Fundraising vs. Fun-Raising: How Development Work and Experiential Education Intersect

GW Hillel Students Meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg; courtesy.

By Allison Gerstley

This semester, I’ve been working as a graduate student development intern at GW Hillel and taking a fundraising course concurrently as part of my master’s program. With no prior fundraising experience beyond phone banking at my undergrad university, I figured experience in fundraising and philanthropy would prove beneficial in my future career as a Jewish educator. Though I hope to eventually work in a setting where I am more directly engaging with students, this experience has provided great insight into how the fields of experiential education and fundraising are actually interconnected.

Development work, I quickly learned, is all about relationship building. Taking a donor-centered approach in fundraising- that is to say, involving donors in the decision process of allocating funds- leads to greater success for all parties involved. These same tenets of fundraising apply to educators engaging learners. Cultivating relationships with learners and providing programming that will both teach and excite learners is vital in experiential education. There has to be a balance between what the educator sees as his or her goals and what the learners want to see in the program content with which they engage. As in fundraising, the donor cannot and should not have all the say in how they donate or what the purpose of their donation is (see Catherine Reynolds and the Smithsonian case, in which a major donor’s expectations for her gift could not be met, leading to the her withdrawal of the gift). Educators should not be afraid of providing opportunities for discussion with their learners, and learners should be encouraged to share what they would like to get out of their educational experience.

The immediate example that comes to mind of a successful model of relationship building is with campus Hillel organizations. Hillel professionals focus on engendering meaningful, personal relationships with the students they serve. They also maintain extensive records on their students’ interests and involvement in Hillel to have on hand. They may sometimes do so through unabashed Facebook stalking, but Hillel professionals make it a priority to get to know every student who demonstrates interest in Hillel. Hillel professionals are building relationships with students through meaningful conversations, but also through quantifiable data on the back end, and this helps these staff members really get to know the population they serve.

I’ve learned that the mission of an organization should remain the center of its operations; everything goes back to the mission statement. The mission of an organization provides context for anything that organization does. Without a compelling mission, there is no reasoning behind an organization’s staff asking for donations; it is not enough to solicit money just to have money. Fundraising would not be successful if it were to exist in a vacuum. Fundraising and engagement staff members alike have to be aware of all the happenings at their organization to be able to promote them to all constituents the organization serves.

The ways in which fundraising professionals engage donors parallel how Hillel professionals engage students. In fundraising, I have to entice donors with a narrative of Hillel that will lead them to support the organization financially. If I were an engagement professional, I would also have to sell the narrative of Hillel to students to engage them in the various opportunities Hillel has to offer, from Kabbalah and Kreme (learning and ice cream fusion) to internship opportunities in Israel through Onward Israel. Without having a narrative framework to support my donor solicitation over the phone, making the fundraising ask would be even more awkward than it already is.

Within the first 30 minutes of my internship, I had already learned more about fundraising than ever before. At first, the idea of venturing into the development world appeared daunting, but I realized that I had the tools to work in development all along. My passion for cultivating meaningful relationships with students would prove useful in connecting with donors through development work. Likewise, my experience in development has enhanced the ways I will approach my future work as an experiential Jewish educator.

Allison Gerstley is an M.A. Student in the Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts program at The George Washington University.