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The Best Advice for Development is Mother’s Best Advice

As we grow older, those of us lucky enough to have thoughtful, kind and loving mothers, grandmothers and mother figures in our lives come to the realization that “mother knows best” isn’t just a silly saying (or a sassy retort from a teenager). A mother’s sage wisdom can help us through overwhelming challenges and shape us as people.

In my career as a development professional and consultant, and as a mother myself, I have found so often that a mother’s best advice is development’s best advice. As moms, we have a little saying for everything to help our children remember the important life lessons we teach them, and many of these sayings work perfectly for adult development professionals looking for counsel or answers.

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.

Did you know it can often take a mega-donor over 10 years of involvement with an organization before they contribute a mega gift? I have always told people new to the business that it might take three years for a donor to trust you. Take your time and be thoughtful and resourceful with your position and career.

In your daily routine, spend more time planning your next conversation with a donor. Don’t just fire off emails and calls. Take the time to write down what you need to accomplish with each donor. Even if I’m planning a casual conversation, I like to write down a few bullet points of items I want to address or accomplish to keep me on track.

You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Listen. (I bet you knew this one was coming!) We often feel we have to do all the talking, all the teaching, to help a donor or prospect understand the organization, mission or campaign. Yes, make a compelling and succinct case for why you need this gift, but leave plenty of time to listen. Work to understand your donors and prospects. Learn what’s important to them and what motivates them. This information is not only going to be useful, but you will also find you are building a more genuine relationship between you, the donor and your organization.

Know your worth.

Sometimes we are given lofty goals or deadlines, and it’s our job to help manage those expectations. When meeting with your organization’s managers and leaders, demonstrate progress and concrete accomplishments. For your entire list of donors and prospects, you should know exactly where you stand with each one. Keep detailed notes so you can convey your efforts or ask for help to re-think your strategy when needed.

Communication is a two-way street.

Truly understand what it means to take a cultivation step. If you’re just sending out annual report emails, that’s not communication; that’s spam. In development, you need a response from your donor in order to be communicating with them. If most of your communication is personal and authentic, you will move out of the spam category and into a real conversation.

KISS: Keep it simple, silly!

I have found this to be especially helpful in the healthcare sector, where it’s easy to dive too deep into science and details. Focus on the most important parts of the information. How is this project moving in the direction of easing suffering? How will their gift help?

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Donors aren’t “giving units,” and once they make a gift, they have let you know they care about your mission. Continue to foster that relationship. Down the road, it will almost always turn into more support. But if it doesn’t, it’s the right thing to do to make sure that your donor understands their gift was and continues to be appreciated and important.

Remember: Mother will only hold your hand for a little while.

More than likely, you won’t spend your whole career in one place. You will only be holding the hand of and working with your organization for “a little while.” As a steward of your organization, make sure your contacts have a relationship with the organization and its mission, not just specifically with you. Be ready to pass that relationship baton to another “you” who is ready to be the best representative of your organization possible.

There’s no shortcut to success.

If you arrive at your organization with a full contact list, don’t assume they will all support your organization. I have seen many people hired because of who they know in the community. Having contacts can help. But again, development professionals need to connect donors with the mission of the organization. And building a strong development program requires A LOT more than small talk at a cocktail party. It requires effort, determination, intention, and good, old-fashioned hard work. 

I’ll reiterate, on average, it can take a mega-donor over 10 years of being part of an organization before they give a mega gift. Be patient, put in the work, be authentic, focus on the mission, and when in doubt, call a mother. Or better yet, call Carter! 😊

About the Author

Audrey Stone

Audrey Stone, CFRE, Managing Director

Audrey Edmonds Stone, CFRE, has a 30-year advancement career spanning private and public higher education, academic medicine and the arts. Along the way, she has built dynamic development programs, engaged volunteers at all levels, collaborated with institutional leaders, and mentored and managed individual gift officers and support teams. By nurturing mature and existing donor relationships and engaging new prospects, she has raised funds to build endowments and support special projects, operations, new and renovated construction, and academic research. Audrey currently resides in Roanoke, Virginia. Learn more about Audrey here.

About Carter:
When it comes to transformational change, nonprofits are experts at knowing what they need to achieve but don’t always have the tools they need to get there. Carter makes the journey easier. With over 1,000 years of combined experience, the Carter team is comprised of over 40 senior-level professionals working to advance philanthropy worldwide through fundraising, organizational planning and governance. For more information, visit

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