Secrets of the Fundraising Superstars
Six of Southwest Florida's premier fundraisers give us insight into how they operate.
What does it take to be a great fundraiser? The money is out there, especially in Southwest Florida. But you need a special kind of talent to locate and persuade donors. Here, we feature six of Southwest Florida’s best fundraising professionals. Their skills and experiences are different, but they do share one trait—passion for their causes. Let’s listen in on their strategies.
Vice President of Development and Communications, Southwest Florida Community Foundation
In late November, six boxes of Christmas cards sit in Carolyn Rogers’ office at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. “These will not leave here without a personalized message,” she says.
Giving is personal. That’s why she’s taking the time to write something special in the foundation’s cards. She’s had a successful career in development—including time at Canterbury School, Lee Health and the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest—and when she discusses it, she keeps returning to the idea of small, personal touches.
The relationship between donor and cause is an emotional one. It’s why people give. It’s the warm feeling you get when you know in your heart you’ve done a good thing. The goal of a fundraiser is to remind donors of that moment. When Rogers worked at the hospital, she’d occasionally see or overhear something in the hallways—perhaps a glowing comment a child made about staying there. She’d jot it down and send a note to the donor. The message: This happened because of your generosity.
She also goes through an exercise with new donors when she first meets them. She sits them down with note cards. Write three core values and three core interests, she tells them. She finds that it gets people to focus on what’s important to them. From there, they craft a personalized mission statement. It’s that emotional idea articulated that will guide their giving.
For all the small moments in her career, it was the time she thought big that became her crowning achievement. When she joined the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, it was a Rotary event bringing in around $30,000 to help the children’s hospital. By the time she left, it had become one of the largest charity wine auctions in the country, raising around $3 million. It was big moves—a date change and venue change—along with cultivating a board of trustees that was instrumental in raising the bar each year and brining in big-name donors. “If she believes in your cause,” says wine festival founder Dr. Steve Machiz, “she will work tirelessly for you.”
President, Soukup Strategic Solutions
The story happens all the time. Passionate people want to do good. They start a charity. And then, they’re not quite sure what to do. That’s where Sheryl Soukup comes in. After a successful career in the nonprofit world, she’s branched out with her own consulting firm. A major focus is helping with strategic planning, especially when it comes to fundraising. This can be for the longstanding nonprofit that needs to go to another level, or the fledgling charity that needs direction.
A microbiology major in college, Soukup is analytical in her thinking about structure and process. Her gift is helping set a path and then letting her clients walk it on their own.
Oftentimes the hang-up is just in how to start. Her advice is twofold: First, get a good board of directors. A good board will go the extra mile both time-wise and money-wise. If they don’t, then it will be difficult to get other donors to do the same. Second, establish a track record. Donors need to see that their money will go toward what they want it to go toward.
Once money starts coming in, you can begin planning how to use it. Sometimes, her clients think big. Which is great. But you have to start small to get there, like getting the grant that allows you to hire the fundraiser who over time turns thousands to millions.
Underlying all this is passion. It’s what needs to come across for any nonprofit. The goal is to make donors believe in what you believe in. That way, they’re not just handing over a check. They’re investing in a shared passion.
One of Soukup’s greatest accomplishments came before she ventured out on her own. She was the executive director of the Immokalee Housing and Family Services when it was getting what’s now the Timber Ridge Community Center established. The funding came together through grants, donations and partnerships with other agencies. A major gift came through the Naples Children & Education Foundation. When she got the call about the $50,000, it was an overwhelming feeling. “It’s not that they gave the gift,” she says. “It’s that they believed in the dream.”
President and CEO, Conservancy of Southwest Florida
The Saving Southwest Florida campaign had a big vision. It foresaw a transformation of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to include educational facilities and a wildlife clinic, preservation of land, endowment funding and more. In the end, it raised $38 million, almost $20 million more than consultants thought it could. Rob Moher, then the development director, says the key came early in the campaign.
It started with a vision—a clearly articulated and understandable set of goals. But even before that, it started with early support—getting the board members and big donors on-board early. They did it not by putting a hand out, but by working their input into the plan. A healthy start snowballed from there. Moher remembers getting a $4 million donation early, and thinking that their initial $25 million goal, which seemed a touch ambitious, could in fact be attainable. “It was the largest gift in Conservancy history. We knew we could get to our goal and possibly beyond,” he says.
A cohesive volunteer cabinet really drove the campaign, he says. Some of the members stayed 7 years and saw it through to the end. That’s unusual for volunteers to stay that long, but it showed the dedication to the cause, Moher says.
The harmony among staff, volunteers, donors and all the other entities involved led to a successful campaign. Donors made hundreds of gifts, but Moher looks at the top 20 or so large contributions. Those are the big-money, multimillion-dollar ones. Those are the ones that show commitment and momentum and spur others to give. “Those top 20 to 30 gifts can make or break a campaign,” he says.
Now that he serves as executive director, he still plays a role in fundraising, in large part by cultivating and maintaining the relationships he’s had for years. And that’s another major point. The dollar amount is what makes the headlines, but it’s the months or years prior that make that happen. “It’s not just the ask,” Moher says. “It’s about keeping a genuine relationship.”
Chief Development Officer, Grace Place for Children and Families
When Barbara Evans came to America as a toddler, her Italian mother didn’t speak English. Evans knows firsthand how challenging it can be for immigrants to get a foothold in a new country. It can be even more difficult when families face the burden of poverty—something she sees in her work at Grace Place for Children and Families.
Grace Place specializes in providing educational programs to children and families in Golden Gate. Evans joined about five years ago and has helped usher the organization into a new era. “Their stories really speak to me,” Evans says of the families who frequent the campus. “In development, you have to be passionate about the mission. That’s the difference between a good fundraiser and a great fundraiser. Donors can tell if you’re not passionate.”
Grace Place looks like a small high school—multiple buildings for educational classes and a food pantry, at about 33,000 square feet total. When she arrived in 2012, there were two buildings and four portable classrooms. Overall, it was about a third of the size. So was the budget. The biggest issue she faced was awareness. At the time, people just didn’t know the level of need in Golden Gate. She assembled a team of volunteers, and together they made connections to other passionate people. Soon, a network of support formed that they continue to build on.
Evans did face a big decision recently. Her husband’s work brought them to Sarasota. But she didn’t want to leave Grace Place. She plans to stay, working remotely some days of the week and making the trip on others. “I’ve found that something that I’m passionate about,” she says. “It’s like my baby. I can’t walk away from what we’ve been building. It’s a special place.”
Director, Naples Winter Wine Festival
One of the trustees of the Naples Winter Wine Festival gave its director, Barrett Farmer, a piece of advice that she’s never forgotten: “Laugh during the difficult times.” Hence the BS button. It’s a big red button that rests near her computer. Slap it and the recorded voice calls out “BS” (actually, the unabbreviated version).
It’s a fun little gadget that can bring some levity in stressful times. And there are plenty of stressful times when putting on one of the world’s premier wine festivals. After all, millions are at stake to benefit the charities involved with the Naples Children & Education Foundation.
In the months leading up to the event, Farmer and her colleagues work 12-hour days. It takes the right temperament, and Farmer, who has a background in manufacturing logistics, has shown an uncanny ability to balance the many sides that come with such a high-level event. She’s focused and dedicated, while still maintaining a sense of fun and humor. She’s able to weigh the egos that these types of big-money events attract, while also adhering to the personal mantra of “Everyone is as important as the next person.”
She’s also learned early always to have a backup plan. A lot can go wrong, most of which isn’t really visible to those on the outside. Like the time The Fast and the Furious star Tyrese Gibson disappeared. He was supposed to introduce the auction, coming out to music from the movie franchise and a video montage of fast cars. But, a bellboy tipped her off the morning of the auction that the star had left for LA early. Luckily, the team had a backup plan. Event Coordinator Lisa Juliano had come up with an alternative opening involving the auctioneers. Introduction saved. No one was the wiser.
Of course, things do go wrong. Wine bottles break. Valet cars don’t show up on time. Not everything can have a backup plan. “There are days that are long and frustrating,” she says. “But it’s all worth it. You just have to keep in mind it’s all about the kids.”
Vice President of University Advancement and Executive Director, FGCU Foundation
About two weeks after Chris Simoneau took the job, Florida Gulf Coast University became Dunk City. The 2013 men’s basketball team went on its improbable NCAA tournament run, gaining priceless brand name recognition along the way. His job became a little easier.
Just five years later, Dunk City is still thriving, along with its other strong athletic programs. It’s a definite advantage from a fundraising perspective. Tickets to a basketball game can be a great perk for a prospective donor. But it’s only one step in the process of letting donors see all the good that’s done on campus. “Athletics can get them on the front porch,” he says. “But how do we get them into the front door?”
There’s the challenge. FGCU is still only 20 years old. The established alumni base just isn’t there like it is at other universities. Simoneau has made the most of the challenge, having recently completed a three-year, $100 million campaign (that actually brought in $127.7 million, to be exact). He’s had to make heavy inroads in Southwest Florida to get the community to see the importance of a thriving higher-education institution next door. The key, which he admits he can get better at, is getting the general campus community engaged in showcasing the university. It’s not just getting those donors in the front door, so to say, but getting them to sit down for dinner with the family. It’s bringing along a marine science professor to a meeting with a donor who loves the environment. It’s letting an established businessman meet with enterprising students. It’s allowing people to see how their gift can change a life—like the day when a particular student showed up at Simoneau’s office. She told Simoneau’s assistant she wouldn’t leave until she met with him. He brought the student into his office, and she broke down in tears, explaining she was about to drop out of the nursing program. She was a single mother and just couldn’t scrape together the $350 she needed for tuition. The foundation was easily able to take care of it. A few hundreds dollars isn’t that much compared to the impact that her graduation from school could have. Those stories happen all the time. They’re hard to see—and need a spotlight shown on them for all to realize how a small gift can go far. “It’s the greatest feeling. It’s why we do what we do,” he says.