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Lacking the Social and Cultural Capital to Raise Capital

The fear and trepidation sets in an hour before a tour with a potential donor. I remember that I do not come from a privileged background. I do not speak the same language as the affluent man or woman who drove in from the suburbs to stop for the first time in the inner city of Boston. I’ve never been on a European vacation and I do not own a vacation home. Then I remember what I look like- the physical manifestation of my lack of privilege.

I inadvertently found myself in the field of philanthropy 2.5 years ago. I never thought I would ever do Development. I'm an introvert--- a quiet and focused individual who enjoys spending hours thinking and writing. The last thing I want to do is to “sell” or “pitch” anything to anyone. If the hard facts don’t convince you then I will respectfully honor your decision to pass on the opportunity to give. My colleagues often chastised me for not peeking my head out of my office for more than ten minutes to take part in the office festivities. But fundraising and grantwriting pushed me outside of my comfort zone and I enjoyed it. My strengths as an attentive listener and my love for assimilating information were put to good use.

However, I quickly realized that your success as a fundraiser is not solely dependent on your skills but is contingent on the net worth of your network. But what happens when you don’t know the right people? What do you do when you lack the cultural capital to connect to those high net worth individuals? And what happens when you refuse to assimilate any more into the mainstream culture that will yield success?

Month after month, I questioned whether sincerity and hard work were enough to become an effective fundraising professional. I questioned whether I should change who I was to get ahead. And at what cost? For anyone who’s ever felt this way, here are the top 3 lessons I have learned so far about navigating and making it in mainstream philanthropy when you lack a certain cultural and social capital.

1. It’s Not Who You Know But Who Others on Your Team Know

Fundraising should not be a solitary venture. Building a team should be your first step. If you don’t know the “right” people or have the “right” experiences, build a team that does. You can manage that team and drive strategy while helping them to foster and leverage their networks. Your Executive Director (ED) should be a critical part of this team. This seems like a given but many non-profits who have relied on other sources of revenue have EDs who are more comfortable interacting with every type of stakeholder except for donors and funders. Some under-resourced non-profits have a one person Development team that is expected to not only fundraise, but to do communications, while also evaluating the new program that the organization just launched. In these situations, having the support of a well managed fundraising team will help to bear the burden of the workload, bring great ideas to the table, and present a larger pool of potential donors to solicit. Individuals on this team can be volunteers, existing donors, your own staff, or those couple of board members who have the interest and the will to do fundraising (we all know how boards can be).

2. Listen. A Lot. Ask Questions. A Lot.

It’s ok to ask more questions and to listen more and to be genuinely interested in your donor and this is especially useful when there is a socioeconomic divide. Oftentimes, I could not relate to the donors I met and I could not contribute relatable anecdotes when they shared their specific lived experiences. But I always showed enthusiasm for their work and interests and focused on learning and being educated by them. I catalogued these little facts and tidbits about my donors in my mind (and in Salesforce) and would bring them up from time to time so the donor knew that the organization cared about them. It was my way of connecting to donors that I often felt like I could not connect to.

3. Take the Long Haul Approach

Donors and funders are expecting you to take a lifelong journey with them. Imagine funders as your friends. Stick with them through the ups and downs. This will be especially useful for those donors who may be very different from you. In the same way you would send a friend a Christmas Card, send your donors updates in the form of newsletters, annual reports, and every now and then pick up the phone and call them. You may have the best stewarding strategy but there are years when your donor will not give no how matter how much they want to due to personal reasons. One of the organizations I worked for had a donor who we had a longstanding relationship with. Two years in a row, he did not give. When I called him to get an update, he told me about the hardship of losing his son and the memorial fund he had set up to honor him. I did what any friend would. I had our organization make a contribution to his son’s memorial fund and had our ED write him a personal card. He scheduled an in person visit immediately and was well on his way to becoming a regular donor again.

What are you doing as a development professional to connect to donors who you may not relate to?

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