My introduction to fundraising came when I started working for a major art museum in Brooklyn, New York. Since this was my first exposure to the field, I was fascinated with the many donors I met who, for me, represented ‘quiet wealth.’ I had so many questions, among them: what does it take to be a donor and what motivated them to be so generous to this particular art museum? Were they art historians or aspiring collectors? Were they interested in knowing more about art preservation or influencing public programs.
As a 25-year old trying to assemble the pieces of the fundraising puzzle, I quickly realized donors were highly coveted and commanded most of our attention. Their opinions were sought, their time was viewed as precious and they were made to feel special. For me this was an a great position to be in – money + time = influence. I remember feeling at the time, that’s how I want to be treated.
At the time, I didn’t quite understand how the needs of beneficiaries impacted philanthropy. In my naiveté, I also created my own narrative around how “easily” fundraising worked and could sum it up in 3 easy steps: (1) sharpen the mission + (2) identify funders + (3) make a compelling ask = SUCCESS (aka money magically appears.)
Shifting My Gaze
After 8 years I left the museum to work with non-profits that advocated for access to education and equal rights on behalf of marginalized groups. In my new world, conversations were different; focusing more individuals who were on the margins of society and for who a timely donation could eventually make the difference between life or death. For the first time, fundraising seemed more challenging.
I watched exceptional nonprofit leaders struggle to raise money and awareness for their cause. Prospective donors were not always moved by the plight of marginalized groups advocating for access to: quality education, healthcare, affordable housing, competitive wages and an inclusive work environment. As time passed, I asked why aren’t the ‘3 easy steps’ working and where are their ‘coveted’ donors?
Broadening My Perspective
For the next 20+ years I advanced the work of a museum that was moving into its first home, an educational foundation supporting needy scholars in the Caribbean, a business improvement district, a national bookclub, a national civil rights organization and a nonprofit dedicated to helping clients recover from substance abuse. As a dedicated community advocate and volunteer, it has been my honor to support a major teaching hospital in Brooklyn, NY, one of the world’s largest service organizations with more than 1.4 million members across the globe and the Brooklyn, NY Chapter of the nation’s first civil rights and social justice membership organization.
Lessons I Learned Along The Journey
I now realize that a broader understanding is needed in order to fully address the challenges faced by organizations whose beneficiaries are marginalized and/or underrepresented. The leaders of these organizations have a harder time being seen and heard in the philanthropic community. Often times, the beneficiaries they serve are judged more harshly by many in our society and their nonprofit peers.
I believe nonprofit leaders are fiercely committed to the work they do and are worthy of society’s support. From experience, I have seen how some can be made to feel invisible owing to the clients they service. Most leaders have visions that exceed their capacity but they keep on going. With the proper resources and investments, they will be will poised to strengthen their philanthropy for the future.
For nearly three decades I have supported some of New York City’s premier nonprofits. These experiences have afforded me a front row seat to many of the highs and lows of fundraising. I’m honored to be on this journey and to the work I have been called to do.
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