The Dating Metaphor

Major gift fundraising is a lot like dating.  There are a lot of potential matches out there.  You have to find them AND meet them and convince them to spend some time with you.  They have to get to know you, the warts and wonders of you.  You have to get to know them.  You have to figure out if you’re good together.  You take a couple of big steps together.  Work on a project.  Meet each other’s friends.  The fear of rejection is always hanging over you.  You take the plunge and pop the question…

Also, it’s hard to figure out what to wear.
It’s a *lot* like dating, in fact.
It’s not the only metaphor I use for fundraising, but it’s a really useful one.  And you can extend it pretty far.  (Polygamy – getting in bed with several donors at once without a clear plan for juggling all their needs.  One night stands – the donor who’s infatuated with you, makes a huge gift without much prompting, but has no interest in committing further.  The Ex (and The Other Woman) – the donor who was committed to you but was lured to another, similar organization for one reason or another.  I could go on.)  Suffice it to say, we’re going to run with this.
But I want to say a little more about why it’s so useful to think about major gift fundraising as “dating.”
  1. Hopefully, it’ll make you smile, maybe even laugh (though I suspect my writing is sort of a soft-snort-at-best wry humor).  That’s the idea.  You’re reading this because fundraising is stressful at times.  Let’s poke some fun at it.
  2. Dating is really stressful, or have you forgotten?  If you’re long married (or commitedly, blissfully single), maybe you’re looking in your rearview mirror through a rose-colored, soft-focus windshield.  Shake it off.  There were some good times, yeah – when a date goes well, when you have that first kiss and can’t stop smiling for hours, when you see nothing but possibilities with someone because you barely know them, when you’ve had a really great sleepover – but the process is crazy-making.  And painful, and personal, and unpredictable, and overwhelming at times.  But almost all of us keep at it, because the good outweighs the bad, we get better at it, we think it will be worth it in the end.  Which we sometimes forget about fundraising, but it applies there too.
  3. If you’re a young fundraiser (professional or volunteer), take heart!  You may not have a lot of experience doing formal development work.  But fundraising is really a lot like dating, and negotiating friendships, and navigating familial relationships.  You’ve got experience with all of those things, to different degrees.  You just have to figure out how to apply everything you’ve learned in your own life to your fundraising work.
  4. Fundraising is all about relationships.  And the things that are important when you’re dating are the same things that are true in development.
    • You’re going to have a hard time being really successful until you have a real sense of who you are.  Organizations that change themselves for every hot donor that winks at them have the same problems as that guy you know who slips on a different identity every time he finds a new girlfriend.
    • You have to be OK with rejection – and sometimes be the one who lets your date down easy.  It’s not necessarily a reflection on either party, it’s a mature appreciation that you can’t be all things to all people.  Sometimes, it’s a pleasant date, but it’s clear you’re not right for each other…and that’s OK too.
    • It’s easier to meet the other person’s needs if you communicate well.  There’s a lot of frustration to be found in dropping hints and hoping your partner is a mind reader.  Or thinking that it’s a good test of your partner, to see if they “get” you – can they figure out what you want without being told.  True story, I know a girl who had The Perfect Ring picked out by the time she was in high school…and for a long time, she thought it would be the perfect test of a suitor – if he proposed with The Perfect Ring, she’d know it was true love, and if he didn’t, well… Sounds ridiculous that way, doesn’t it?  Fortunately, before anyone actually attempted to propose to her, she figured out how dumb that was.  But I’ve seen many professionals get stuck in their conversations with donors, chattering on and on about the big project that they just need an angel donor to kick into gear, silently hoping that their donor will take the hint and get down on their metaphoric knee and beg to be made the happiest donor in the world.
    • Quantity and quality both matter when you’re looking for partners.  You’re going to have to go on a lot of dates.  Most of them work out.  One great way to hedge your bets is to go out every night.  Meet different folks for coffee, cocktails, dinner, dessert.  Five to six nights a week.  At the same time, you want to do everything you can to make sure you’re spending your time with the right folks…looking for a Catholic wedding?  Why are you on J-Date?!  It’s worth figuring out some characteristics you’re looking for and using that to narrow down your search.  And never underestimate the power of getting friends to set you up.
So the next time you binge on a rom-com marathon, explain that you’re having a professional development retreat.  Take notes.  (Most Hollywood movies are paragons of how not to date, and let’s not talk about gender tropes in popular cinema…but hey – object lessons come in many forms)
Next up: How to get a first date.

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