“So…what do you do?” or My #mnfund15 Story

July 30, 2015

“So…what do you do?”

It’s a question we’re asked almost daily. I know I can’t escape the question, even from my own family.  Now imagine your job description is: Development and Program Support Coordinator.  Huh?  Where do I even begin?  I usually see eyes glaze over when I start saying ‘…and…’.  Anything beyond that tends to confuse people.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my job and am MORE than happy to explain what I do.  The tricky word for people is “development”, because it can mean something different depending on your frame of reference.  Usually when I clarify, I just say, “Oh, I write grants,” and people get it.  But, as I’ve learned recently, “development” is so much more than grant writing.


Sunny day at the Earle Browne Heritage Center

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the Minnesota Council of Nonprofit’s 2015 Nonprofit Fundraising Conference (#mnfund15).  This was the first year MCN offered this conference focused towards fundraising and resource development professionals—but you wouldn’t know that by having been at the conference.  Attendance was high and spirits were bright as we packed in the Earle Brown Heritage Center on a sunny Thursday in July.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Going in, I was hoping to connect with new peers, develop a new frame of mind around resource development, and learn enough to bring something back to my team.

After having some time to think about my experience at the conference, here are my top three takeaways from the day:

  1. Development involves MUCH more than grant writing.  In fact, I’m not sure grant writing came up once during the day (or if it did, as an afterthought).  The day was really focused on messaging and how we share the work that our organization does to our audiences.  There can be fundraising events and galas, annual campaigns, house parties, major gifts programs, ice bucket challenges, and so much more.  I may say I write grants for my organization (which I do, often) but I am part of a field that has come up with clever and interesting ways to, put simply, ask for money to support the great work we all do.
  2. We will never reach the general public with the work we do.  Ever.  If this is part of our organization’s outreach and communications plan, we need to scale it back.  Now hear me out, this didn’t come from me.  This came from Farra Trompeter from big duck—smart communications for nonprofits out of New York City.

    Farra Trompeter addressing the crowd

    At first, I was skeptical.  Isn’t the whole purpose of fundraising, development, and communications work to try and reach the most people with the best messaging?  Maybe it is a part of it.  There are 7 billion people in the world.  What my nonprofit does will not reach all those 7 billion.  As much as I want it to, it won’t.  Instead, we should be focusing our energy on the people we reach now and the people who need to know about us but don’t.  What do they think about us now?  What should they think about us?  What does our organization name say about us?  What adjectives are used to describe us?  What does our website say to our mentoring programs, donors, board members, mentors, mentees, etc?  Are we getting our message across to them effectively? Who are we missing (again, not everyone)?  How can we reach them specifically? (P.S. I don’t know the answers to all of these questions.  You can bet I will be talking to my team about them though!)  🙂

  3. Our donors need to be a part of our development plans.  This was a resounding message I heard throughout the day.  We need to cultivate better relationships with our previous, current, and prospective donors.  Current donors, send them a thank you note.  Make it personal to them.  Hand-write it even!  Show them that their donation is impactful.  They’ll remember that note when it comes time for the next funding cycle or for a special funding opportunity.  They may even increase their gift in the future! Don’t be afraid to ask them, “Have you thought about your future funding priorities? How can we be a part of it?” Bold, I know. Our funders will understand that we want to know about their organizations/corporations/foundations and we want to build a relationship with them that rewards both of us.

    Workshop presentation on Resourcing Innovation

    In one workshop, a presenter said, “When you go out and ask for money, you get advice. When you ask for advice, you get money.”  Mind. Blown. As someone relatively new to the big world of resource development, this statement was profound. How many of us have written grant proposals for RFPs and have received standard letters of rejection back? How many of us have invented new proposals to try and fit within a grant criteria because we are looking for new funding sources that might work for us? Instead, wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to ask a donor to come help us develop that new program or new idea? Having donors at the table will allow for indispensable advice—advice we may have not gotten by simply asking for money outright. This allows for a richer and deeper relationship with the folks who help us keep our organizations running. And, isn’t that what we all really want?

Those are my top three. I’m sure I could write so much more about many other helpful hints and tips I heard throughout the day. It was an incredible conference. I even emailed Mai-Anh (our Executive Director) halfway through the keynote to tell her that the conference was worth every penny. I can’t wait to dive in deep and learn more about our organization’s development plan and begin to build better relationships with our current and prospective donors. I can’t wait until the next person asks me, “What do you do?”

Boy will they be in for a great conversation!