Power of Philanthropy

“What Do You Do for a Living?”

Rarely a week goes by that I’m not asked by someone on a plane or at an event: “What do you do for a living?”

I love this question.

Sharing how powerful philanthropy can be in addressing the needs we see across our country and world is so gratifying. I love telling people about the real-life impact nonprofits are having in the lives of individuals and communities. It’s empowering to know what we can achieve, together, to help advance life-transforming missions.

Even when I was 18 years old, attending Michigan State University, I knew I wanted to raise money for a living. This is quite different from the more traditional route fundraisers take. Most start out working for a nonprofit in a different role, grow in their passion for the cause, move into a fundraising role and, then, learn about raising money.

Typically, when I tell people I’ve been a fundraiser for 25 years, their first response is “Wow, that’s a long time!” Then, almost without fail, they say: “I could never do that! I couldn’t beg people for money every day.” My response: “Neither could I!”

Unfortunately, too many people equate fundraising with begging for money, and I have an idea why that may be. My theory is too many nonprofits think asking for money is step one or two. In reality, a solicitation may be step fifty. It’s different for each potential donor and every ask.

Not only are today’s fundraisers able to leverage their communication and people skills to cultivate relationships prior to asking for money, but we should have a greater understanding of the data and research around donor psychology. Equipped with this knowledge, we are better able to unleash the power of philanthropy for donors, as well as for nonprofits.

Sometimes, I’ll ask my new friend on the plane: “What are two or three needs or causes you care about deeply?” “My church” … “education” … “social justice” … “childhood hunger” … “the environment” are just a few responses I’ve heard.

Then, I’ll ask: “What if you could make a tangible and significant difference in that arena? What if you could be on the frontline of decision making and see, first hand, what your money was doing to change lives? How would that make you feel?”

A spreading smile means I’ve made my point. That’s when I smile back and complete the connection to their original question: “Fundraisers get to play a small role in making people’s lives better … that’s what I do!”

Janell Johnson
Janell Johnson, MPA

Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President

Wilmington, N.C.


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