I have often thought that my work as a fundraiser is not altogether different from my efforts as a backyard gardener. In both cases, I toil, persistently and thoughtfully, toward an outcome that is largely out of my hands.
Every once in awhile I stop to wonder whether I’m any good at my job. It is an inquiry in the same general line as other mildly chilling questions of self-improvement. Do I exercise enough? Should I shop at farmers’ markets? Should I refinance? Should I read Kant?
Once a year, my employer joins me in the search for an answer, whereupon it gets real. Or at least more bureaucratic. I fill out a series of forms, I solicit comments from coworkers, and I tally up some numbers, all to provide evidence that, yes, I am good at my job. Or at least good enough.
The COVID crisis will add a new layer of complexity to this annual exercise. What does it mean to be a good fundraiser while enduring the worst pandemic in more than a century? What does it mean to reach, or not reach, my fundraising goals as society experiences paralysis and I can’t find a mask?
Fundraising is a tricky profession in which to measure performance even in times not overshadowed by global catastrophe. We all know pretty terrible fundraisers who have nevertheless pulled down large gifts. And we all know good fundraisers who have experienced lean years.
The problem with evaluation is compounded by relatively high turnover within the profession. The average fundraiser remains in place for only a few years. Yet in many cases, the trajectory of those years—good or bad—were largely established by the groundwork that others laid (or failed to lay).
So, how can I determine if I’m a good fundraiser? What does it mean to be a good fundraiser in these days of COVID?
The kitchen windowsill in my house is currently overcrowded with old yogurt containers and egg cartons. This is not a quarantine-induced eccentricity. The containers hold vegetable seedlings. Tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, cilantro, basil. The windowsill—and, truth be told, part of the countertop—is a chaos of spilled potting soil and tiny green shoots.
This is largely my wife’s doing. In our haphazard attempts at gardening over the years, we’ve developed an unofficial division of labor. She gets the seedlings going early, I prepare the garden bed, and we jointly figure out which plants will go where. I do the weeding and watering throughout the summer. When the time comes, she does most of the harvesting.
We’ve experienced modest successes over the years, some nice carrots and peppers. I remember an impressive haul of beets one summer.
I have often thought that my work as a fundraiser is not altogether different from my efforts as a backyard gardener. In both cases I toil toward an outcome that seems to be largely out of my hands. In both cases I trust myself to time-tested practices that more experienced people tell me to carry out. And in both cases, despite my persistent failures, I have experienced a sense of growing mastery.
We might be tempted to define a good gardener as one who coaxes the highest possible yield from a given patch of ground. Volkswagen-sized pumpkins, buckets of tomatoes. But that would be shortsighted if the gardener achieves his harvest by employing methods—showers of pesticides and herbicides, heaps of synthetic fertilizers—that not only undermine the long-term integrity of his own patch of ground but contribute, in myriad ways, to the degradation of other garden plots.
A good gardener, then, is one who maintains a balance between current and future harvests. Her work is deeply contextual. A good gardener might see her harvest decimated by pests, droughts, or disease. But it’s also true that a good gardener will select and cultivate her crops in such a way that reduces the likelihood of damage inflicted by pests or drought. She will diversify. She will seek out reliable varieties.
How do you know when a gardener is good? Big hauls of produce are part of it. But you also know when another good gardener tells you that she’s good. It takes one, to know one, as they say.
I will not belabor the metaphor. A good fundraiser, I would contend, is one who raises money with a keen understanding of his community’s philanthropic capacity, the current and future needs of his organization, and a sense of how his own efforts are informed by and in turn inform the efforts of other fundraisers. His work is highly contextual, and his effectiveness can only be understood over time.
As I see it, the metric that matters most is, “Did you raise enough money to allow the organization to achieve its goals?” Whether you could have raised more—or whether a more ambitious or “talented” fundraiser could have raised more in your place—is a counterfactual and an impossible question to answer.
Now, there are pretty basic things that every organization should be doing to raise money. So it is with would-be gardeners. If those practices are not in place, they need to be put in place. But if you are generally adhering to time-tested ways of raising money, and you’re persistent and consistent, you’re probably within the range of what other competent fundraisers would achieve.
COVID is going to throw the usual metrics out of whack for a while, just as, say, a drought would hinder the work of even the most experienced gardener. But what is true now has always been true: nonprofit executives and development directors must use judgement when evaluating the performance of their fundraising staff. A CFRE is not proof of competence; nor is the fulfillment of an arbitrary annual goal. A fundraiser’s success is inextricable from the success and health of the organization for which she’s raising money.
The best fundraisers aren’t the ones who raise the most money. The best fundraisers are those who help sustain the wellbeing of the organizations they support. The fruits of their labor won’t always be found on the bottom line.