Last Christmas I was with a young and very talented fundraiser from the University of Missouri Kansas City who was giving me a ride home in a storm. As we turned the corner to my condo, she asked me what I thought made a good fundraiser. You know, when you’ve been in the business as long as I have you get this question a lot. Ethics, guts, aggressive behavior, fearlessness, commitment, passion. . . all are answers one might give. But then it came to me. CURIOSITY.Yes, Curiosity.Questions build relationships. Interest in others and in what they are doing gives you insight into their soul. My good friend now passed, Oliver Elliott taught me so many things, but the first was that it was okay to ask questions. The ground breaking question to ask all who you encounter in a fundraising environment, “How did you become successful?” is well known by those who follow me. And don’t just ask it because I suggested it, do it because you care about the answer. When I asked this question of Oliver, he told me he could give three to seven percent more than others of his net worth because he didn’t borrow money to finance his investments.My new good friend is Jim West of Pittsburgh, Penn. He is a great entrepreneur, businessman, and activist. I asked Jim about how he became successful, and he told me the story of himself as a young boy in the second grade whose teacher commented to his mom, “Jim will never be anything more than a shoe salesman.” Can you imagine hearing that as a child or parent?Jim told me then, “I have spent the rest of my life proving her wrong.” He has not only succeeded as a businessman, but as a father, husband and community leader. I am a better person because I got to know Jim West. He has taught me how to value an apartment complex, the investment risks in commercial real estate and the pride of a father. Jim knows I raise money for a living and he is a big supporter of one of my clients. But more than that, Jim knows I am interested in knowing him.Frank Barton, who probably single handedly launched me on the career that has served me so well, was one of the co-founders of Rent-A-Center, now commonly known as RAC around the world. Frank became my son’s godfather, and his wife Patsy who is still a close friend became his godmother.Upon my asking him if he would like to invest in a publishing company I was going to start, he told me, “Bob, you can’t afford the rate of return that I would expect. Stop buying those Jaguars and Mercedes and put your own money in it.” Now more than ten years later that micropublishing house is worth several hundred thousands of dollars and it is all mine. (Thank you, Frank!)What does this have to do with fundraising? Everything!I listen to how people become successful, I can measure a company that isn’t leveraged, I respect people who were humiliated early in life and overcame it, I understand the pitfalls of debt, and I could go on and on. When I listen, I never cease to learn something important, find amazement at unstoppable resilience, or be humbled by an “obvious” life lesson I’ve somehow missed, even at my age.My good friend Murray Blackwelder, who is probably the best fundraisers in America, visited with me at my summer place in Maine for the Fourth of July. We have worked and known each other for 30 years. We like swapping stories of the past.He remarked, “How do you remember all those details and stories of our past?”His wife, Diane, said, “Bob is curious.”I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but “curious” is one of my favorite. I have spent a great deal of time absorbing, valuing and cherishing others’ life stories of their failures and successes, struggles and moments of grace, disappointments and dreams.I’m a lucky man to have crossed paths with so many interesting and qualified teachers. They have made me the businessman, fundraiser, and person I am.Want to be a Major Gift Fundraiser? Be curious.What do you think makes a good fundraisier?
Photo credits: National WWI Museum
President and Trustee
The Sunderland Foundation
Recipient of the
2018 GROWING PHILANTHROPY AWARD FOR TRANSFORMATIONAL CAPITAL PHILANTHROPY
Kent Sunderland was presented with the prestigious Growing Philanthropy Award in Kansas City by Hartsook President and CEO
Matthew J. Beem during National WWI Museum and Memorial’s VIP event, Night at the Tower.
He was nominated by Matthew Naylor, Ph.D., President and CEO of the National WWI Museum and Memorial, and was selected unanimously by Hartsook Institutes and the International Board of Visitors Growing Philanthropy Committee.
Kent was Vice Chairman of Ash Grove Cement prior to its recent sale. As President of The Sunderland Foundation, he has played a significant role in advancing philanthropy with major gifts.
The Growing Philanthropy Award recognizes a distinguished group of individuals and organizations whose efforts increase philanthropy through research, innovation and challenging the status quo. For more information, contact [email protected].