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How to Stay Optimistic as a Fundraiser

Nov 12, 2020

By Cathy Mann, MA, CFRE


Our stock in trade as fundraisers is optimism.

When I was Academic Coordinator at Ryerson University's Fundraising Management Program, I was invited to speak at a panel each year for the Intro to Fundraising students. The question that the instructor asked every year was: what is one word you would use to describe fundraisers. I always hoped I could go first so I could answer what I answered every year: curious. Because I do think we need to be curious if we are going to succeed at this inspirational, frustrating, awe-inspiring, flawed, and just plain “put your nose to the grindstone to get ‘er done” profession that I am proud to be part of.  But this year, if I was invited to speak on the panel and was asked this question, I think I’d have a new word that I’d share: optimistic.

Who else would enthusiastically throw themselves into a job where you reach out to people every year to ask them to support you in exchange for nothing but a warm, fuzzy feeling – when they could be spending their money on so many other things?

Who else would accept the challenge to work in a sector where the folks you are supporting may not necessarily appreciate the work you do – or even may be actively disdainful of the work you do. (Every fundraiser I know has faced this – and it’s more common in some sectors than others – you know who you are!)

Who else believes in the power of philanthropy to make a difference – even if philanthropy is being asked to reimagine itself right now in the face of a new sense of urgency related to anti-racism and social change.


This is a really hard time to be optimistic.

Lots of folks are struggling: financially if you’ve lost a job; emotionally if you’re at home caring for kids or parents or both while still working – or even if you’re not doing paid work; emotionally if you’re feeling a sense of claustrophobia from being in various stages of lock-down; emotionally at watching the horrible events that have led to the urgency about anti-racism. Those events, by the way, that have always taken place but now they are being shared thanks to social media and they can’t be ignored anymore.

I’ve had days since the pandemic when I wanted to crawl under my desk in the fetal position, put a pillow under my head and a blanket over top of me. If you’ve been there, too, I hope you know we’ve all struggled at various points, despite what rosy pics on social media might be suggesting to the contrary.

If you’re in that boat, I want to share some ways to tap into that optimism that brought you to fundraising in the first place.

Optimism is the burden we bear. Optimism in the hard times is really a test of your mettle.

But how do you keep moving forward in the face of what 2020 has wrought upon us? Here are my 7 steps to keeping your optimism quotient (or OQ) up.

1. Community is important. So I’m grateful to the members of Spark, our online mentoring and coaching community. We've only been at it for a few short months, but I'm seeing folks offering encouragement when fellow community members are feeling low. And I see members accepting that encouragement. I think that’s an important one. I’m not good at accepting support and I know it can be hard. That's my lesson the last few months and I'm still learning how to graciously accept it.

If you don't have a community, join one, like Spark. If that doesn't work for you, create a community. I have friends all over the country and it took COVID for us to realize that we could use technology to come together in community.

Regardless of where your community is, do your best to both offer encouragement and accept support. One is not better than the other. 

This is a bit heavy but related and feels worth sharing (and maybe it's where I'm at right now).

"Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well, can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."

-- Pema Chodron

2. Remind yourself why you got into fundraising in the first place. You got into this field to make a difference. If you’re feeling down, take an inventory of what you have accomplished; list the difference that has been made thanks in part to your efforts. Remind yourself that even if you can’t do as much as you’d like, you’re still doing something. Your organization's mission is being addressed thanks to your efforts.

3. Celebrate small victories. This is important at any time, especially in fundraising. Ours is a profession where we overwhelmingly face failure. Good direct mail response rates have up to 99% of folks not responding to our appeals. In a mature, well-developed foundation giving program, you’ll succeed 1 in 3 to 5 times.  That means you’ll get a no 30% to 80% of the time. In major gifts, it takes 12 – 24 months to finalize a gift in many cases. That means you gets lots of maybes, not nows and nos along the way. In the face of those kinds of stats, you have to celebrate small victories. They help you keep moving on.

4. Do what feeds your soul: walk, hike, bike, watch movies, listen to music, dance your arse off, sing at the top of the lungs, snuggle with your pet, snuggle with your partner or mom, take a bath, and lord have mercy on me for suggesting another Zoom meeting… but have Zoom meetings with your friends where you talk over each other, laugh and cry together because you miss them. I have friends all over the country and the first time we met via Zoom, we had folks on the west coast, the middle of the country, the east coast and the arctic. We couldn’t believe it took a pandemic to get us together that way! With the winter closing in upon us, I think we’ll be doing that again.

5. Subscribe to things that will feed your optimism: I’d love to say get off screen time, but let’s be real – that's not going to happen right about now. So, if you’re going to keep looking at social media, go out of your way to follow SOME things that brighten your day and remind you that there is still reason to be optimistic. Subscribe to feel good things like Upworthiest, DailyGood.org. In fact, if you have something you subscribe to that lifts your spirits and reminds you that you are in the company of other optimists, that reminds you that optimism is still alive despite what it may feel like some days, share it so we can all check them out.

6. Try to find reasons to laugh: Laughter is really important to me. There’s lots of research that suggests laughing releases all kinds of good endorphins – the body’s natural feel good chemicals. So, I want to end with a story that makes me laugh every time I think about it. On the day my 82- year old mom had a mastectomy, she asked me to call her 93-year old sister to tell her the surgery had gone well. I called Aunty Betty. Once she heard the good news, she asked to tell my mom something. "Sure," I said, "what do you want me to tell her, Aunty Betty?" "Tell her," she said, “Keep your pecker up.” Now, in case you think this is crude, it was a common British thing, popularized by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England during the second world war. And my mom and my aunt were young women during the war. My mom smiled a weak smile, even though she was groggy and still dopey from the anesthesia.

So, when you need a laugh, think of Aunty Betty and my mom.

And if you want to hear me and my sister laughing about this story, check out her podcast: https://www.debbiemann.ca/cathy-it-was-all-aunty-bettys-doing/ (Seriously, the laughter is contagious.)

7. Be ok with not being ok: Sometimes, it just sucks. We all have reasons to grieve right now. And grief manifests differently for everyone. If you need to curl up under your desk or binge watch Netflix, give yourself permission to do so. When I was a kid and needed to hide from the world, I would find a closet and just sit in there. I was the youngest of six in a pretty noisy family and some days it just got to be too much. Lately, I’ve been looking at my closet longingly!

Regardless of where you're at right now in your OQ (optimism quotient), I’ll end with this piece of advice that is relevant at any time but increasingly so now: take gentle care.


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