stop being the acrobat with Cindy Wagman

Episode aired Jan. 5, 2022: Being a successful fundraiser

Cindy Wagman of The Good Partnership is not only an experienced fundraiser. She’s an expert in helping small shop fundraisers build relationships, raise more and use their time effectively to do so. In this episode Cindy discusses 

  • How to change the dominant narratives around fundraising
  • Changing how we think about who can give
  • Why engaging small donors is critical to success
  • What to do BEFORE making an in-person ask
  • How to stop being The Acrobat and  
  • Why multi-tasking isn’t as great as you think it is.       

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a fundraising and nonprofit sector expert, Cindy Wagman. Cindy how you doing today?

Cindy: I’m so happy to be talking with you. This is a great way to start my day, so I’m good.

Ephraim: Perfect. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Cindy Wagman is the president and founder of The Good Partnership, a values-driven, social justice informed consultancy that is working to unlock the potential of small nonprofits through fundraising. Cindy became a certified fundraising executive in 2009 and received her MBA from the Rotman School at the University of Toronto in 2013. Cindy has presented for AFP- Association of Fundraising Professionals, Canada Helps, Charity Village, Bloomerang, Keela and Fundraising everywhere. She’s the host of The Small Nonprofit Podcast, Canada’s number one podcast for charities and she’s the best-selling author of Raise It!: The reluctant fundraiser’s guide to raising money without selling your soul.

Changing The Fundraising Narrative

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss the topic everyone can be a fundraiser. Let’s dive right in. Cindy, why are people reluctant to ask for a donation, especially if it’s for a good cause?

Cindy: A lot of how we think and feel about fundraising are stories and narratives that are sort of embedded in our brain, without us being really aware that they’re there. So our brain is designed… it’s a really complicated and smart machine to make decisions really easy for us in life and it creates shortcuts for decisions and those shortcuts- again, we don’t know that they’re being made- but they’re usually made through repetition.

I don’t know about you but as a fundraiser, the thing I would always hear from people when I introduced myself and what I did is their reaction was, that’s such a hard job or please don’t ask me for money. We have these dominant narratives in society around fundraising and they’ve sort of implanted themselves into our brains without our knowledge and permission.

But what it means is that every time we go to fundraise, our brain is like stop! This is horrible. I don’t feel good doing this. It brings up all of those feelings and beliefs again. We don’t even know this is going on. It’s all subconscious where it just sort of shuts down those behaviors and so ultimately we’re living with these narratives running through our head. It could be that asking for money is icky. It could be that money itself is icky. It could be that the work of our sector doesn’t have the same value, therefore we can’t be asking for much because we’re a charity, right? I’ve seen that in Facebook groups where people will say like well, isn’t it wrong to get paid to do this work? There’s all of these narratives. Again, they’re sort of implanted in our brains and our brain is kind of like yelling at us don’t do that, don’t do that. It’s not good. Fundamentally I think that’s the dominant reason why most people don’t want to fundraise.

Fundraising From The Have-Nots

Ephraim: That’s a fascinating answer. Let’s move from that almost refusal to ask to the next thing, which has to do with the donors. There are fundraisers and organizations out there who typecast potential donors as ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ How can we change that attitude and not be afraid to ask to also ask the have-nots?

Cindy: I love this question and it’s absolutely related to my last answer, because one of those narratives that comes up over and over and over again, especially with current philanthropy. Most of us come from… I know you and I are both Jewish. We come from backgrounds where caring for the community is built into our DNA. I’ve talked to people from many different backgrounds. They all have this shared belief and experience.

But over time and through sort of we can call it capitalism or you know current structures, the idea of philanthropy has shifted to what we see in the news. Again those narratives that are embedding themselves in our brain without us knowing. A lot of that is fundraising equals million-dollar gifts. Philanthropy is… MacKenzie, I can’t even remember her last name. I stopped paying attention to those. The Jeff Bezos, the Elon Musks, the  Oprah Winfrey’s, Ellen DeGeneres. I hear those names over and over again and we’ve started to define philanthropy that way.

So when we think about okay, who do we ask for money? We think, who do we know who can give lots of money instead of, who do we know who cares about the work we’re doing and wants to invest in the world that we’re building together? And when we start to shift our thinking that way. We can start to see that.

Actually there are people all around us who we don’t think of as having capacity. We throw those terms around a lot in fundraising like who has capacity, what’s their capacity, how do we find their capacity. And the bottom line is a lot of the tools we have around, they’re not that accurate.

But also at the end of the day it’s not the most important consideration. I would much rather see organizations build communities of supporters who reflect the communities they serve, who are engaged and care about the cause and ultimately those are your donors who are going to be giving over the long term. If you’re struggling to really take action on this, I actually recommend that organizations or fundraisers, executive directors actually have conversations with the donors who give twenty dollars a year, to really get to know and understand why they’re making a donation so regularly or consistently for an organization and what does it mean to them to give, so that we can start to shift that definition of philanthropy back to its true definition.

Ephraim: Okay, I’m a huge fan of that answer. Everyone who is listening, watching or reading, read it again, listen again, watch it again. Cindy has got it exactly right. 100 percent.

Cindy: Thank you.

Making An In-Person Ask

Ephraim: Today’s actionable item: Please share with us three things fundraisers can do to help overcome the potential stress, anxiety or nervousness of having to make an in-person ask.

Cindy: Okay. I don’t know if it’s gonna be three things but I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately about in-person asking. I guess it’s on people’s minds a lot right now. Maybe it’s year-end or what have you but my approach to major gift and in-person asking is very much looking for mini yeses. I almost never go into a big ask with a hard pitch or certainly not an ask that’s a first meeting. Usually you’re building a relationship which you know, but hopefully your listeners know this already but if you don’t…

I hear from a lot of small organizations, we need the right pitch, we need to go in with a strong pitch. The opposite is true! You need to build a relationship and think of that as an opportunity to get on the right path for the ask. Let’s focus in on the area of impact or the program or maybe you can have conversations about the need for general operating or things that are important.

So start with the conversation. Get to know the donor, have them get to know your organization and kind of course correct through those conversations to figure out what the ask might be that makes sense for your organization and make sense for your donor.

The number one thing I feel like you can do if you’re going to make an in-person ask is not surprise the donor. Tell them the purpose of your meeting when you book the meeting. That is my number one thing. To say hey Ephraim, we’ve been talking about this program a lot. I’d love to come and talk to you about a potential contribution to it or how you can make an impact and in the vision we’ve created or talked about. But the more upfront, the better. Some indication that we’re going to be talking about money now. To me that means you kind of put your cards out there a little bit in a very soft way. If they don’t want to give, then you’re giving them an out.

But chances are if you put all the work in to this point, the answer is not yes or no. The answer is really like what does it look like? How do we create the right opportunity together? And so by signaling that this is the time we’re going to talk about that, you’re letting the donor prepare and you’re coming to the table with very clear expectations around what you’re meeting with. Also, then you can’t kind of backpedal. You’ve told them the purpose. You can’t just chicken out and be like, let’s just talk about family and friends and I’ll ask at the next meeting. It’s really one thing. I’m happy to talk about others but to me that’s the biggest thing.

And I also hear a lot from donors that they value that because they don’t want to be, every time when they meet with someone, we’re talking about family, we’re talking about work, we’re talking about all these other things and then we’re like, oh hey, can we have a meeting? Can we grab a coffee? They’re expecting the same. You have to sort of signal to them as well and I find that they really appreciate that.

The Acrobat

Ephraim: That’s an excellent, excellent answer. Obviously as you said it’s all about building relationships with your supporters. Speaking of building relationships and fundraising, in your book Raise It! you talk about four types of fundraisers and one of them you mention is The Acrobat. I’m guessing most people in small shops have felt that way before. Please share with us about The Acrobat and then explain how they can find balance and harmony amidst the fire drill culture of nonprofit life.

Cindy: I love that term fire drill culture. Wow. I need to borrow that.

Ephraim: Just to admit it’s not mine. It’s from Meico Whitlock who I interviewed a couple months ago on the podcast. That’s his term. He calls it the fire drill culture.

Cindy: So accurate and so there’s lots of things going on. One of the things actually is that’s our culture, right? There’s this scarcity in our sector that we always operate with not enough and so it always feels like we’re all… yeah, that fire drill. Oh my God we have to do this, we have to do that. So that’s the reality for a lot of people.

But in some ways it’s kind of like we make it our reality and when it comes to fundraising… I’m going to talk about this in a couple different aspects. The one thing is for reluctant fundraisers that’s always an excuse. I’m so busy. I have all these other urgent things. I can’t spend time on fundraising and I want to call that out because I don’t buy that. I get it. We’re all busy but we all make time to prioritize the things that we prioritize and very often, it’s just that I don’t want to I don’t feel comfortable fundraising so I’m gonna busy myself with other things that are probably still important but sometimes they’re not important. There’s a lot going on.

Sometimes we hear from or sometimes I see organizations that are constantly sort of chasing this shiny object and they’re just like, we need to do this, we need to do this, they’re always in ideas and that feels overwhelming. So they always feel like they’re never caught up.

But at the end of the day, yes we do operate with not enough resources for our work. That is a fundamental reality for most organizations I know. We need to understand what’s important, what’s actually going to move the needle for you in your job and so for example, like the very first thing I outsourced in my business was bookkeeping, because that’s not something where I add value. I can do that kind of thing but I’m not growing the business when I do that. Someone can do it in a fraction of the time. So we need to look at what should we be spending our time on. Can we get volunteers or outsource other things.

One of the other things I recently outsourced that’s been a game changer is our payroll and HR. We now use an online platform where I can run payroll. It takes about 20 minutes to set up and I can run payroll in 30 seconds. It is amazing. There are things that we can do more efficiently but then we also have to learn how to delegate and also how to manage our time better.

One of the things that was game changing for me that I learned was that there’s this phenomenon called ‘context switching’ and it’s what happens in our brains where we switch from different tasks. We like to pride ourselves on being really good multitaskers but multitasking is not a good way to work. I don’t want to say productive. It’s not productive but productive has a lot of meaning or emotional weight for people. 

But the bottom line is what happens is if we turn off all the distractions and we focus on one task a hundred percent of our time and focus is on that one task. Well, then we have 100 percent of our time to do it. When we add a second task, the time that we lose to switching between those two things is 80… sorry 20 percent. So now each task is left with dividing up 80 percent of our time. You can say 40 40. So now we’re not going to get either of those things done and we’ve lost 20 percent of our time. This is true actual time.

Our brain cannot actually multitask. It’s just flipping back and forth really quickly. When you start to add more things that you’re doing, you actually lose more and more time. So if you’re trying to balance five things, you lose 80 percent of your time to ‘contact switching.’ That’s gone and each of those five things now has about four percent or something…  collectively twenty percent. Yeah, four percent of time allocated to it, so you’re never making progress on those things.

The number one thing you can do is stop multitasking. Block time in your calendar to work on important things. Turn off distractions, Set your timer for 50 minutes and just plow through. Just do it.

The other thing is stop spending time in your email. Check your email once or twice a day. Put an out of office. I’m seeing more and more of these which is so amazing. Years ago I used to have one that was kind of cheeky and hey, we don’t work in our inbox and I always put my cell phone number. I was like if you need to reach me urgently, here’s how. I never received a phone call. People, you set their expectations and they don’t mind. All those are all ways that we can sort of help balance our time, so that we can create time and space to do the important work and also the creative work. When we’re in leadership positions, very often we’re knowledge workers and doing really great knowledge work means that we need some white space, some margins to actually think and plan and strategize. That’s really important as well.

Working With Small Organizations

Ephraim: Very very wise advice for everyone, whether you’re working in a nonprofit or a consultant but certainly if you’re in that small shop fundraising role. Speaking of small shops, on your website, you shout from the rooftops that you want organizations to be the small nonprofit that the world needs. My question is what draws you specifically to small organizations and why do you enjoy working with them?

Cindy: First and foremost the causes. I’ve worked in big and small organizations. I’ve always approached my work in the sector with a social justice lens and so for me to be able to do social justice work predominantly, I’ve found that those are small organizations. That’s where my heart is. I’ve worked in the big shops. I’ve worked in very different non-social justice type organizations and I’ve also seen that fundraising is a little different in small organizations. It’s not the same and the way we teach fundraising, we teach sort of this large size fits all model. Just copy the big organizations. We will just learn from those best practices and in my experience, there’s a lot of assets that small organizations have that we can leverage better and build our fundraising programs in a slightly different and more aligned way that I think we need to be focused on. I think there’s not enough resources for them but also fundamentally it’s where my heart lies.

Let’s Learn More About Cindy

Ephraim: Awesome. Fantastic. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Cindy: This is a funny story. I mean I’ve always been involved in nonprofits. In high school I volunteered and then when I was in university, kind of a little lost into what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, one summer I actually met two professional fundraisers. First I’d ever heard that that was a thing and I got hooked because I was already… I ran a committee at school where we were fundraising for local women’s shelters. I was already doing the work. I just didn’t know you can make a career out of it. So that is how I started and I actually wrote a thesis in my undergrad on feminist fundraising. Yeah, that’s so cool and have been literally… that’s like all I know.

Ephraim: Okay fantastic. Given your combined expertise and knowledge in the sector, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Cindy: For people to love fundraising. I want to see all, especially those small organizations, I want us to change the narrative of what fundraising means to them, to our sector, to our donors. I just see it as a way to build community while also raise money and fulfill your mission.  

Ephraim: Okay, I like that one. Cindy, why Canada?

Cindy: Because I’m in Canada. Like why am I here or why do I focus…

Ephraim: Why do you love Canada?

Cindy: Why do I love Canada. Well, it’s home. I honestly… my personality is very grounded in home and community and family and so I have very strong connections to the community that I live in and the people around me. I think that’s actually the biggest piece. I can’t picture uprooting myself and my family from those people and communities. 

Ephraim: Excellent. Hardest part of writing a book?

Cindy: I mean getting through it. I think the first few sections really flowed and then by the last section, I was like, what are we gonna write? I feel like we covered everything. But I did have like a developmental editor who helped me a lot in taking basically the body of work that I had already created through our podcast, online courses and all the stuff that I’ve been doing and she helped me tease out some of the themes. But I would say that last leg is always, that was the hardest.

Ephraim: Alright. A hobby you love that very few people know about.

Cindy: I think one of our- my husband’s- hobby I guess is hosting. We really really enjoy having people over and cooking. He does the cooking but just entertaining people and having again… it’s that community thing.

Ephraim: I like it. I like it a lot. Lastly let’s turn the table. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no clue what’s coming. Go ahead.

Cindy: What are you looking forward to in the next year? I know the last couple years have been a lot of ups and downs. What are you seeing as the changes coming in the pipelines from your perspective? 

Ephraim: I think there are two things. One is the remote work issue, which is a big issue in the nonprofit sector because up until corona, I think if you polled everyone, they would say my boss would never allow it. You always have to be in the office, as if that’s going to make you more productive, sitting at your desk for eight hours. It doesn’t. You can be just as productive sitting at home on your couch, in your bed, in your basement, wherever. It doesn’t matter. That’s gonna really change how the sector operates, not just from a cost perspective because now you don’t have to pay for offices and that other stuff, but you also can hire talent from anywhere and everywhere. Unless you’re really community based and focused, you have a chance to widen the talent pool. That’s one thing.

Two is the whole IRL versus virtual. I always prefer meeting people in real life one to one, but if you ask me, what I really want to be doing is sitting around in a t-shirt and shorts like I am right now and what a friend of mine calls depeopling. Just my quiet time and I don’t have to…

I think that what’s going to happen in the sector now is people are going to realize we don’t have to do gala events, put 400 people in a room with dry chicken and schmaltzy videos that go on and on and speeches and everything. You don’t have to do that. You can do a one-hour event virtually, raise more, have more people there, get more eyeballs on your mission, bring more people into the fold. You can do better or you can do a combination of the two.

For both of those issues, I think the sector is going to change. Okay, I say I think. I hope the sector will. And it’ll be for the better because now I really think it allows for more room for… you were talking about this, the room for creativity, the quiet somebody needs to get things done. When you’re not in an office setting, you can get more things done. When you’re doing a virtual event, you are now wide open to all kinds of creativity. I’ve seen tons of great ideas that have been done in terms of event planning and virtual events. Everything’s wide open now, so I hope nonprofits will actually take advantage of those two things in the next year and beyond that. I’ll be following. I’ll be interested to see what happens.  

Cindy: Same same.

Ephraim: We’ll see. Cindy, thank you  very very much for appearing on the podcast. For everyone who’s listening, watching  or reading, I encourage you to a) connect with Cindy on LinkedIn b) learn more about her work at and of course, I recommend you consider purchasing her book Raise It! where you can learn more about the book at I had a chance to read it. It’s great. Definitely get it so you can learn to be a better fundraiser. Cindy, it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thanks for being here.  

Cindy: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Ephraim: Have a great day. Thanks.