In episode 73 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton and her guest, Cindy Wagman discuss:
Cindy Wagman is the President & CEO of The Good Partnership. She helps small nonprofits raise more money and reluctant fundraisers learn to love fundraising.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Cindy Wagman. Mission: Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Cindy and I talk about how our social norms around not talking about money make it hard for folks to want to do fundraising, some of the common things that get in the way of success for new fundraisers, and how to start building your fundraising muscles.
Welcome Cindy. Welcome to Mission: Impact. Thanks so much for having me. I'd like to start each conversation with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Cindy Wagman: Oh my goodness. I feel like that is a question that goes, it's answer starts so many years ago. I've always been. Involved in the nonprofit sector. I volunteered when I was in high school. When I was in university. I ran the women's empowerment committee and raised money for local women's organizations. It's always been what I would say defines my experiences. So my university, when I look back at university, it wasn't the academics, it was my community involvement. So it's always just been in my blood and I actually am one of the few people who, when I was in university and I said, I wanna be a fundraiser. Most people fall into it. But I knew, and I have really, my only professional job has been a fundraiser until I started consulting and now I help other fundraisers.
Carol: What was it that made you decide, I wanna be a fundraiser?
Cindy: So, It's fun. Funnily, I met two people who were professional fundraisers in the same summer. I never knew that that was an option growing up. It wasn't something we talked about. When don't you talk about what, what do you wanna do when you're older? So I was working and there was a regular. I worked in the cafe slash home decor store and there was a woman who was a regular. Dan is her name, and she came in and we would always chat and she was a fundraiser. And at the same time I started dating someone who is now my husband and his aunt was a professional fundraiser. So that same summer just hit me in the face.
Carol: Which is cool. That is, I would say definitely unusual. Trying to even think of what would have been my first connection to, I did work in one of my work study jobs at college, working in the development office or the advancement office. I don't remember what they called them. Typically I think I. I filed donor reports. Mm-hmm. It was back to paper, paper and files. Oh, I remember that. So I did a lot of alphabetizing. Oh God. I don't think I learned a lot more about fundraising, but while I was doing it, except of course that keeping track of who your donors are was important.
Cindy: I remember when we used to have to dial in the monthly donations and press the credit card information with the keypad on your phone, on your landline to process all the monthly gifts. So I've been, I've been doing this a while, but it's cool. I have to say one thing as I look at my story and how I came to this work. It makes me very happy to see my own kids think about what they wanna do when they're older. And aside from like be a world famous soccer player, my one son is very much he is like, I wanna, I wanna run a food bank, or I wanna do, he's already thinking about charitable work, which
Carol: That is awesome. My daughter after doing a gap year where she did AmeriCorps and did City Year, she ended up in the nonprofit sector and, and now is just moving over to the Phil philanthropy side in terms of giving away the money instead of mm-hmm. Raising the money. But,so, so you work with small nonprofits on their fundraising and most people. Don't decide right. When they're in college to become a fundraiser, or even when they, when they start an organization or they join an organization they may not, put their hand up or maybe they don't move back fast enough. Exactly. Why would you say it's so hard for people to do a fundraiser?
Cindy: So this is a huge problem in our sector because most people don't wanna fundraise, and it's not just in our sector. I always tell the story, like, and actually my husband tells a story because I didn't remember it as well as he does, but we were at a wedding, a friend's wedding, and we were just chatting with people and, talking to, oh, what do you do? And when I said the word fundraiser, it. People had a physical reaction and like that, it shut down the conversation.
And so we have these pervasive stories about fundraising and money, both in society in general, right? Like you, polite conversations do not include talking about money. And so that makes our jobs a lot harder. But then in our sector we have this sense. Money is taboo or even, I mean, there's so many different stories around this work, we don't do this work. It's not about the money. We should be. I hear a lot of people saying we should be volunteering our time. I've actually had people ask me, oh, so you're a volunteer, like you volunteer? So all of that adds up.
And I think increasingly we have these stories about what philanthropy looks like, which generally is becoming in the public eye a sense of really big donations, millions multi millions, hundreds of millions of dollars donated. And so I think. Means that for you and I and the rest of us like normal people, there's a further gap between what, how we see ourselves and our contributions as philanthropists or how we see our generosity in our commitments to our community. And so I, when I introduced myself as a fundraiser, aside from people just not wanting to talk to me they don't understand what it is, I. They don't see it as relating to their lives. They say, oh, you're just gonna ask me for money, or they ask if I'm an event planner, which I'm not. So, it’s vastly misunderstood. And our brains as we grow into the people that we are, our brains develop shortcuts and patterns that keep us safe and familiar. And what that means is often our, like, if we have these stories about fundraising being bad, our brain is gonna tell us you don't wanna do that. And so we don't.
Carol: And yet, If we really want to have functional organizations somebody's gonna have to bring in some revenue. So what, what, what do you, what would you say helps people move beyond their reluctance or move beyond some of those stories?
Cindy: Absolutely. So I would say that meeting donors is a big one, very often. Project our own feelings and beliefs onto other people. So I think things, stories like, our donors are so fatigued who wants to stay for soccer? Okay. So we project onto other people our feelings and beliefs about fundraising that we just talked about, how we develop those. And so we don't want to, we see, we write the stories for donors before we get to know them. And so getting to know your donors, meeting people understand. When I say I have a donor meeting, most people think of asking for money. But I just mean getting to know your supporters, individuals, corporations, foundations. Why do they care about the work that you're doing? That is actually the number one thing I recommend because as we get to know our supporters, we actually get to see that they're much more like us than we think. And they're not these like multimillionaires out there in the world, that everyday people care about what we do. They want us to be successful in our mission. And they're willing to contribute and that starts to change those stories we have in our brains about fundraising and its utility in the work that we do.
Carol: I like that point that you made about, people we read in the news about these big gifts, and I'm blanking. It was the wife of Jeff Bezos.
Cindy: Mackenzie Scott. Mackenzie Scott.
Carol: Mackenzie Scott. Right. So you, we read about her gifts. Right. And we think, well, we can't do that. So what's the point?
Cindy: Exactly, exactly.
Carol: And we think, but what do you say to people around, around that story?
Cindy: I mean, listen, Mackenzie Scott is doing some really cool things around Absolutely. Philanthropy and power to her. But That's not the lifeblood of organizations. And when I present to a board of directors or when I used to work within organizations, like the number one thing I would hear people say is we don't know anyone who can give. And because we're thinking, I don't know anyone like Mackenzie Scott or I think I think Harvard like as of today, just got a huge gift, like massive. They renamed a school after this donor. But it's like, of course we don't know people like that. I don't know people like that.
But most of the generosity that I see in organizations comes from people who are already known to the organization. I've had donors who give $250 a year, eventually give $250,000 or who give 10,000 who end up giving. A hundred thousand right now. Those are big dollars for smaller organizations. We think we don't know these people, but chances are we do. And even if someone doesn't have the capacity, I mean, I can, this, I can get on a soapbox and talk about just because someone doesn't even have the capacity to give a hundred dollars, let alone a hundred thousand dollars, their gift is still really important to organizations.
And I, I actually wrote a thesis on this 20 years ago talking about the value of Engaging your community in giving so that they have ownership over the work that you do and you're accountable to them. And so often I see organizations make decisions on behalf of the communities that they serve, which I think is an incredibly disempowering act. So, Every dollar I think is important. And I think the act of giving is a very meaningful one for all of us to engage in, to build the world that we wanna, that we wanna live in.
Carol: Right, right. So what are some steps that would be used? Would you say that people can, can, can take to move through? I mean, I, I had said move beyond, but I'm like, well actually maybe it's, you just need to move through some of those stories or that projection that you're doing on, all the fears that I have about asking someone for money. Onto the donor and why they're there. What are some things that have started?
Cindy: There's, there's a couple things. I mean, the first thing is awareness. And like if you, if anyone's ever seen a therapist or gone worked with a coach like you have to. Be self-aware. You have to do the work and understand, because all of our stories are individual to us. They're, they come from the houses that we grew up in or the environments that we grew up in and our experiences and the people around us and how their influence on us. So we have to understand our own origin story and that usually, like you can do it on your own, but sometimes it's helpful to have some help with that.
So understand what your origin story is, and then you can start to see these false narratives. And then as I said, my favorite way to reverse those narratives is to meet with your donors, get to know them, and that process can be really simple. So often people get caught up in Who do I meet? How do I reach out to them? How do I have a conversation? And in reality, it's actually so, so simple. So who to reach out to? Who is the least intimidating for you? What is the path of least resistance? These meetings are like having these meetings are like a muscle. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. So if it's easiest, I literally have worked with organizations who said, oh, well my aunt made a donation last year. I'm gonna start with her great monthly donors, board members, whoever. I just want you to start and get in the habit and reach out.
And my biggest advice around this is tell donors what your intentions are and follow through. So tell them what to expect and then deliver on that. So, for example, you're gonna tell them, what we're, I'm trying to get to know our donors. I really wanna understand why you support our work, and I want to hear from you about why this is important to you. And you have a meeting and you ask questions that align with that purpose. And if you're ever in a position, this is a tangent, but if you're ever in a position to ask someone for a donation face-to-face or at a meeting, you are going to tell them when you book the meeting. I would love to talk to you about a contribution or can we meet to talk about a donation so that again, you are telling them what to expect and then they're following through. So that's a side. But for this, the purpose of this, you're not even asking for money. You're just saying, I wanna get to know you. Will everyone say yes to a meeting? No. Is that okay? Absolutely. Find the people who are gonna say, And then have a conversation.
The best fundraisers are curious. So you can have a couple like starter questions or spark questions I call them that's kinda like, oh, tell me about how you first learned about this work. Better work. Or, tell me about why this work is important to you. And then just listen and have a real conversation. And that's it. It is. Simple. The magic is when you do it over and over and over again and you get to know your donors, you get to know them once, but then you can reach out and say, oh, it's been a few months since we last spoke. I'd love to catch up. And you start to build those relationships. And again, I'm not just talking about major donors. I'm talking, All your donors, obviously you might not be in a position to meet with them always all the time, but you wanna have a good sense of where your champions are, who's really passionate, and give everyone in your donor base the opportunity to deep, more deeply engage with you, with you and your organization by just inviting them that first.
Carol: When you said start with someone that's like the least intimidating, it makes me think back to when I started this podcast. Mm-hmm. And that's exactly what I did because it felt like a big thing to do. I mean, now by the time this episode comes out, it'll be, we'll be in 70 something episodes. But,I thought of like, who were five people that have no, I have no anxiety about having a conversation with, and even then, that very first one, I was nervous. I was so nervous before the conversation. So,it's so true about like start, make it, make the stakes low and then start building that muscle, that habit, that,that practice. exactly. I really appreciate it.
You also talked about setting expectations and that you would've actually told someone. When you get to the point where you're asking them for money, you've given, you've let them know it, they're not being sideswiped, they're not being surprised. Those people at the wedding, you can tell, tell them, calm down because my practice is that I would've told you. Exactly. I was gonna ask you for money. Exactly. So it lets everybody know what the purpose is.
Cindy: I have a friend, his name's Kipp. And I met him actually through work. Just, he supports a number of organizations that I have been involved with over the years. And every now and then we'll go for lunch and he'll say, okay, this organization just asked me for a coffee. What does it mean? And it gives him a donor of like decent means. I would say He is definitely not like,off the charts, but he gives substantially to organizations and it actually causes him anxiety when he's like, what are they gonna ask me for? And he tries to decipher and decode all of the stuff and like, is this, what do, what do I expect? And he wants to be prepared.
And so I, I'm such a fan of transparency and letting people know, and by the time, like if, if you say it to someone, and again, most people don't actually ask face-to-face in small organizations, it's actually not a dominant fundraising strategy. But if you are doing major gifts or face-to-face asking and they, and you say, I'd like to talk to you about a contribution, and they say yes to the meeting, They're not likely to say no to a gift. It's really then a question of how much and what's meaningful. And so that I just, I think it's so critical to build that trust with your donors and to really make them feel like they're part of a community. And that you trust and respect them in the way that you also, you are asking them to trust and respect you.
Carol: Right? Cuz he's anticipating being invited for coffee.
Cindy: But like, can you give to us this year? And like, sometimes the answer is no. And honestly, like he has I mean, the one thing I'll say, getting to know your donors is like, Feels bad when he has to say no or when his, and, and no one's gonna give away all their wealth. Even Mackenzie Scott is sitting like she's not going to be comfortable, her lifestyle's not going to suffer because of her philanthropy. Right. So everyone is gonna give, and they're going to, not everyone gives, but who, who the people who are giving are giving in a way that's meaningful and they want to, and it makes them feel good, but also they do have a limit. And if you're putting them in a position where they have to, where you haven't prepped them for the ask It actually makes the giving experience feel bad. And that's not what we want. We want them to feel good about these conversations.
Carol: And I feel like that bait and switch is actually what people think of. It's one of those stupid things that people think of when they're like, Ooh, I don't want to do that. It's, they don't wanna, they don't wanna manipulate people, or they don't wanna pretend that they're wanting one thing when actually they're gonna, oh, by the way,
Cindy: Exactly. It's buying a car, like, oh, and there's so many memes in comedy about this, but, I hate, hate, hate buying a car because you go in, then there's the list price, and then you talk to someone and then they negotiate it down. And then if you're still, then they bring in their manager to negotiate it down. Like, come on, it, it is, it feels icky. And I walk out of there and I think you don't respect me. And this is a game, and I don't, none of us wanna feel that way when it comes to our generosity. So . And I will say fairly, this is a.
Experience that our sector has reinforced, right? There are a lot of fundraisers who still do it that way, and so there's this stereotype, but we can be part of the change to make it a different experience for people.
Carol: What would you say helps people move from being reluctant about fundraising to being more confident in that role?
Cindy: What I think that. Getting a better understanding of what fundraising actually is. So as we sit here talking about these, like one-to-one asks, that is not how most organizations fundraise. It's through appeals, it's through grant writing, it's through, sometimes it's through events. Maybe there's some small events or fundraising. So Get to know your donors and get to understand how they give, like what are also the vehicles, what do they respond to? I'm telling you, most people are gonna respond to an appeal whether it's emailed or mailed or what have you. So know your donors understand what fundraising is and isn't. And the more you do these things, the more you start to see that again, we're all on this journey together to make the world a better place. And if we can be on the same team with that, fundraising's gonna feel a lot better for both the fundraiser and the donors.
Carol: You mentioned fundraising, isn't this, that, or the other? What are some of the misconceptions or what are some of the like, well, fundraising is not X that most people believe it is.
Cindy: Okay. So the big ones I get all the time. All the time, especially from boards. One is like, we just need to go ask the companies for money. In Canada, it's the big banks or whoever, like, we need to ask the big companies to give us money. And I think that the idea behind that is very much they're not gonna miss the money. They have it. And so, and it's a corporation, so I don't have to ask someone. And it feels, so there is this idea that like the, the companies are just sitting there. Loads of cash waiting to give it to our organization if only we ask.
That's generally not true. Most giving comes from individuals. Most, funding for, for nonprofits and charities comes from individuals. So that's one big misconception, and I'm not saying that you don't need, like, don't ask companies for money, but understanding how they give and understanding the different vehicles in which they give allows you to be more successful and find out what type of corporate giving aligns with your organization. As I said before, events like people think I'm an event planner. I get that a lot. Events are like the least profitable way to raise money. They have the highest cost associated with them. I have certainly run events in the past, but that's generally not how most organizations, again, are, are raising money. So like within individual giving, there's so many different ways within. Corporate, there's so many different ways, even with events like a big gala is not necessarily like I I, my favorite events are small events where there's like 15, 20 people. And I've done a ton of those. So it's just so much broader.
And the best fundraising again, comes from understanding your donors and how they want, what does a relationship with your organization look like? And also you have to balance that with what's meaningful for your organization and mission, obviously. Those two should be aligned. Otherwise, you're not really on the same journey, right? That's right. So you wanna make sure your donors are on that same journey and that there's alignment and then it's a lot easier to find out what fundraising makes sense for your organization.
Carol: So at the end of each episode, I ask, I have a couple random icebreaker questions here. So. What would you say is one of the best gifts you've ever received?
Cindy: Oh my goodness. I'm a notoriously hard person to buy gifts for. I know. Actually, no. Okay. I am a notoriously hard person to buy gifts for because I usually, if I want, I'll buy it for myself. And I'm very particular about my style and what I like. A couple years ago, actually, I think it was in 2020, it was my birthday. It was a milestone birthday, and my team at work actually got together. It was during Covid. And they got together and they sent me this gift, which was like so bang on. I felt so seen and understood. And so it was a, just like a sweatshirt, like a concert sweatshirt from a band called Veruca Salt. If anyone from like knows from the mid nineties I happened to like a lot of like mid nineties female singer songwriters and like, not Riot Girl, but like Girl Rock stuff. And then they also had custom designs, it's so funny that the custom designed press on nails that were like in my brand colors. Cause I like, I, this was, I was doing my nails at home a lot cuz everything was closed and I'm in Toronto and we were shut down for a very, very long time. So I was like doing my own nails and all this stuff. I'm playing around with that and they know I love branding and like everything being on brand. That was the best gift I've ever received. That's
Carol: Awesome. That's awesome. I will definitely have to look up Ru salt, Ru salt and, and play a little bit this afternoon. So what, what are you excited about? What's, what's up for you? What's emerging in your work these days?
Cindy: So our network is growing. So for the last number of years we've been offering a service called fractional fundraising, which is kind of, Down for you. Long term, long term fundraising with someone very experienced, but only you get a fraction of their time. And this has been working really well with small organizations and so we're growing that network. They're not staff of mine, they're independent consultants, but I teach them how to consult. I teach 'em how to build their business, and I teach 'em how to deliver this service. And I feel like this is an idea whose time has come. We've tested it. There's demand. Small organizations need help.
And quite frankly, hiring inexperienced staff usually adds to their frustration and does not relieve it. And so getting them access to experience. Fundraisers who understand strategy and like to implement and do it at an affordable cost. And like to me it just, it's a win-win all around and it feels really good. So this is what I am super excited about and is a big focus in my life right now.
Carol: That sounds awesome. cuz it's, it's clearly important to come up with the plan, the plan and the strategy, but if you don't have the staff to implement it . Then that . It was nice but not great. Exactly. Awesome. Awesome. Well thank you so much.
Cindy: Thank you for having me.
Carol: I appreciated what Cindy said about getting in your reps. And starting small – who is the easiest person for you to reach out to when you are getting started with fundraising? Who can you reach out to who already supports your organization to further cultivate the relationship? That principle of starting small and working upwards and outwards applies to so many things when you are developing a new skill.
It is why I love Duolingo – I have been learning Spanish very slowly over the past year and the Duolingo app has that very principle built in. Each lesson takes 3-5 minutes to complete. And I just have to do one lesson a day to keep my streak – I am up past 400 days now. Plus they build in all sorts of virtual gold stars and prizes into the process – and really they don’t mean anything – and yet – they keep me moving. So how can you celebrate your small successes along the way?
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Cindy Wagman, her bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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