Jennifer McCrea is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University and the founder of Exponential Fundraising (www.jennifermccrea.com). For the past 25 years, she has partnered with philanthropists, board members and nonprofit leaders to think more creatively and collaboratively about ways in which to align strategic direction and resources to address some of the most profound needs on the planet: improving health, caring for children, relieving global poverty, educating the leaders of tomorrow and supporting the transformation of people and organizations to enable the emergence of a just, peaceful, compassionate and sustainable world.
Jennifer has worked with many of the world’s leading nonprofit organizations and leaders, including Millennium Promise, Acumen Fund, Donorschoose.org, Grameen America, Council on Foreign Relations, Teach for America, Pencils of Promise, Witness, Mercy Corps, Comic Relief, X Prize Foundation, VH1 Save the Music Foundation, Creative Commons, VisionSpring, Robin Hood Foundation, New Profit, and many others.
Jennifer is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, serves as an advisory board member of the MIT Media Lab and the Blue School and is also a co-founder and board member of the Quincy Jones MusiQ Consortium, an organization that unites leaders in the music industry, nonprofit organizations, corporations, foundations and philanthropists to make music an ongoing part of the lives of children.
She is also a co-founder of the Business Leadership Council for a Generation Born HIV Free, an initiative of the MDG Health Alliance that brings private sector resources and acumen to the goal of eradicating mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015.
In September 2013, Jennifer’s book, The Generosity Network, written with philanthropist Jeffrey C. Walker, will be published by Crown Publishing at Random House.
My first job out of college back in 1988 was as a college fundraiser. I needed a job, this opportunity was available, and I was excited to work for my liberal arts alma mater, which had given me so much in my life. But I knew nothing about fundraising or about nonprofit work in general. So I was eager to learn.
My first day on the job, the college president, himself a former fundraiser, told me something I’ve never forgotten. “Jennifer,” he said, “always remembers that money can’t be raised sitting behind a desk.”
He said this sitting behind his desk.
My boss made it clear I was expected to make 300 face-to-face visits that year for the college. So I dutifully hurled myself out into the field and started to call on alumni in the territory to which I’d been assigned—New York City, then in the financial heights of the go-go 1980s.
Six months later, following what was probably my hundredth visit—I remember the moment with utter clarity—I was walking down Fifth Avenue telling myself that I had made a terrible mistake and picked the wrong profession. Fundraising was awful, difficult work. A miserable slog.
My legs and arms felt like lead weights as I dragged myself back to my nonprofit-sized Manhattan hotel room. I’d been making one call after another, talking with scores of perfectly nice people about the good work of our mutual alma mater, asking for a financial donation, and getting one friendly, polite rejection after another.
I sat on the bed, completely deflated. And even more, I was confused. Confused because I knew that everything important and meaningful that needed to be done in our world—not just educating the leaders of tomorrow, the mission of my alma mater, but also improving health care, feeding hungry children, easing poverty, and saving the environment—needed the energy and passion and commitment, and, yes, the money of people who cared deeply about these causes.
Yet channeling those resources seemed incredibly difficult. It made no sense to me. Who wouldn’t want to devote their resources to such worthy causes?
I sat there wondering, What should I do next?
I made a decision that night in my little hotel room. I was going to try something different. The next day, at my scheduled breakfast meeting with a successful young banker named Peter, instead of selling what we were doing at the college . . . instead of hauling out the blue prints for the proposed new science building . . . instead of trotting out all the important statistics about why a liberal arts education is so important—I would concentrate on understanding how and why Peter truly wanted to make a difference with his life. Just like I did.
I tried it. And suddenly, everything about my work changed. Suddenly, it wasn’t about me selling him. The meeting became part of an open-ended, unfolding journey. I discovered that I was interested in learning what Peter cared about. We talked about his life, his work, his dreams, and his passions in a way few people get to do in the course of an ordinary week. And in the process, Peter learned some things about himself. The meeting was alive and creative and more joyful than any I had experienced before. It led to many more meetings between me and Peter and a co-creative partnership that made a big difference in the life of the college and in both of our lives.
That call was a game changer for me.
I’ve come a long way since then. I would guess I’ve made 6,000 face-to-face visits in my (so far) twenty-five year career. And in essence, they all follow the same pattern as my conversation with Peter. Two people sit down together and have a deep conversation about their lives and about what they can do together that might be creative, exciting, rewarding, and fun. In most cases, we’re able to come to a shared commitment to make something happen together—often not something we can define in that first meeting, but that we discover mutually in the days and years to come.
In the process, I’ve discovered that there’s a huge difference between a nice exchange—an interesting conversation between two people who learn a little bit about each other and come away saying, “That was really nice”—and a deeper conversation that leads to a shared decision to explore what a relationship might look like.
And here’s something fascinating. When I describe this approach to others from the nonprofit world, they sometimes respond skeptically, saying “Busy philanthropists don’t have time for that.” But the truth is just the opposite—that’s all they have time for!
The reality is that, when I visit someone to talk about a cause I’m passionate about, I know that I’m at least the tenth person in that person’s office this week trying to “share a good idea” with them. They’ve heard it all so many times it’s very hard for them to care. But what they will care about is a conversation that makes them say, “Wow, there’s something here that I’m going to learn about myself.” If I can set that tone in the first meeting, that half-hour will lead to many more hours spent together—and often some amazing shared experiences on our mutual journey through this world.
My first boss’s wisdom remains true: “You can’t raise money sitting down at a desk.” It’s our fear of actual human interaction that keeps us from doing all the work that needs to be done. So I’ve learned, little by little, how to break out of the prescribed role of “fundraiser” (meaning “salesperson,” “supplicant,” or even “beggar”) which creates so many barriers, and instead make real connections with other people, human being to human being. And the results are so much more amazing, and unpredictable, than anything I could have predicted.