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Advice for fundraisers: be focused, learn to say no, and be yourself!

Advice for fundraisers: be focused, learn to say no, and be yourself!

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Melanie Riley has over 20 years’ experience working in fundraising and currently works as the Development Manager at YMCA of Southwestern Ontario.


Melanie Riley

With an annual fundraising goal of approximately $250,000 in foundation and grant funding, she also works across staff funding-related campaigns with the organization’s 2,500 staff, one-off grant proposals, and a number of other stewardship activities.

She took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with Alex Pryse, the Outreach and Engagement Coordinator here at Imagine Canada, to impart some of her wisdom...

Alex Pryse: What kind of challenges to do you think fundraisers are facing these days?

Melanie Riley: I’ve been at this a long time; 20-plus years in a variety of roles. There’s always a million things coming at you...the whole multitasking thing was big 10 years ago, and I’ve seen a lot of articles and heard a lot of people talking about how multitasking isn’t really a thing, because you can’t focus on multiple things at the same time and do it really well. And that’s the key, doing it really well. It’s something I did for many years, but you can’t do it really well.

My key is to limit the amount you say yes to. As a group of people who work in the fundraising sector, we want to do so much, more than we possibly can, for our organizations. That’s why we chose to be in nonprofit; we want to do good. And so we’re yes people, we always say yes we can do that, and we burn ourselves out. I think it’s important to be able to say no and to say, what is really going to make an impact? How can I really use my time effectively for the greatest good?

That’s been a big learning curve for me: to focus on not doing a million things that can lead you to the same outcome, but really focus on what’s important. 

AP: What do you think fundraisers need to focus on?

MR: You’ve heard this a million times probably, but it’s building those relationships with current donors and immediate and past donors. Most organizations are focusing on getting new donors in, but they’re not really focusing on stewarding and making an impact with the donors that they already have. I’m just really focused on that. You don’t have to be looking for hundreds of new donors, because you’ve already got them.

AP: What are the top tools you use to fundraise more effectively?

MR: We use Causeview as our database. Having that database and the information at hand, and the reports, that makes your job way easier if you’ve got that set up properly. There are some really unique features with Causeview. It’s based off Salesforce, so that’s kind of interesting.

I have a love/hate relationship with Excel and Outlook. For stewardship reports, Adobe Acrobat Reader is really useful. Of course I use Grant Connect, too. 

AP: What’s the best fundraising advice or tip you’ve ever received?

MR: Just be yourself. Regardless of what type of fundraising you are doing, it’s all about relationships. If you are yourself, and you’re presenting that to a donor, they’re going to feel that. They’re going to see that you’re genuine, and you’re real, and what your interest is, and that it’s the same as theirs. Sometimes we think we’ve got to be this other person and be really professional and strict. I think that donors can see that and go, well, what is it that she’s hiding if she’s not being herself?

AP: Do you have a favourite fundraising hack or shortcut at work?

MR: I block out a little bit of time at the beginning of the week and at the end of the week to go through my schedule. I’ll take a look at the beginning of the week and block of time in my calendar throughout that week for what’s coming up and what I need to do. That’s extremely helpful, and you need to be realistic about the amount of time you’re going to need to get through those tasks.

And I do the same thing at the end of the week. I take a look at what I completed and what I didn’t and what needs to move forward to the next week. I even block out extra time for unexpected stuff that pops up.

Taking that little bit of time makes things go so much smoother and so much quicker because when people are asking me for things I can say, “No, I don’t have time to do this right now, that’s not a priority. But two weeks from now I can do that.” It actually helps to move things a lot faster and prioritize what’s absolutely necessary.

AP: Are there any other great tips you want to share?

MR: Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve written policies I’ve written guidelines and processes, and sometimes we get so bogged down in writing our policy books and our process books that no one ever reads again, my tip is don’t make your process more than a page, because it’s going to take you way more time and no one’s going to read it. And then you’re going to be back at square one.

So make your processes as easy as possible, and don’t create big process manuals, because it doesn’t work.

AP: Thanks, Melanie!

Melanie’s fundraising favourites

Fundraising books

Social media follows




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We’ve edited some of Melanie’s answers for clarity and brevity. 


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