What I Learned from Fundraising in a Pandemic

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By Molly Smithwick, RBBB Fundraising Coordinator

Molly Smithwick sits on top of a stack of books while reading a bookFriday the 13th of March 2020 turned out to be the kind of shitty day that ominous date infamously insinuates. I had only been a fundraiser for nine months, a baby just born, still learning to hold her head up—crawling not in her near future. That morning, the Alhambra Elementary School District announced that they were closing all their schools. I was in the office with a few coworkers and my stomach dropped at the news. The weight of forbidding disaster was setting in, but it wasn’t until I pulled into the Burton Barr Library parking lot the following Monday, only to find it closed, that I began to understand that this was just the beginning of a very long and dismal path. I had taken my daughter and myself to the library so I could work while she played. It was Day One of learning how to work from home.

It’s now Day 231 of working from home, and since that Friday the 13th, I’ve learned how to crawl, stand up on my own, and now I’m even walking. This fundraiser is a full-blown toddler—and proud of it.

I love a good analogy, as anyone who knows me will tell you. But in all seriousness, I’ve learned a lot in the last 11 months. A lot of us have. But here is what I learned from fundraising in a pandemic:

1. People genuinely want to help.

It’s why there are over 21,000 nonprofits in Arizona alone, and why nonprofits raised almost $450 billion dollars in just 2019. We see problems and we want to fix them. But finding a tangible way to help is the hard part. For starters, it’s hard to decide which nonprofit to donate to—there are so many: so many social injustices, so many organizations, so many causes, especially right now. And then there’s the scams, swindles, malfeasances, and con-jobs that leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, making it hard for community members to trust organizations to do the right thing. But in the end, people still want to help. As a fundraiser, it’s my job to help them find that way, whether it’s by donating, partnering, offering time and talents, or simply joining arms and advocating together.

2. There’s always time for the details.

Whether it’s doing 15 minutes of research to make sure t’s are crossed and i’s dotted before sending an email, making sure every item is entered correctly in your customer relationship management platform, starting to plan a fundraising campaign two months before you launch so you can grow momentum and gain traction, or rechecking this damn grant report for the fifth time, success lies in the nitty-gritty details. Fundraising is like a memory game where the more you remember, the more likely you are to succeed. And luckily you can set up clues all around you by writing everything down, recording the specifics, going back and checking them, or reminding yourself through calendar invites or to-do lists, and always paying utmost attention to accuracy. When you devote time to the details, you are setting yourself up for success.

3. Connecting with your Why, your vision, and yourself is the force behind the action.

I read a few years ago that 60% of inmates are illiterate. At once I understood the profound connection between being able to read and ensuring the freedom every human deserves. I knew that knowing how to read was important, but this statistic showed me that literacy goes beyond important. If you don’t know how to read, the likelihood of having your freedom taken is dangerously high. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about this stifling statistic. Before becoming a fundraiser, I was a school librarian. Now, if you haven’t had the extreme pleasure of witnessing a child falling in love with a book, you’ve never seen the glimmer in their eye when they choose a book, open it, look at the pictures, read the words, turn the pages- all on their own. They own this moment, and that glimmer in their eye is them feeling the power of liberation. I’m lucky to have witnessed these moments on a regular basis. When I joined my organization, one of the first things I did was watch Simon Sinek’s video on finding your Why and the importance of keeping your personal Why in the forefront of your brain. I knew then that my Why is to help give kids a chance at retaining their freedom. Along with my Why I have a vision of all children getting that glimmer in their eye, and this is what drives me to fundraise, day in and day out. What’s yours?

4. When donation stories revolve around the community and not the donor, we all benefit more.

How many times have you seen something like, “Your donation is providing meals for 20 families” or something like that? Admittedly, our organization used to use this kind of language and have this kind of mindset. But we don’t anymore, because it wipes away the work being done by the people in the organization, and instead celebrates the donor and separates them from the need that is in the community that we live in together. People don’t need help “over there”; we need help right here. When one person needs help, we all need help. When one person succeeds, we all succeed. Your donation isn’t giving 20 families meals; your donation is an investment to help improve the health and happiness of your community.

5. The way we talk, and think, matters.

I recently read that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and it struck me in that way that only those obvious-yet-simple realizations can: duh, I’m the average of the five people I spend the most time with! I think it goes the same with the way we talk: what comes out of your mouth is the average of what is in your brain. When we start rephrasing things (i.e., “struggling students” to “students who need support”, or “targeting” to “prioritizing”), it shapes how we see the world. We need to see the human first. When we speak and think in a way that humanizes people, it gives people the respect we all need. Fundraisers talk, a lot, which means we have a responsibility to represent humans, for the good of our communities.

 

And now here I am: still learning (and unlearning), growing, and changing. This fundraiser is learning to read, talk, think, when to be independent, and when to join in. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but growing does happen at night, when we are silent and still after a long day of absorbing information.