One Thousand Words on Schmoozing

I’ve come to a surprising realization at my job recently. I like schmoozing. And I think I might be getting pretty good at it. Actually, schmoozing might not be the right way to put it. I like meeting with people, talking about how important our arts organization is to the community and then asking them for money. And I really like it when they say yes right then and there. Of course, that doesn’t happen very often. I usually have to wait. Delayed gratification.

The reason that this is a surprising realization is that I’ve never been good with small talk. This weekend I attended a party thrown by the family of my best friend from college. She told me that she had a conversation with her father before the party. He was worried that some of the guests wouldn’t know anyone and would be uncomfortable. She said that I was coming and I wasn’t going to know anyone either. He said, “But Heather is good at small talk.” My friend was shocked. She told him that Heather hated small talk more than anything. And she’s right. I have always sucked at making idle conversation. I never know what to say and I usually end up standing there smiling until I can find an excuse to leave. I think part of it is that I’m not good on my feet. I have to think about things before I can come up with something intelligent to say. When my colleagues get together and talk about the industry, I do more listening than talking. It’s not until I’ve processed things later that I have a comment or a question. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m like this. With board members or my employees I’m now comfortable saying, “I have to think about that and get back to you.” It’s certainly better than winging it and saying something stupid.

Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why I like meeting donors and fundraising. I think about it before hand and have a plan. There’s even this formula in fundraising circles that tells you how much time you should chit chat before getting down to business, how many people should be there to talk to the donor, etc. It’s planned right down to the amount to ask for. It may appear off the cuff, but it isn’t. That suits me.

I’ve also never been a person who seeks the spotlight. I know lots of Executive Directors who take every opportunity to be in the newspaper or get their face out there. That was one of my biggest concerns when I was promoted. I was the leader of the organization; I couldn’t hide behind the scenes anymore, even though I am very comfortable behind the scenes. That’s what I am used to. Even when I was directing community theatee, I wasn’t “out there.” I never let the cast pull me onstage for the final curtain call. That’s not I was directed. But with my current position, I have to be out there. I am the face of the organization. (I record the radio ads, so I guess I’m also the voice of the organization!) I do the pre-show curtain speeches and sign the letters. And meet with the donors.

I’ve done a lot of fundraising over the past year. This summer has been pretty quiet on that front until this week. As I was driving to work this morning, I realized that I was excited about my meetings today. And then when we confirmed donations for $5,000 and $2,500, it hit me: I really like this part of my job and want to do it more often.

I think I’m getting better at it too. A couple of weeks ago, a board member and I met with a business owner about sponsoring a show. He told us to check back with him this week. Yesterday I walked into his store and asked him if he had made a decision. He asked me a couple of questions and then just stood there. I don’t know if he was thinking or trying to stall or what. So I stood there too, and waited. It seemed like forever. A couple of times I almost said, “Do you need to think about it a little more?” or “Should I come back next week?” But I didn’t. I decided that I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. And then he said, “We’ll do it.” What a rush! I was so proud of myself for not babbling nervously and giving him an excuse to postpone a decision or say no.

I had an equally gratifying experience today. We get a lot of support from the banks in our area. We courted a particular bank last year and they ended up giving us $1,000. I know that’s nothing to sneeze at, but other banks were giving us three and five times that amount. This year I made a very detailed, individualized proposal asking them for $10,000. I knew it was a stretch, but figured if we ended up with $2,500 I’d be happy. Not surprisingly, they said no to the $10,000. But instead of giving up, I had a conversation with them about their philanthropic priorities (doesn’t that sound like I know what I’m talking about?) and marketing needs, and went back to them with a $5,000 proposal. Again, I was hoping for $2,500. They called today and agreed to the $5,000! I could barely stop from jumping up and down. And these are relatively small numbers. You should have seen me when a company pledged $50,000 or when I got a check in the mail for $30,000. It’s a great feeling.

We had a donor reception last month and, even though it’s my tendency to stick to the walls or hide behind the bar serving wine, I mingled and chatted. Maybe all this fundraising is also making me a little better at small talk. At least I know I’m good enough to fool my friend’s father!

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