Mindful or Mindless Fundraising



Hana Mandikova, Senior Consultant

What is Mindful Fundraising? The concept first came to me as I reflected on some disappointing moments during my fundraising career. I have watched organisational restructures by new leadership result in the implementation of tried, tested and already failed changes. I have watched my long-term projects with great potential ended because senior management did not see them as sufficiently profitable. I have watched a dear friend, a talented and highly emotionally intelligent individual, leave the world of fundraising because of micro-managing leaders who didn’t recognise their skills. The field is now short of one great fundraiser who just couldn’t cope with measurement of success through numbers.

All of the above have one thing in common:

a lack of mindful leadership. A good leader should give an honest space to those with differing opinions, listen to them without feeling threatened and hear and consider the opinions of others. A leader with respect for their team must practice this. The leaders in my examples did not practice this, but I found myself asking: was it the world of fundraising, with its specific culture and language, that was preventing them?

Fundraising in the nonprofit sector is a unique field that requires two somewhat contradictory skills: emotional intelligence and sales acumen. Successful fundraisers must be able to understand their donors, their interests and passions, and at the same time carefully solicit donations, which essentially means selling the work of their organisations. Sadly, the fundraising culture within many organisations measures and celebrates only one of these, having adopted the business language of financial targets, such as key performance indicators (KPIs) and return on investments. The ‘tell me about a time when you brought a significant donation to your organisation’ is a question most fundraisers will face at a job interview. Fewer questions emerge about the importance of relationship-building, about interesting stories heard from potential donors or questions about missed opportunities. These realisations and contemplations made me consider what kind of changes are necessary.

I was fortunate to become the inaugural recipient of the IncuBetter Award at The Athena Advisors. The IncuBetter Award provides a suite of resources to an entrepreneur to start or expand a business directly related to advancing social justice and strengthening the nonprofit sector. The award allowed me to begin my research into mindful fundraising: I read about mindful leadership and emotional intelligence and I conducted interviews with talented colleagues. I wanted to see whether and how we could bring mindfulness into fundraising. What I learned is that there’s a three-tiered system of responsibility: personal, team and organisational.

Individual fundraisers must evaluate
their own strengths and weaknesses.

The skill set required is broad: we must understand individuals and institutions as well as gather funds for valuable causes that may or may not bring financial benefit to donors. There are challenges in meeting and talking with highly successful donors, listening to their stories and interests, there are challenges in making cold calls and challenges in writing compelling applications. We cannot master all these skills. Knowing our strengths and weaknesses is crucial. So is an ability to ask for help with areas we do not excel in.

Team responsibility is more complicated: it requires support of each other and good leadership. Implementing rules around the language of targets and KPIs creates a team culture, which can then function in one of three ways: competitiveness, collaborative competitiveness or non-competitiveness. Competitiveness, where a manager consciously compares the results of individual team members, works for those who are driven by targets, financial or otherwise, but not those who value strong relationships and prefer to invest time in relationship-building before bringing in results. Collaborative competitiveness, where the leader supports individual targets and KPIs but also promotes support for each other, results in having team members be accountable for their personal targets but also be collaborative. It also requires a leader who knows their teams’ skills and consciously hires people with skills needed for the team’s overall success. This puts a lot of mindfulness responsibility on the leader. Finally, in a culture of non-competitiveness, individual targets are replaced with team targets and there is no comparison among team members. It also requires a team ready for collaboration. Both collaborative competitiveness and a culture of non-competitiveness require mindful leadership and a consideration of team dynamics.

Organisational responsibility goes beyond fundraising itself

and requires a shift in organisational culture and systems. It requires a consideration of how fundraisers are viewed within an organisation as a whole. It starts with the senior leadership, including board members. How are these individuals involved in fundraising – do they engage? And when they’re involved, do they require close guidance, written emails, and detailed meeting briefs? Do they offer their help, contacts and business and leadership skills that lead them to their success? This relationship of senior management and the board with a fundraising team affects the workplace culture and the organisation’s view of fundraisers – i.e., are they viewed as the money-makers who can be blamed for misfortunes or valuable members of the organization who need to be supported and worked with for success? Many organisations have a long way to go to revise their culture. Senior management must lead the way.

Let us bring these ideas back to mindful fundraising. I believe that what is needed can be reduced to one word: compassion. Compassion in leadership means taking time to understand a team as individuals, listen to them and ask challenging questions like ‘how can I be a better manager to you?’. Compassion in relationships with each other means expressing understanding without any judgement. And, perhaps most importantly, compassion towards ourselves, recognising our limitations and not being scared to ask for help. If fundraising organisations practice compassion, better relationships will be made with donors because fundraisers will not act out of the fear of meeting their targets.

This blog is not intended to teach the skills needed to become a mindful fundraiser or a leader. It is a thought process: how can fundraising become more mindful than it currently is? The work of my consultancy firm, MonkeyMind Solutions, implements these ideas through coaching of individual fundraisers to identify their strengths and skills gaps.

I am delighted to work as a consultant with The Athena Advisors, an organisation that strives to bring these ideas to life in their work with mission driven organisations. At The Athena Advisors, we do ask difficult questions such as: how is your board involved in fundraising? What skills do the fundraising team have and what does it lack? However, most importantly, we apply mindfulness in relationships with each other and we never shy away from the difficult question ‘what stresses you the most about our work together?. It is in these honest conversations where the ideas of mindful fundraising plant their roots.