Vulnerability is a big word. It has twelve letters and many connotations, depending with whom you speak. It’s also a word I used to fear. Being vulnerable meant leaving myself open and unprotected, travelling into unknown territory. Quite frankly, it was my least favorite state of being.
Philanthropy is also a big, twelve-letter word that means something different depending with whom you are speaking. Unlike vulnerability, philanthropy has been a word I’ve confidently lived with for the past 30 years. Despite the constant “I just don’t know how you ask people for money” comments from faculty and friends, philanthropy is my happy place.
I want to share that embracing the existence of vulnerability as a fundraiser, and an advancement leader, has been a key to my success. Without recognizing and embracing the power of vulnerability in my daily work, I’m not as effective.
The big reveal I’m here to talk about is that most of you reading this, all you passionate and successful fundraisers and leaders, are functioning with vulnerability every day, though you may not realize it!
If you’re thinking, “Nah, that’s not for me!” I want you to open up your thinking about acknowledging and embracing the existence of vulnerability in your life. If you do, I promise you will be more successful.
So what do I mean with this big, sweeping statement? How can I back up this advice? Let’s break it down.
My specialty is in major and principal gift fundraising. I reach out to successful people and ask them to give me their time in the hope that, ultimately, they will also give to support a great institution. These people don’t know me and, usually, I don’t know them. In some cases, I’m the first person they have spoken to from their alma mater in years. These people who greatly value their intellect, time, and treasure are willing to give me the time of day. Pretty great gig, right?
I strive to make good, if not great, first impressions. To do this, I open myself up to the possibility that I will be judged on how I represent the institution. Prospective donors are shrewd individuals (a mark of a successful person) and can tell if I am sincere, actively listening, and knowledgeable about my institution. In this exchange, I am asking them to trust me, find me credible, and deem me worthy of investing their time. My end goal is to identify their true philanthropic passions and values to align them back to my intuition’s mission.
Hmm. That sounds like a pretty vulnerable and potentially intimate relationship taking shape.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to demonstrate my point by sharing two donor stories.
I first began at my institution, over two decades ago (!) as a major gifts fundraiser. Thinking back, I had a lot to learn about being vulnerable in my work from the start. After reviewing my prospect list, I went for the big one, reaching out to a woman who was at the top of a male-dominated industry and one of my graduates. I secured the meeting and headed into New York City to meet her. We sat down at her conference table. I introduced myself and started going through my prepared questions. She gave short, impersonal answers, and within the first ten minutes of our conversation, I had run out of things to ask. I searched my internal toolbox, realized I had nothing left and was completely taken aback by how little this person wanted to share with me. I honestly don’t remember how I got through the rest of the 45-minute meeting, though I suspect I doubled back in the hopes that she would expand on her answers during a second go-round. In a last-ditch effort, I asked how she felt about funding a scholarship. During the first meeting! I left and wondered if this was the right profession for me.
The more mature (and hopefully wiser) me looks back on how the younger me thought she had it all figured out. She was planning to hit a home run with a great prospect – and I wish she had a do-over. I wish she would have felt comfortable saying to this prospect: “Wow, I should have prepared better for this meeting. I am new at this type of fundraising, and your time is valuable. What should I know about you to be able to engage you with my institution in a meaningful way?” I could have used her advice, and she likely would have given it. But I wasn’t open to this sort of vulnerability at that time. If I had been, I still wonder where that relationship would have gone.
Let’s contrast that with a three-hour donor lunch I conducted jointly with a Director of Development on my team. The donor was stuck. They wanted to make a gift, but they had hit a roadblock in their gift discussions. First, credit to the DOD for allowing herself to be vulnerable in admitting to me, her boss, that she was stuck. The donor was also stuck and feeling vulnerable because he could not convince his wife to join him in the commitment. I showed up, ears open, heard their concerns, learned what was important to them, brainstormed what might be possible, and collaborated with my DOD to create a path forward. By the end of our lunch, they were asking us to draft gift language.
I don’t know about you, but sitting still anywhere for three hours is a challenge for me. But when I’m in the zone, doing work I love, facilitating philanthropic conversations and being my authentic – and vulnerable – self, the time flies. There were several occasions over our lunch where I had to admit not knowing an answer but promised to get back to them. By creating this open, human environment for discussion, the couple was able to articulate their true philanthropic passions.
Let me pause here and acknowledge what I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking: Lavinia, this is just best practice as a fundraiser. And I admit I am not a super woman. I am merely someone who loves what I do and is willing to show up and (most days) be vulnerable to get the best results possible. This doesn’t just go for my donors – I use this mindset as a manager, colleague, and peer. I truly believe that when we take away pretenses and bring our authentic selves to the table, anything is possible.
The work that we do as fundraisers, put in the simplest terms, is people’s work. We can plan as much as we want, but we don’t know all the variables that donors bring to the table: their concerns, hesitations and even their fears. We need to meet donors where they are and move at their speed. Gauging this speed takes active listening and patience on our end, and an ability to be vulnerable on theirs. At any speed, I must show up and allow space for vulnerability on both sides.
So, I say to my fellow fundraising leaders out there – own it! Own your vulnerability; embrace it. Wear it like a superhero cape! It is part of what we do, and I believe it’s essential if we want to be successful. Explore what vulnerability means to you. Jump in and see what marvelous things can happen.
Lavinia Boxill is the Vice Chancellor for Advancement, New Brunswick. She is a member of the Chancellor’s Cabinet and the Rutgers University Foundation’s Executive Leadership Group. Lavinia has contributed to the growth and success of Rutgers University for over twenty years and has over thirty years’ experience in fundraising.