Three things loneliness in the fundraising task has taught me

This week I participated as a panelist for an “All-Star Major Gifts Workshop and Symposium.”

John BryanMy friend John Bryan organized the event, which brought together about 20 world-class fundraising professionals to talk about their craft to a crowd of about 80 Richmond-area non-profit CEOs, development officers and board members. John asked me to talk for five minutes on the topic of “Front-Line Loneliness.”

As a newbie to the fundraising craft, I was a fish out of water.  I’ve been grateful for John’s guidance and support as I’ve tried to learn over the past couple of years. When we met a few weeks ago, I confessed to John that loneliness is one of my greatest struggles in raising money for Belltower Pictures’ first film. John said he and every other fundraising professional he knows experience loneliness in the task from time to time. So he asked me to take part in the symposium and talk about loneliness and how to overcome it.

The work is not finished. I’m still trying to figure it out. But here’s what I said:

I never wanted to raise money. I’m a filmmaker, not a fundraiser. Somehow, I thought, the money would (as one other panelist said) “show up in my office and surrender.” It didn’t happen. So I had to accept the job kicking and screaming like a 5-year-old: “I don’t wanna!” But if I wasn’t willing to do the work, the film was not going to happen.

So I saddled up and went to work. It didn’t take long before discouragement and loneliness formed a thick cloud around my head. I felt the weight of success or failure for the entire enterprise sitting on my shoulders. It felt like nobody cares as much as I do. Nobody wants to hear one more pitch… one more ask for money. People don’t return calls, answer emails, or respond to letters — even hand-written ones! Pretty soon I was in a full-on pity party, sounding like the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore: “Woe is me.”

I’m alone and adrift.

I’ve discovered, however, that loneliness is not necessarily a bad thing. It can lead to introspection and contemplation. And that can lead to more sharply focusing on what I’m doing and why.

The first thing the loneliness-induced contemplation taught me is to remember the goal.

I recently heard a quote from the great filmmaker Orson Welles. He said, “I spent 95% of my time raising money for my films and 5% of my time making the films.” But nobody remembers Welles for his fundraising. What we remember is that cinema classic, “Citizen Kane.”

We’ve all likely heard the story about the man who came upon a construction site where three people were working. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the man replied, “I am laying bricks.” He asked the second, “What are you doing?” and the man replied, “I am building a wall.” As he approached the third, he heard him humming a tune as he worked, and asked, “What are you doing?” The man stood, looked up at the sky, and smiled, “I am building a cathedral!”

The second thing I’m learning is to ask for help.

John Bryan, who is recognized as one of the best fundraising professionals among arts and culture organizations in Richmond, has been so helpful. So have several others. I’ve discovered that those who are best at helping people to be generous with their financial resources are themselves most generous with their time, advice, support, and encouragement.

Third, and most significant…

I was sitting in church last Sunday. Wasn’t really paying attention. Probably wasn’t the only one. All of a sudden it hit me… like a light bulb coming on in my head. It was the First Sunday of Advent. I was sitting among a congregation of people… all connected with each other and with all of creation… and in this service of worship, all of us were acknowledging the ultimate antidote for loneliness: God is with us! He came and put his arms around our shoulders and said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you.”

Maybe I was paying attention after all.

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