Leesa Harwood: The best fundraisers are bold in the face of failure

Embrace your mistakes and disasters, and make sure you learn from them

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

Fundraising is tough. It’s a binary business. Fundraisers either hit budget or we don’t. And when we don’t, our failure is there for all to see. Your triumphs and disasters are published year after year in management accounts and the annual report. It’s a transparent, accountable world.

I have interviewed hundreds of candidates for fundraising roles and, as I look them square in the eye, I always ask them one thing: "Tell me about your biggest fundraising failure."

This is not a cruel attempt to humiliate them, but a way to make sure that failure, and all its implications, sit comfortably with them. I want to know if they can hold their fallibility lightly under scrutiny, because this is one of the requirements and signs of a good fundraiser.

The best fundraisers light up when they talk about failure, shamelessly exploiting it to learn and improve. Occasionally I encounter people who are just as keen to share their stories of failure as they are to talk about their successes. Not because they are reckless or irresponsible, but because they want to push boundaries, test the limits and find out the best ways to do great things.

There's a temptation to hunker down, play it safe and stick to what we know. Fear feeds paralysis and stops innovation in its tracks

They know that you can make a game-changing, paradigm-shifting difference only if you are willing to make mistakes along the way. Unless we embrace failure, we will never learn to get back up and carry on. We will never evolve beyond our existing constraints, assumptions and ways of working.

It’s hard to be a fundraising warrior, pushing boundaries and testing limits. It takes energy, focus and discipline. It takes faith, too: in yourself, in your team and in your charity, because you risk your personal and professional credibility to break new ground.

But there’s a fog of uncertainty and it’s getting harder to see the fundraising horizon. We’re losing faith. There’s a temptation to hunker down, play it safe and stick to what we know. Fear feeds paralysis and stops innovation in its tracks. Fundraising warriors are boxed in or moved out of organisations.

After all, what kind of organisation would innovate in the face of such uncertainty and risk? What kind of leaders would encourage paradigm-shifting thinking and fearless innovation when they should be taking cover as the storm clouds gather? What kind of organisation would risk failure and expose itself to the critical cynics at a time like this?

It’s true that this is not a time for reckless risk-taking, but playing it safe in today’s fundraising environment equates to managing risk and managing decline. It’s a tricky balance to strike. Do we stand still until the fog clears instead of testing new income-generation strategies? Do we stick with what we know instead of risking ingenuity? Do we restrict the innovators instead of equipping them? Do we avoid failure instead of embracing it? No, we don’t. Because fundraising has never been about sitting out the tough times.

Fundraisers are warriors by nature. They operate out in the open where there’s nowhere to hide. With encouragement, support and guidance from their leaders they will thrive in a challenging environment and do their best work during times of uncertainty.

So don’t box your pioneers in. You’re going to need them. Let them thrive. Let them innovate. And when they fail, support them and help them back up so they can get it right next time. Raising money to change the world is a tough job. Only the fearless need apply. But we all know that the benefits far outweigh the risks. It’s why we do it.

Leesa Harwood is a fundraising consultant

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