5 Leadership Lessons from My First Fundraising Teacher and Mentor

I began my higher education career at Lindsey Wilson College. It was there that I had the privilege to work for Dr. John Begley both during the latter years of his presidency and the early years of his chancellorship. As a Methodist minister and college leader, Dr. Begley practiced what he preached. The following principles are just a handful of the many lessons I learned from him. He and leaders like him all do these five things well.

They Set Clear Expectations

On my first day as a fundraiser for Lindsey Wilson College, Chancellor John Begley (See “The Begley Era) gave me this Hartman toiletry kit as a gift. It was his clear way of reminding me that my job was to be on the road visiting with alumni and friends. It set the expectation.

He would often say that development officers are “conspicuous by their absence.” In other words, development officers are expected to be out seeing donors and people will assume you are not doing your job if they see you around campus a lot.

They Show Their Staff They Care

Dr. Begley talked a lot about “active” caring. It is an important part of the Lindsey Wilson College Mission, and something all faculty, staff, and students at Lindsey Wilson understand well. He would say that you can tell people you care about them, but it means little if you never show them. So the other thing this gift told me was that my job and I were important to the college. He could have given me a discount store toiletry kit but instead, he gave me one of the more expensive on the market. (It is still the kit I use today, nearly 20 years later.) Yes, he and the college expected me to travel, but they wanted to ensure I had the best tools and support. Life on the road can be difficult and lonely. Having to deal with a cheap toiletry kit that breaks apart the first time it’s stuffed into a suitcase, getting shaving cream or toothpaste all over my clothes, needed to be the least of my worries.

He wasn’t cheap with us and he also didn’t want us being cheap with ourselves. He wanted to make sure we took care of ourselves on the road. I remember him telling me that while we should always be respectful of the institution’s resources, I needed to eat healthy meals on the road and not fast, cheap food just to save the school a few dollars. Yes, he actively cared for us, but I know he also understood that keeping us healthy and happy was the best way to continue getting good work from us.

They Lead By Example

Dr. Begley had me tag along on some of his visits so I could learn with him before going it alone. The lessons I learned from him about meeting with donors are lessons I used my entire career and teach today. And it wasn’t just the donor visits where he mentored me. He took me to the place where he bought suits to show me what a quality suit and tie were. He showed me where he would get his shoes shined before going on visits. He took me to his favorite restaurants for taking donors.

Our Vice President at the time, Guy Adams, also led by example. I remember he would leave campus most Monday mornings, not to return back to campus until Friday. He would criss-cross the tri-state area visiting donors all of most weeks. We worked hard to keep up. He never asked us to do anything he wasn’t willing to do.

They Provide Training and Support Ongoing Professional Development

In addition to their personal teaching and support, Dr. Begley and Guy saw to it I attended some of the best fundraising conferences and trainings across the country. Panas, Dunlop, Sturtevant were just some of my early teachers. I received an informal PhD in fundraising from the thought leaders of the day. I attended my first CASE conferences and the Williamsburg Institute. When I needed training in writing grant proposals as the chief Corporate and Foundation Relations officer, they sent me to D.C. for federal grant writing training and to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (before it was the Lilly School) for general grant proposal classes. If they were going to have high expectations of me, they understood I needed quality training in return. And you can bet their investment in me made me feel valued and appreciated.

They Set You Up For Success

Once Dr. Begley felt I was ready to make donor visits alone, he chose whom I would visit on that first trip. He made sure to fill my day with positive visits. He even added one donor to my list he knew would make her annual gift during my visit. Sure enough, she handed me a $1,000 check just before I left her home. It was my first gift as a development officer. He knew I was used to rejection after years as an admissions officer. There would be plenty of time for that. These first visits needed to be confidence builders and an opportunity for me to practice my style in a welcoming, understanding environment.

Do these 5 things as a fundraising leader and watch your staff flourish.

PS I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some other mentor leaders from my LWC days: President Bill Luckey, VP Kevin Thompson, the aforementioned Guy Adams, and admissions consultant Jeremy Lord. I will write more about them in future posts.