Huffpost Arts
Michael Kaiser Headshot

Head vs. Heart

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For many arts organizations, raising money appears to be the most difficult and least predictable activity. So much so that board members will often suggest just about anything to reduce annual fundraising requirements, from cutting art, to slashing salaries, raising ticket prices or investing in unrelated business areas. The mystery surrounding fundraising has led many people, usually board members, to ask: What makes a good fundraising executive?

The answer is complicated.

Many people believe a good fundraiser is an out-going person who has good table manners, can charm donors and gives a good party.

And, indeed, socially adept people do have an easier time with certain aspects of the development job: making people feel welcome, connecting prospects with staff, artists and other donors, providing high levels of customer service, etc. I admire the ability of many of my colleagues who can make anyone feel comfortable and part of the organizational family. They are more than charming; they are intuitive, thoughtful and smart.

But I have also worked with highly skilled and successful development executives who are not particularly gracious or good in social situations. (I, myself, am essentially shy and like few things less than cocktail party banter with people I do not know. Even so, I have had a measure of fundraising success.)

These fundraisers have a solid command of the work of the organization and are able to make donors believe that their money is being put to good use. They may not win points for hosting a lovely lunch but they are considered smart, professional and responsible.

But whether fundraisers are ruled by their heads or their hearts, they all must be analytical and creative.

They need to be able to listen to donors and determine their interests and needs, to craft the appropriate approach to any given prospect, and to develop a package of projects and perquisites that will engage that particular donor. They must also be able to steward each donor, giving them such a positive, warm experience that they want to continue an association with the organization. They must truly appreciate that their main function is to build a large, growing, diversified family of supporters who will remain loyal to the institution through good times and bad.

This requires talent, intelligence... and introspection. Good fundraisers appreciate their own strengths and determine how to use other staff members, board members and artists to compensate for their weaknesses. I know I always seek to collaborate with those who are far more relaxed socially than I am. Few people have it all.

No fundraiser can work in a vacuum anyway. Strong fundraising results from an exciting artistic product supported by a strong marketing effort. Even the best fundraiser cannot raise money consistently for an organization that does inferior work.

Indeed, there is no, single best 'type' of fundraising executive, but when you find someone who can use their skills and talents to attract and captivate donors, hold on to them for all it's worth!