop a closer relationship with the donor.

A key to effective listening is to “listen to understand, not to reply.” If you have mastered the art of asking great open questions you can find out everything you need to know and have the donor discover what you wanted them to know.

Ask questions that reach all the emotions: how did you feel about that, what is your earliest recollection of, what are you still wanting to accomplish, when did you learn that, which values have been most important to you, what was your best experience at, who do you think will benefit from this, and so on.

Successful fundraising involves storytelling. These stories need to be told with pace and passion so as to inspire action. They need to be told all the time and they need to be promoted widely. Share your successes with donors but also with work colleagues.

To survive in fundraising, we need people who can share your hopes, fears, disappointments and celebrations. This supportive network can include donors, work colleagues, and fundraisers at other organisations.


The good habits of effective fundraisers

In my many years of working as a fundraiser in several organisations, and now consulting with organisations and mentoring other fundraisers, I discern five traits that are shared by highly-effective fundraisers:

  1. They pick up the phone as their primary fundraising tool. Closely followed by personal visits or meetings. When they need to get in touch with a donor or prospect they don’t send an e-mail first … They pick up the phone and make a call.


  1. They do their homework – researching donors and others before meetings so that they are respectfully armed with appropriate background information.


  1. They extend their networks, personally and through professional social media. They are voracious researchers and connectors. It might be an exaggeration to say that great fundraisers rarely lunch alone, that they need a window or a view – but you get the idea.


  1. They do the most important things first. They prioritise activities that offer the greatest benefit to their organisation. They follow the 80/20 rule and spend most of their time focussed on those activities that offer the best return. They get to the more routine things later in the day.


  1. Good fundraising is much more organised than outsiders imagine. Great fundraisers adopt a methodical approach. They will never be able to get every possible activity done, so they spend their time doing what works. Although they might have an imaginative personality, they have learned the value of routine, metrics, processes and systems.


We have seen five qualities and five habits of effective fundraisers. We also know that great fundraisers are constantly working to become better at what they do. This means that they read fundraising texts, attend seminars, conferences and training opportunities, and work with their peers to practice and role-play to improve. Honing your skills can mean the difference between being a mediocre fundraiser and an excellent, highly effective fundraiser.

What is the really bad habit? Speaking while a donor is talking. We do it because we know the answer, because we want to show them that we have the knowledge, because the donor is searching for words, is taking too long, or is losing track of their thoughts. Never speak over a donor (or anyone else). Volvo used to pay factory workers a bonus if they saw a crack in the windscreen of a car on the assembly line. Offer your co-workers $20 if they ever hear you speaking over a donor. Ouch! That’s going to hurt, but it will ensure you don’t fall victim to this bad habit for too much longer.


Shelagh Murray

Shelagh Murray

Senior Fundraising Consultant at AskRIGHT
Shelagh Murray is a seasoned fundraising professional with more than twenty years’ experience in developing and leading teams in community organisations and higher education.

To find out how Shelagh can help your organisation, contact s.murray@AskRIGHT.com.
Shelagh Murray


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