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Why the Prophetic Model of Fundraising Doesn’t Work

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By Abi Sterne, V.P. for Jewish Experience & Director of the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience, Hillel International

Fundraising requires a paradoxical balance of audacity and humility. It requires both describing a seriously challenging situation or social ill, while also displaying an immense amount of optimism and vision for creating a brighter future.

In many ways, fundraising is like prophecy.

The most satisfying and effective fundraising meetings don’t start with a pitch. Much like the prophecies of the Bible, they start by pointing out a problem and presenting an alluring vision.

What is a vision, and why is it so important? Seymour Fox and William Novak wrote, in a small book called “Vision at the Heart”:

A vision is a vibrant entity. It’s a portrait of ideal human beings shaped by education—an image rich and exciting enough to guide your future choices. A vision is inspired by your belief about human possibility, while being influenced by your experience of human fallibility.

An educational vision must be able to answer certain questions: What kind of people will graduate from this school, camp, or other educational setting? What will they understand and believe? How will they behave? What will they know how to do? In what ways will they be able to contribute to the community? And what qualities, intrinsic to your vision, will enable them to keep growing and learning?  

While this is a description specifically of an educational vision, it defines a vision more broadly. A vision is meant to help us understand what kind of world we are striving for, and how the people in that world will be living. A vision – just as presented by countless Biblical prophets — is intended to give us a sense of hope about the future, and a clear picture of what that future looks like.

Unlike prophecy, however, the best fundraising pitches do not offer all the solutions. The best pitches do not present a clear “if you do x, then you will be rewarded, and if you do y you will be punished.” Rather, they present a problem and vision, with only partial ideas for how to move from problem and achieve the vision.

My best fundraising experiences have been those in which I can articulate a clear vision and a clear problem or obstacle to that vision, but not a complete solution. The presence of a vision — a goal — and the absence of a solution provides an opportunity for a true conversation and ultimately the most fruitful collaboration.

The failure of most prophets was, in fact, that they all too often laid down a gauntlet, an ultimatum, to their people. Rather than bringing their people along with their vision — rather than introducing the people to the problem and allowing the people to help solve it creatively – prophets generally provided a take-it-or-leave-it vision for the future.

Fundraisers can learn from the experience of the prophets. They can present a vision, but can and should also invite “their people” – i.e. the potential funders – into the conversation. Invite the potential funders into the process of solving the problem and building the vision. Think together with the potential funder about how to create the future that you both want.

Move from a prophetic model of fundraising, to a more collaborative and ultimately more successful model. The paradox of fundraising lies in the ability to have a clear and certain idea for the better future, while also engaging real questions and uncertainties and planning with the donor.

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