Believe it or not, introverts can make very effective fundraisers.
There is the stereotype of the bon vivant extrovert fundraiser who leaves gala night with cash spilling out of their pockets, and those folks do exist! But just as many rainmakers get the same results in a quieter way.
Including, once upon a time, me.
My very first job in arts administration — 25 years ago — was as the Development summer intern at a performing arts organization in Virginia near where I grew up. I needed a summer job during college, and this was the one internship they had that didn’t require computer skills. (I know, ironic.)
While I was excited to get the job, I was terrified to be in fundraising. Asking people for money. Talking to strangers. And not just any strangers: rich, presumably snooty strangers. The whole thing gave me a stomachache.
My stomachache was exacerbated just a few weeks into my internship. It was the day of the summer gala, and a sudden gala staff shortage was causing panic throughout the development office. Without warning, both Paul the Database Administrator and I were pressed into service, sent off to rent ourselves tuxedos, and ordered to stand outside the gala dinner tent and “greet the guests as they arrive.”
Within hours, Paul and I were stationed at the driveway in front of the tent, tuxedoed and sweating in the Virginia sun. We were easily an hour early, and we stood alone in the sun and made nervous chatter. No guests to be seen. The pavement was hot. The tuxedoes were wool. So Paul got us a glass of champagne at the bar in the tent. And then another glass. Or two. Or three.
And then the guests arrived.
The good news is I was no longer nervous. As the guests got to the tent, I was a charmer, a raconteur, a wit who was ready with a strong handshake and a hearty laugh.
That is, anyway, how my brain recorded the events of that evening.
According to everyone else, I was a tipsy college student in a rented tuxedo talking a little too loudly. No better off was Paul the Development Database Administrator, who greeted each millionaire by reciting from memory their actual ID number from the donor database.
The next morning, Paul and I quietly shuffled into the office of our Director of Development, Julie. After a moment of silence and with a measured kindness I will never forget, she explained to us the first rule of being a fundraiser:
“We never drink until after the donors drink.”
Surviving introversion at an extrovert’s party
I learned a lot that summer, and not just the first rule. I went on to surprise myself by working in fundraising for the next decade: at Indiana University, the Savannah Symphony Orchestra and for several years at Carnegie Hall. By the time I moved into tech, I was running Carnegie Hall’s 15,000-member Friends program and attending events with wealthy New Yorkers multiple times a week.
How did I succeed at all those parties? I offer four easy tips:
1. “We never drink until after the donors drink”
Julie was right about this. I’ve since seen many other introverts make the same mistake I did. Papering over your fear of big parties by numbing it with booze is never advisable.
2. Let cliques be cliques
As you walk into a donor event, the first thing you are liable to see are the clumps of folks having a grand time. They are often the ones you recognize the most: the movers and shakers. They are usually the loudest and have the most energy. As a young fundraiser I made the mistake of trying to join their party because I thought, “Well, I’m the fundraiser, I need to schmooze.”
Wrong. The cliques are not here to see the fundraisers. They are here to see each other. So what do you do with the cliques? It is easy. Pretend you are a server. Rather than trying to join the group, just give them a “glancing blow”. Pretend you have a tray of canapés but don’t. Poke your head in, but not your whole body. “Hi, Andrew from Carnegie Hall, thanks so much for being here, everyone having a good time?” 90% of the time they smile and nod and resume being Masters of the Universe.
And the other 10% of the time?
Every so often, the cliques are secretly not having a good time. They are making awkward small talk, and your entrance provides them exactly the distraction they were looking for. When you make your glancing blow, if they are flailing, they just might pull you right into the conversation. And that is a VERY GOOD THING. As explained below in Item 3:
3. Be a good audience
Another rookie mistake of mine was trying to transform myself into an extrovert for the night. I would plaster on a smile and try to be the life of the party. No one bought it, least of all me. So out of desperation, I pivoted.
I tried to be myself. And that worked.
My natural inclination is to listen and learn and synthesize - to let others take the spotlight. And it turns out that is the perfect yin to the yang of an extrovert at a party. They WANT an audience. You BE the audience. Listen. Learn. Synthesize. Ask follow-up questions. Introverts provide oxygen to extroverts.
I can’t tell you how many genuinely interesting things I’ve learned at cocktail parties. Roll your eyes at the glitterati if you must, but they lead some truly crazy lives. So if (per #2) you make a glancing blow on a clique and they pull you into the circle - don’t try to be the show. Be the audience. “Are you excited for tonight’s performance? Have you seen this artist before? What do you have planned for the weekend?” And you are off to the races. And the spotlight never once lands on you.
4. Save another introvert
Without a doubt, my favorite thing to do at a donor reception is to look past the cliques. I promise you, there is someone - and probably many someones - who hate being there. Because here’s another secret: not all your donors are extroverts. You will know them when you see them. They are standing alone nursing a Prosecco. Checking their phone. Masking their discomfort by looking unapproachable.
They are your people.
Approach them. Don’t worry that they might rebuff you; it’s likely they won’t. Why? Because they have made the intentional decision to come to a cocktail party. They are there because they know they are supposed to do these sorts of things even though they hate it. So save them. Walk up. Introduce yourself. Smile. And ask all the same questions you asked in #3. Of everyone at the party, they are the most likely to throw money at you. Out of sheer relief.
* * *
It is rare that someone will give you money at a cocktail party. That’s not the point. The point is for your guests to think back on that party and feel good about your institution. At the end of the day, your job as a fundraiser is to leave a good impression.
Whether it is a glancing blow while they were enjoying the company of others, becoming a great audience for their tales, or saving a fellow introvert from another cocktail party, every one of these techniques leans into the introvert’s natural reserve. By the time I left my decade as a fundraiser, I was raising millions of dollars a year without once being the life of the party.
I still avoid champagne.