James C. Murphy, Ph.D., CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

Over my many years in the fundraising profession, I’ve had the opportunity to observe numerous fundraising superstars. In a recent conversation with another equally experienced colleague, we reflected on those qualities that superstars possess. Here are some of those traits listed in no particular order.

The most successful development professionals have the ability to:

1. Be curious

Curiosity seems to be a driving force for the most successful fundraisers. Individuals with natural curiosity often make great fundraisers—but curiosity can be cultivated, too. In our business, we’re likely to work with a highly diverse group of people, and we may have conversations ranging from art collecting to venture finance. Being alert to the world around us and exercising our curiosity daily through reading, conversations, and other learning tools can go a long way to improving our success.

2. Cultivate creativity

In fundraising, creativity is the ability to recognize opportunity or to help bring about an opportunity. Great fundraisers are able to see possibilities, connect the dots, and bring together ideas, resources, and people—both within the organization and outside the organization – to help fulfill the organization’s mission.

3. Exercise empathy

We often are told that communication is important, but as Peter Drucker wrote, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” This is where empathetic listening becomes key. It’s as important to leave a meeting with clarity as it is with understanding.

4. Manage upward and outward

Great development professionals must learn to skillfully manage leaders of all stripes. One of the best ways to effectively manage leaders and donors alike is to use their time efficiently and productively.

5. Understand the donor’s passions—and act accordingly

When donors’ passions lie outside great development professionals’ fundraising area, they do everything they can to graciously link those donors to other appropriate areas or institutions. Similarly, when donors show great respect or affinity for a certain individual, they make an effort to involve that person in engagement activities.

6. Create credibility

This trait is essential in cultivating and managing donor relationships. Credibility comes about over time and is the result of all of the above, as well as consistently demonstrating good judgement across all relationships and situations.

7. Understand timing

Since much of our work as fundraisers depends on a donor’s timetable in making a contribution, things cannot be rushed. Timing and judgement are needed, so when we tell our manager why a particular gift hasn’t yet closed we are transparent and credible. The lack of a clear decision from a donor can be frustrating, so how we manage this will be apparent in our behavior and actions.

8. Keep a balanced perspective and be adaptable

I’ve seen the great fundraisers demonstrate grace under pressure that comes with perspective. Not everything will go as planned; indeed, many initiatives will require that we adapt our plans on the fly. Knowing that not everything works out to plan helps maintain balance.

9. Wear a game face

While other pressures in our lives can have an impact on our work, great development professionals show up wearing their “game face.” This is about expressing self-confidence and professionalism in our work. It requires focus and preparation, and a seriousness about our work.

10. Recognize it’s not about me

It’s important to remember that we are valued for our skills, not because we may hang out with important philanthropists. Even the humblest donor is seeking to make a contribution in his or her own way. While a large, complex gift may require more time and effort, every donor deserves our time and consideration.

11. Employ discretion

In fundraising we often deal with sensitive financial information or sometimes with the personal details of our donors’ lives. As in law, investment, accounting, or other professional services, we have a responsibility to be discreet. Loose lips sink gifts.

12. Understand that donors are seeking meaning and impact in their giving.

As we develop and steward relationships on behalf of our organizations, it’s critical to bear in mind that a transactional gift may be just one expression of a donor’s mindset. Not every gift will be freighted with meaning. It’s up to us to distinguish among a donor’s many possible motivations and help guide their philanthropic intent.

When you reflect on your work as a fundraiser, whether just starting out or perhaps at a career turning point, remember we’re in the business of helping people with their aspirations and their search for meaningful involvement. The qualities we’ve described above can all be cultivated through personal and professional development to help you become more skilled as a fundraiser. But the best advice I’ve heard comes from both Aristotle—“Know oneself”—and one of my mentors—“cultivate self-awareness.”

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