Gillian Smith Demystifies the Wonderful World of Fundraising

 fundraising superheroes gillian smith
 
 
Fundraising is a hard job. It takes more than skill and knowledge. You have to be a special type of person to succeed in the fundraising space. 

Fundraisers are motivating, determined and charismatic to invite people to become supporters, and, in my opinion, that takes a lot of work. Whether you’re a volunteer or an employee, the best way to learn is from experience, and that is precisely what today’s guest Gillian Smith learned after years in the industry. 

Gillian Smith, like many, stumbled into the fundraising space. Having worked as a consultant, board director and senior advisor, she has plenty of experience as a volunteer fundraiser. Through her many years in the industry and working with incredible leaders, she realized that fundraising is only as hard as you make it. 

In our interview, Gillian breaks down the greatest fears in fundraising and discusses 
  • How not to take a "no” personally 
  • Why a sponsor is more valuable than a mentor
  • The valuable experience you receive volunteering and, 
  • The qualities that make a fantastic fundraiser 

Official Transcript 

Sabrina
Our newest guest, Gillian Smith, joins us on the show today to talk all about volunteer fundraising and how you can get started in the space.

Hello and welcome to Donor Engine's Fundraising Superheroes podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and Donor Engine is an All-In-One nonprofit software here to help you drive success. Easy to use and efficient aren't just buzzwords to us. We truly live by these terms and want to help you find success within your organization. Please give us a visit at DonorEngine.com to learn more or schedule a demo.

So how did you learn how to fundraise?

Did you find a mentor, or maybe you stumbled into a fundraising position and were pushed into the deep end head-on? Today we talk with Jillian Smith, who has worked as a senior advisor, consultant and board director. She has 20 years of experience under her belt and she's here to demystify fundraising and make it fun. Thank you so much, Gillian, for joining me on the show.

Gillian
Oh, it's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Sabrina
So can you start off by letting our audience know how you got started in the fundraising space? How did you learn how to fundraise?

Gillian
Yeah, well, look, I've been a volunteer fundraiser now for almost 25 years and the honest answer is I stumbled into it. I was starting out by volunteering on a small, not for profit board. And one of the first things they asked me is, can you help us raise money? And so I did a lot of fundraising as a kid for selling cookies and UNICEF's penny drives and all that sort of stuff. But I didn't realize that fundraising at the outset.

I didn't realize that fundraising was such an integral part of being a volunteer here as well.

Sabrina
I remember like we used to knock door to door to sell those Girl Scout cookies. And it was really interesting looking back and being like that was fundraising. Like, I used to think that it was just me selling cookies. When you look at the bigger picture, you know, it really is about building relationships with people through those programs and, putting yourself out there and picking up those skills along the way.

Gillian
Totally. I would tag along with my mother when she used to go canvassing for heart and stroke.

And it was just something that my mother and her friends is just something that they did. And so for me, it was just natural. Of course, this is something that you do. But again, just like you, I didn't think of it as fundraising per say, but it was my mom walking around the neighbourhood, talking to her friends and getting five dollars friends.

Sabrina
Yeah. And you could even do it. It's so easy to go on Facebook and, you know, put a fundraiser on your page like I remember locally, the 519 in Toronto, like I saw that they're struggling at the beginning of COVID 19. And it took two seconds to just log in and post that fundraiser and support them. So it's pretty cool how simple fundraising is nowadays.

Gillian
Yeah. And how pervasive it is. Right. So I think it's a couple of things like one, the ease with which that you can do it and do it through through your mobile is one thing. But I also think it's because I seem to think that it has also something to do with the fact that we've got so many more entrepreneurs amongst us. Right. People who are bootstrapping their own businesses. And while it's not fundraising for philanthropic purposes, it's for sure fundraising.

Right. They're out there raising the cash that they need to build their businesses. So it's just more common. Like way back in the day, fundraising for hospitals and things like that was sort of the dominion of the ladies who lunch. But now it's everybody.

Sabrina
Yeah, it's so accessible when you got started. Were there any misconceptions you had? Was there anything that surprised you when you got into it as a volunteer?

Gillian
Well, I didn't know what I didn't know at the time. And today people have the benefit of things like the Association of Fundraising Professionals. There are certifications and accreditations and college courses like there's a ton of ways that you can learn about the art and science of fundraising. So the misconceptions I had were things like, oh, well, fundraising is hard. Well, fundraising is only as hard as the mental blocks you put in front of yourself or the fear that you have of doing it.

But fundraising itself at its base is about relationships and it's about connecting the dots between someone's passion for a topic and their capacity to be able to support it financially. So the misconceptions that I had were simply ones of youth where I just didn't know what I was doing. But I was well-intentioned, had a big heart and was looking to help out organizations that I was involved with. But along the way, I've learned from professional fundraisers the dos and don'ts of how to do fundraising well.

Sabrina
And that's really the most important thing, is finding people who are passionate and then they learn the skills in the way. You can teach somebody how to do fundraising, you could teach them how to reach people, build those accounts, but you can't teach them how to be as passionate towards your cause as you are.

So I think that the reason why so many people just stumble into it is because you really need to have that drive to be a fundraiser. It's hard work. At the end of the day.

Gillian
It's really hard work and it can be dispiriting at times.

But as a volunteer fundraiser, the thing that comes first is the passion for the cause. If the reason you're helping out and giving your most precious asset, which is your time, it's your only asset, in fact, that you have. If you're investing your time in something, you've already pre-committed your passion for it. So, getting others to support and see your passion for it and to catch the bug and catch the fever. Although I probably shouldn't use those words in pandemic times, but to get excited about it like you are, it comes more naturally.

Sabrina
Oh, one hundred percent, it totally shows when you were getting started. Was there anything that helped you along the way? I know for me, one of the things that I found really valuable is finding a mentor. Did you have a mentor in the space? How did they help you?

Gillian
If so, so I had many informal mentors along the way and I'd say one of them was the CEO of the small organization. I started out with because he was fearless. He had no compunction whatsoever about asking straight away for the support he needed to run the organization. I was so taken with him and how the confidence that he expressed how articulate he was and these will go to support this, that and the other it was so compellingly clear that I always wanted to just record him and listen to it over and over again.

But so he was an informal mentor along the way. But a mentor is an interesting word, because if you're thinking about it, if people listening to this or thinking about the development of their own career mentors are wonderful. Those who will impart knowledge and help you along your own career path. But I also encourage people to think of another type of person as someone who's your sponsor as opposed to your mentor, because a mentor will talk to you and will impart their wisdom and guide you.

But a sponsor will talk about you and promote the wonderful person that they've just met to their network. And so you need a combination of both. You need mentors to learn from and sponsors who will be your champion in the wider world.

Sabrina
So it really goes back to the whole core of networking. It's always relationships. Every podcast interview I do, we always end up talking about relationships. But it really is because it's that important not only building relationships with donors, but other people in the industry so that, yeah, yes, you can learn from them, but also build that network and they can learn from you and then exactly like you said, advocate on your behalf.

Gillian
That's right. Yeah. It's and so long as you're so long as you approach it with absolute authenticity and always looking at how you can give as well as what you will get that reciprocity, then people are willing to give you a hand. But you have to be a person. I've always said that I'm a person. I'll say what I'll do and I'll do what I say so people can rely on you. So if you commit to something, you know the people around, you know that you'll follow through.

So if you keep that in mind, networking can sometimes be construed as a, you know, in a negative way. But if you approach it with authenticity and reciprocity, it doesn't have to be.

Sabrina
For people who are also looking to get into the non-profit space, how crucial is it to volunteer with other organizations and learn from them as a volunteer?

Gillian
I think pretty crucial, you have to start out first by picking what your passion is. So for me, I've always been drawn to causes like arts and culture, like education and literacy, like social justice, because they mean so much to me. But what I found over the course of years and from volunteering from so many different organizations that almost irrespective of the cause, there are lessons that can be shared across the not for profit industry.

And so things that I've learned volunteering with the Library Foundation, Toronto Public Library Foundation, were as applicable to the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund as they were to the Ontario Science Centre. So that sort of cross-pollination now, after having done it for years and years and years, becomes beneficial to every organization that you serve. So it's it's learning about the organization in and of itself and what makes that particular organization tick. But it's also thinking about how it is as a not for profit in the not for profit space.


So there are two ways that you can cut into it and two ways to learn.

Sabrina
So when they're starting out as a volunteer, if somebody is fresh. What do you recommend that they do once they enter that organization, are there things that they should be taking initiative with or is it more of, you know when you're just starting out, you kind of just join and ride the wave and see where it takes you?

Gillian
Well, it depends on the terms under which you've joined. Right. So if you've come in to help with a fundraising drive, you'll help out in that regard. But if you've joined, for instance, if you joined the board of an organization, likely you've joined as a volunteer with a certain skill set and you're participating on certain committees, fundraising being potentially one of them. So there may be a bit clearer path, but it doesn't matter how you join an organization, you need to do the due diligence of getting to learn it as best as you possibly can.

So reading the annual report, talking to the staff, talking to the board of directors, understanding where the organization wants to go and how you can use your talents to help them out.

Sabrina
How can organizations support their volunteers being a volunteer fundraiser, I'm sure that you've been in situations where you likely did that really well or have known places where you wish maybe you got more support. So what can organizations do to provide a great experience for their volunteers?

Gillian

Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, the first thing is to be really clear about expectations. So tell your volunteer how many hours of their time you really need. Don't lowball it. If you actually need somebody to commit 10 hours a month or whatever it has to be, be honest about it. Because if all of a sudden your volunteer who thought it might be an hour or two a month, is now devoting 10 hours, that's not going to be a great experience for them.

They may have suggested a different way than they could support you rather than devoting that much time to it. Similarly, and particularly if a volunteer is joining a board, be very clear on what the financial expectation is of a volunteer. So I've been in situations where they haven't disclosed to me that there is a minimum donation expectation for joining an organization. So I was caught by surprise that they were asking for as much as they were asking for and really didn't appreciate it.

So if I'm not asked by the organization, I will ask to say, is there a minimum threshold of giving or do you expect giving by one hundred percent of the board, which personally I believe in? What are the rules of engagement? Because the last thing you want to do is surprise and potentially embarrass a volunteer.

Sabrina
Yeah, it really does matter that they are understanding how you respect them just as much as they are looking forward to working with you. I interviewed Denny Young and he said the same thing about boards because one of the most important things, when you’re bringing somebody onto a board, is knowing what the requirements are, how dedicated they are because they're adopting your organization. So going back to our conversation, of course, now, looking back, of course, that will also apply to your volunteer, because if somebody is giving their time and their resources, it's really important that you also respect their boundaries.

Gillian
Exactly. That's exactly it.

Sabrina
So when people are volunteering or fundraising, there is a lot of challenges that come up and it can be hard, especially when you're just starting out to experience a roadblock like a "no" from a big donor or an event falling through. So what is your advice to people who experience their first challenge or roadblock? Maybe you can share one of your first challenges when you were starting off in the space?

Gillian
Well, you know, the first thing to remember is a no to a fundraising ask is not personal. They're not saying no to Gillian. They're not saying no. I don't like you, how dare you. It may be the wrong time for them. It may be outside of their interest. It's not personal. So don't take it personally. You're your obligation as a volunteer fundraiser for the organization is to ask the question and the potential donor's job is to answer that question. That's it.

But the other thing to think about is sometimes no is a donor's way of saying not yet. And so perhaps in asking for feedback on the ask that you've just made, you may learn clues and tips and tricks that may make you successful potentially with that donor next time. Or it might work with a different donor. For instance, I remember I learned from a master of this, a man by the name of Jim Fleck, and Jim had what he called the "Fleck Flinch", which is when he would and he was a fearless fundraiser still, as he would ask a donor for fifty thousand dollars.

And if that donor flinched, he then says, of course, paid over five years. Right. So if it was too big of a pill for the donor to swallow, he just broke it out into increments to make it easier. And I thought that was brilliant when I first saw it. I still think it's brilliant now. So it's don't get disheartened, keep at it. And remember that sometimes for a donor, a no is simply a not yet.

Sabrina
Yeah, I love that you mentioned you should not take it personally, because it's never it's all personal, you know, it is a relationship, but obviously, there's different factors besides your specific ask that contribute to somebody's declining. But I love the idea of Fleck's method of just like really reading a person their body language, how they respond to you. Is there anything that a fundraiser can do before they go into an ask, maybe before they even start the position to help prepare them for their role?

Gillian
Well, research, of course, so really understanding the person who's going to be sitting across the table from you or across the Zoom call from you. Have you learned enough about that person to really understand what's important to them and how the cause you're championing fits into their donor profile? So the more research you can do, the more knowledgeable you can be about the potential donor, the better the greater likelihood of success. So that's not rocket science.

That's just basic due diligence. But that that preparation and also during the meeting, reading those signals, remember, Mother Nature is the smartest one of us. She gave us two eyes and two ears and one mouth. And all of us should act proportionately to listen and to look and absorb more than you talk in that meeting. Let the donor talk because they will tell you what's important to them. And it's really important to listen if you get a yes from them, it's important because then those are clues of how you want to steward that relationship.

And if they say no, it's equally informative because it gives you clues on how you might be successful next time.

Sabrina
So definitely going back to leadership, it also growth and taking everything one day at a time and also being willing to learn from your mistakes.

Gillian
Absolutely.

Sabrina
Well, Gillian, unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. I would love to thank you again so much for joining us on the podcast. You gave a ton of amazing advice, and I know our listeners will really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us.

Gillian
Oh, it's my great pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Sabrina
Well, thank you so much, Gillian, for joining us. Gillian is the chair of this year's gala for the Walrus and if you're not familiar with the Walrus. They are a really cool media platform that values informing the citizens of Canada but also has some great stories that I know of interest to our American viewers. Gillian actually ran for MVP a few years back and she wrote a fantastic article that is published on the air about what she learned after losing the election.

So I highly recommend you guys check that out again. All the stuff that I just talked about will be linked in the description box as well as our social media. So if you're interested in learning more about the podcast and see previous episodes or just want to stay updated on the new episodes, drop, please check out our socials @donorengine and give us a follow, we'd really appreciate it.
 
Thank you so much for listening to Fundraising Superheroes, we'll see you next time.

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