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?
Will You Be There When John Shamberg Calls?
A big part of fundraising is showing up and being available. I learned this lesson on a very memorable New Year’s Eve, a very long time ago.
As an eager young fundraiser working for Washburn University, I didn’t know that it was unusual still to be at work in the evening of December 31st. But, there I was.
Earlier that year, a graduate of Washburn University School of Law told me he was going to give a gift of land to his synagogue, a private K-12 school and Washburn. John Shamberg, who has since passed away, made millions of dollars for institutions all over the world, and he wanted to give a significant gift to organizations he valued. His 40 acres of land on the outskirts of Kansas City were valued at $450,000, and his intention was to give $150,000 each to three organizations.
He’d left the task to the last day of the year, but now he was ready to make it happen.
He called the synagogue. No answer.
He called the K-12 school. No answer.
Then, he called Washburn and got me.
“Bob,” he said, “you just won the jackpot!”
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