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Fundraising Olympics: What good athletes and good fundraisers have in common

I am a sports fan (or fanatic, some might say); there are only a few events or games I won’t follow.  These two weeks, as I sneak in as much Olympic coverage as I can justify, I am thinking about goals, results, and the motivation that drives so many athletes to spend hours, days, and months preparing for a few minutes of competition every four years.  Only a small percent will win medals, but every athlete hopes to achieve a “personal best” on the Olympic stage.

As I look across the landscape of non-profit philanthropy (where I’ve spent almost 40 years as a practitioner or consultant), I’m struck by the similarities between good athletes and good fundraisers.  Here are a few that come to mind:

Commitment.  No athlete gets to the highest levels of competition without extraordinary commitment.  Many athletes know they will never win a world championship or an Olympic medal; their commitment is to doing their very best work in a sport they love.  You’ll find that same kind of motivation among the best fundraisers, who share a commitment to the mission of their organization and a passion about matching donors with that mission.  Great fundraisers want results not because they will be awarded a prize, but because they appreciate the joy that comes with giving.  They know that a gift is meaningful to the donor and to the institution, and they take internal satisfaction in helping to create that meaningful experience.

Being coachable.  No matter how much experience we have, we can always get better.  The best fundraisers are open to discussing trends, strategies, successes, and failures.  They use coaching to hone their skills, consider new approaches, and plan for success.  They don’t think that their past achievements will carry them to new levels of performance.  They look to coaches – colleagues, donors, institutional leaders, consultants – to sharpen their focus, provide external perspective, and offer insights that will help them achieve greater success for their organization.

Knowing the difference between goals and results.  Athletes have an infinite number of goals: shaving 1/10th of a second off a time, completing three rotations on a triple loop, finishing fifty practice sets of push-offs without a fall.  They know that every activity, often done over years of practice, will help them achieve better results.  The same is true for good fundraisers.  They know that meeting specific goals for certain activities will provide the best chance for good results; they know which activities should be goals (such as number of personal contacts with prospective donors, or number of thank you calls to annual donors), and how meeting those goals will yield results.

Those are just three characteristics that athletes and fundraisers share.  I’m sure there are more: persistence, patience, self-motivation, thick skin, and a healthy ego also come to mind.  What would you add?

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About the author

Kathleen Kavanagh

Senior Consulting Vice President

Kathleen A. Kavanagh, Consulting Vice President, joined Grenzebach Glier and Associates in 1995 and brings to clients more than 42 years of experience as a fundraiser and consultant at a broad range of colleges, universities, independent schools, medical centers, and cultural organizations. Kathleen works with clients to build fundraising success…