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Story 11: Learning to Lead

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The Fundraising Process

Written by Mike Spock

I discovered early on that I was not very good at asking individuals—people who had personal fortunes—to give us money. However, I was pretty good at approaching colleagues—people who earned their living by giving other's people money away.

Our successes initially came from such folks as Bill Bender at the Committee of the Permanent Charity Fund, or Fred Kresse bringing a draft proposal of a multi-media classroom kit to a new grant officer at the United States Office of Education, or Jim Craven, our Jamaica Plain state rep, stopping by at the opening of the new Visitor Center. They were looking for places to get some impact for their effort and money. We were just off-center enough to have caught their attention.

Timing was everything. We became nimble at learning about new, soon-to-be-advertised federal and foundation programs and got to the head of the line. We became good at learning the interests of program officers and creative in drafting applications that matched the museum's interest in starting programs and projects that matched the funders' guidelines.

Later the managers and Anne Butterfield became famous for mounting exploratory trips to Washington and New York with what we began to refer to as "walking papers" in hand. Armed with these outlines and conversations, they became very good at writing smart proposals with reasonable budgets, and, therefore, the museum became extraordinarily successful in getting them funded.

Writing a proposal was always seen as a form of planning, a good way of figuring out and then sharing those plans within the museum and among potential funders. What were our goals and costs, and how did we propose to make the plan real?

Even if the timing was not good, delaying action on a plan or requiring a better set of guidelines, hammering out a rough working paper was money in the bank. When the right timing or right foundation did finally make sense, a walking paper could be turned into a real proposal without much delay. Having a string of ideas or walking papers tucked into our briefcases, ready to go, allowed us to grab and act on these pregnant opportunities when they unexpectedly appeared. Some of these ideas had been marinating for many years before we could act, but in the meantime we had no compunction about walking away from marginal ideas because the funding just didn't fit our vision.

By contrast, meetings with potential individual donors were a time for listening—not talking or selling. These conversations gave lots of useful information about what turned each prospect on. It took several years for me to learn that lesson of listening. After that fundraising became a pleasure, not a chore.

Next: The Decision-Making Process