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Rod Robison “The Forty Most Important Things I Learned”

I recently retired from four decades serving radio and television ministries.  I launched into my career in 1979 having little more in my leadership/fundraising tool chest than a broadcasting degree and a few years touring, recording, and booking shows for a Christian band. Enough to get my feet barely moist.  It took the real world experience of wading deep into the precarious, rushing current of raising funds and leading teams to teach me what it really took to help lead a ministry that was reliant upon donors and God’s mercy and favor for funding. 

Today, having retired from full-time ministry work, my passion (besides spending more time with my grandkids, kids, and wife, of course) is to leverage what I learned in forty years by sharing what I can with others in the leadership/fundraising space.  Of course, I could write about hundreds of things I’ve learned over the years, but forty will have to do.  I’m heading to vacation with my wife, kids, and grandkids.


  1. It all belongs to God…really.

I know we’ve all heard the biblical maxim, but we don’t always act like we believe it.  If you do believe that He does own it all – and if course you do – then it should be the foundational principal upon which your fundraising program is built.


  1. Be patient.

If you’re married you didn’t ask your spouse to tie the knot on your first date. (You didn’t, did you?)  Relationships take time and nurturing.  And a great fundraising program, as with a great marriage, requires both.


  1. Be indispensable.

None of us is irreplaceable but we should all work “as unto the Lord” and strive to be indispensable to the organization we work for.   As I drove away after receiving and accepting my first job offer in development 40 years ago, I still remember a promise I made to myself.  I would always give my employer more value than they paid me for so they could never afford to let me go. 


  1. Thank others lavishly.

Nearly a century ago Dale Carnegie, in his ground-breaking book How to Win Friends and Influence People, said, “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”  Appreciation expressed sincerely and often goes a long way in your interaction with your staff and your donors.  And if you haven’t read Carnegie’s book, grab copies for you and your staff.  It’s one of the best books ever written on building relationships.


  1. Fundraising is a high calling. Thank God for the privilege.

You are joining the ranks of some of the greatest fundraisers in history.  Paul encouraged the Corinthians to give to help the persecuted saints in Jerusalem.  Moses spearheaded the Tabernacle Campaign.  David gave the lead gift to launch the Temple Building Campaign then prayed to God, “…everything comes from you, and we have simply given back to you what is yours.” Hezekiah led by example too, and the people followed by giving so much toward the operational budget of the Temple that they had to build storehouses to sock away the balance.  Nehemiah had built such a great relationship with his top major donor prospect, the king, that he was granted provisions for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and a letter of introduction to the king’s lumber supplier.  So, yeah, you’re in very good company.


  1. Fundraising is NOT your life.

Early in my fundraising and executive leadership career a friend gave me a book the title of which I can’t recall.  It’s just as well.  It was a study of the most successful fundraisers in the United States and what it would take to be great like them.  In short, the book’s author suggested that to be among the greats one had to live, sleep, and eat the fundraiser life.  Fundraising had to be numero uno in my life, the author opined. At that point I closed the book and determined that if that was what it took to be great I wasn’t interested.  Of course, it’s not.  Our lives are much more diverse and there are higher priorities than raising the next big gift… and the next… and the next.  Establish and keep a balanced life.


  1. Be passionate about your cause.

Passion is contagious.  If you’re totally sold on your organization’s mission and vision, you’ll be much more effective when you communicate them to your donor.


  1. If you’re not passionate about your cause, find another cause.

Hopefully, your organization is doing a great work in people’s lives.  Immerse yourself in your cause and the stories of people whose lives are being transformed.  But if you find that you’re not passionate about the cause, that’s okay.  Find one you are passionate about.


  1. Relational fundraising vs. transactional fundraising

It’s not about the money.  It’s about building relationships with like-minded folks who share a desire to use God’s resources to make a difference.  Take the time to build those genuine relationships.  As one of my staff members used to say, “Don’t treat donors like a wallet.”


  1. When you ask for a gift you are not asking for a favor. You are doing them a favor by asking.

As a fundraiser for a worthy cause your privileged role is to introduce others to the sacred opportunity to participate in life-transforming works God is doing.  You get to encourage people to steward God’s resources wisely so one day they will hear, “Well done good and faithful servant.”


  1. Focus your people on their strengths.

It’s far more effective to allow your team members to focus on leveraging their God-given strengths for the cause than to focus on improving on their weaknesses.  That’s not to suggest that some critical weaknesses shouldn’t be dealt with – they should in some cases.  But people are more energized and enthusiastic when they know they have the freedom to live in their sweet spots while making an impact.  


  1. Help those who don’t belong on the bus to find another bus.

It’s not fun, but it happens.  Sometimes, despite your best efforts and those of your team member, their role in your organization just isn’t a fit.  Another seat on the same bus might be the best solution.  But it’s quite possible that it’s time for them to find another bus, or at the risk of sounding euphemistic, allow them to discover what God has for them next.


  1. Not everyone is called to be a fundraiser.

It’s a tough gig.  Most people are cut out for other career choices.  Some fantastic on-air personalities are not great fundraisers.  Invest in their training by assigning talented, passionate coaches to grow them.  At the same time, they may be better suited for supporting roles during on-air campaigns.


  1. Consider adopting Situational Leadership principles.

Everyone has varying degrees of expertise and responsiveness to different styles of leadership.  Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership II is an excellent approach to adjusting your leadership/management style to the needs of your team members. 


  1. Set SMART goals.

This simple goal-setting method is a game changer.  You can avoid fuzzy, subjective goals by making each one of them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. If you’re not familiar with setting SMART goals, there are plenty of good articles on-line to help.


  1. Track your SMART goals.

It can be as simple as setting up an Excel spreadsheet to track monthly progress toward achieving your goals and your team’s goals.  Review them regularly with your team. Then keep them accountable to their SMART goals while coaching them for success.


  1. Reward your employees for meeting their SMART goals.

The reward(s) for meeting or exceeding agreed-upon goals should be clear up-front, then followed through. 


  1. Pay your people what they’re worth and then some.

Be known by your people as someone who shows your appreciation tangibly.  Good fundraisers are not easy to find or keep.  Pay them well.


  1. Keep your employees encouraged, especially during discouraging times.

You set the tone for your organization.  When things aren’t going well you can bet that your team members are probably beating themselves up. So they don’t need you to join in on the flogging.  Tough times are the best times to let them know they are appreciated and that you are proud of them.


  1. Invest in the help you need.

Countless ministries have died slow deaths because their leadership refused to root out  waste.  Most expenditures are good expenditures in that they accomplish some return on investment (ROI) for the ministry.  But often they don’t return the best ROI.   After doing an honest and thorough assessment of how you are stewarding your organizational budget’s ROI, invest in projects, staff and, as needed, consultants who can help you leverage your budget more effectively.  That ROI can be in the form of ministry accomplished or fundraising that will, in turn, help you accomplish more ministry.


  1. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do.

That was Henry Ford’s advice and it served him pretty well.  When I first started my career I somehow had the mistaken impression that as a leader I had to know more than everyone else on my team.  That was a heavy – and unnecessary – burden to carry.  I soon learned that great leaders surround themselves with experts, then they lead those experts to achieve success.


  1. Educate yourself.

Remember the story of the woodchopper who was so busy cutting wood that he never got around to sharpening his axe?  It’s very easy to be so task-focused that you put off sharpening your expertise as a leader and fundraiser.  Schedule time to interact with others in your field outside of your office where your mind is more refreshed and less distracted. Read periodicals and books or watch videos related to your career.  Put “sharpen my axe” time on your calendar.


  1. Don’t allow fundraising to define you.

You are not the sum total of the gifts you raise. Don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap.



  1. Use people’s names.

Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”  When you call someone by name it tells them you care about them.


  1. Tell stories.

Facts speak to the head.  Stories speak to the heart.  If your organization is impacting people’s lives there are stories to be told.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”  That’s why people give of their treasure when their hearts are touched with a genuine (not manipulative) story of life-transforming impact.


  1. Thank your donors often.

Every correspondence and personal contact with your donors should include at least a couple of sincere thanks for their partnership with your organization and how they are allowing you to reach those to whom you minister.  Making phone calls to as many of your donors as possible just to thank them and tell them what their gifts are accomplishing is time well spent.


  1. Give God the glory for successes and for “failures.”

We often remember to give him glory when thing go well. But remember that, “…all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”


  1. Admit your shortcomings and learn from your mistakes.

The Bible is replete with examples of failures and how God redeemed even the worst of them.  You’re in good company, so admit – perhaps especially – to your staff when you’ve blown it and then find the “gold” in the dirt.  There’s always some in there somewhere.


  1. Don’t beat yourself up.

When you fall short of a goal it’s easy to internalize the shortfall as a failure and, in turn, feel like a failure yourself.  You know the story of Edison failing hundreds of times before he finally succeeded in inventing a working incandescent light bulb.  He didn’t consider his failures as failures.  They were opportunities to learn what didn’t work, then apply that knowledge and move on toward success.


  1. Take the long view.

Yes, it’s tempting to “go for the gift” as soon as possible, but resist the temptation until a strong relationship has been built with your donor and she is ready to partner with you.  Dollar goals are necessary, but goals based on relationships are a prerequisite.


  1. Schedule your contacts with donors.

Don’t let time slide by or you’ll get months down the road and find that you and your staff have made precious few relationship-building contacts.  Hold yourself and your staff accountable to a systematic, regular personal contact schedule.  Time – and your donors – will get away from you if you don’t.


  1. “No” isn’t rejection.

If you’ve first taken the time to build the relationship, most people who say “no” to an ask are simply not ready or able to make a gift. Or they may legitimately feel they’re already giving enough to your organization.  It’s easy to interpret “no” as personal rejection. It’s not.


  1. Celebrate your successes together.

Get your departments and staff together regularly to celebrate what God is doing.  Too often organizations develop departmental silos and miss opportunities to share.  And when you do get together to celebrate, be sure to thank your staff for being an important part of each success.


  1. Care for your donors.

Develop and demonstrate genuine empathy and love for your donors.  They carry burdens just like you do.  They have kids who have gone astray.  Health concerns may be plaguing them.  They often struggle in their faith.  Taking them to lunch just to see how they’re doing might be the most important ministry you accomplish that day.


  1. Be good stewards of your donors’ hard-earned money.

You remember the account of Jesus’s commendation of the widow who gave her meager coins to God’s temple treasury.  Her humble but generous act rings down through the ages reminding us that every “mite” our donors entrust to us must be used wisely.   Years ago I had a “widow’s mite” coin from Israel matted and framed with the inscription, “Every mite a sacred trust” then hung it next to the elevator where all the ministry’s staff could see it each day.  



  1. Steward your time well.

Your time is a valuable asset God gave you to help you serve your organization.   My Outlook Calendar was the roadmap of each of my days at the network I served for over 30 years. It kept me accountable to myself.  It helped me prioritize.  It served as a reward of sorts when I accomplished a task.  It allowed me to adjust tasks when the inevitable interruptions came knocking.  And I even allowed myself some down time, especially after accomplishing a significant task.


  1. Know your donors.

When meeting with you donors spend the majority of your time together listening to them.  Ask them about their lives, their passions, and their families.  There will be time to share your organization’s mission with them, but care for them first.  Keep good records so you can refer back to them before your next contact.


  1. Diversify your funding.

A lot of non-profits have failed by relying on a small group of major donors.  When one or two of them dropped their support the organizations suffered.  In fact, relying solely on any one fundraising strategy can lead to instability.  Developing four or five (or more if you have the capacity) different strategies and donor sub-groups will diversify your funding sources in the same way that a family of mutual funds brings stability to an investment portfolio.


  1. Trust God.

When we’re deeply dedicated to our organization’s mission it’s very easy to take the burden of providing for the organization on our own shoulders.  Yes, we need to be accountable to accomplish the tasks necessary to raise the funds, but leave your donors’  heart-change to God.


  1. Ask God to go before you and guide you.

When you face a tough meeting, a challenging fundraising campaign, an uncomfortable but needed confrontation, or other difficult situation; ask God to smooth the path before you and show you the way.  I’ve seen countless such situations over the years resolved when I trusted God to take his rightful place in my heart and in the hearts of those with whom I was about to engage.  He doesn’t always make it easy, but he can be always be trusted.


Rod Robison is the now retired Vice President of Development with Family Life Radio and The Intentional Living Center in Tucson, AZ.  Prior to his service with those organizations he helped lead TV and radio ministries in the Midwest.  He now consults with organizations wishing to enhance their strategic planning and fundraising. Contact Rod at rod@mentallusions.com

2 thoughts on “Rod Robison “The Forty Most Important Things I Learned”

  • Rod,

    Your list of 40 over 40-years is spot on! You are a wise man. Congratulations on being a good student of life and leadership!

    • Thanks Bill. I appreciate that. Feel free to pass it on to others who might benefit.


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