DickersonBakker Blog

Three Lessons I Learned from a Legendary Fundraiser

The world lost a legend last month. Jerry Panas wasn’t a celebrity, a politician, or an athlete, so the media paid little attention to his passing. But in my world, Jerry was a legend—one of the greatest fundraisers of all time. His books and teaching helped shape the careers of countless fundraisers ~ including my own.

I accepted my first fundraising job at the tender young age of 24. An attorney friend from church saw something in me he recognized as raw fundraising talent, and recommended me for a job with an organization he served as a Board member.

Though excited for the opportunity, I had no idea what I was getting into. Equipped with little else than a phone, a computer, and a business card, I had zero experience in fundraising, knew little about it, and received no training or orientation whatsoever from my new employer. I was completely in the dark.

Fortunately I found a mentor to be my guide. And one of the first things that mentor did was to send me to Chicago for a week-long training session with Jerry Panas.

That week in Chicago changed my life. Jerry’s teaching coupled with the coaching from my mentor made it apparent that fundraising was a strong fit for my unique set of gifts, and helped to launch my career with just the right start. Twenty-eight years later, I’ve now had opportunity to work with hundreds of non-profit organizations, helping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofits across the United States, Canada, and around the world.

As I think back on those five days I spent in Chicago learning at the feet of Jerry Panas, three lessons still stand out:

Never be afraid to ask. Jerry literally wrote the book on Asking. Not only did he teach me how important it is to ask, but he also taught me to ask well. He made us role-play asking while he watched, and then patiently talked us through how to say it more artfully. He made it clear, however, that there was no such thing as a perfect ask. “Just do your best,” he’d say, “because the only bad ask is the one that never happened.” Some are always going to be better at asking than others. The most important thing is that you ask, and that you do it with enthusiasm and sincerity. That’s what matters most.

Little of consequence would ever have been accomplished in this world without someone having had the courage to ask. ~ Jerry Panas

Never underestimate the extraordinary power of an incisive, thought-provoking question. Too many fundraisers seem to think that the way to win gifts is by being quick on their feet and saying just the right thing at just the right time. That’s just not how it works. Donors aren’t easily wowed, and certainly not by a fundraiser’s brilliance. One of the most important and enduring lessons Jerry taught me was to guard myself against coming across as glib in my presentation to donors. Asking good questions can be far more effective than having a ready answer. Asking good questions turns the focus away from you, shows that you care about the donor, and helps you understand what will motivate them to give.

The true art of asking lies in listening. ~ Jerry Panas

There is more to this work than meets the eye. Many people think that fundraising is a cushy job. You get to have dinners, lunches, and meetings with important and interesting people. You may have opportunity to travel, attend fancy soirées, and play golf. Once you hit your stride, you can kick back and work a 24-hour workweek as long as you make your numbers. It all sounds great! Too bad it’s not true. Fact is, top-performing fundraisers get to where they are by working long and hard. I like to say that the secret to success in fundraising is to follow the Rule of 3C’s: see the people, see the people, see the people. Managing a hundred or more donors, this translates into a tremendous amount of shoe leather on the street, fighting traffic and/or slogging through airports day after day. Add in late nights writing proposals or donor reports to meet a deadline, hours spent on the phone getting appointments, evenings or weekends attending networking or fundraising events, plus office time for expense reports and other administration, and it adds up to a whole lot of work. It’s not easy, and to succeed, one must have high energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to do “whatever it takes” to get the job done. Jerry Panas didn’t just teach me that fundamental truth about fundraising ~ his boundless energy and indomitable spirit epitomized that work ethic throughout his 60-year career.

Only three ingredients are needed to be a successful fundraiser: Hard work, hard work, and hard work. ~ Jerry Panas

Jerry was a giant in our field, and it saddens me that he has passed. I take heart in knowing that not only did he impact thousands of lives by helping to raise an enormous amount of money for many worthy causes, he also had a tremendous impact on the careers of countless fundraisers like me who seek to follow in his footsteps. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind. In fact, it is my hope and prayer that the same may be said of me one day.

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