My first job in fundraising was with an organization that did anti-poverty work in India.
A few months after I started, they sent me to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to experience the work first-hand.
I had quite a few Kolkata-focused fundraising projects under my belt by this time, so I thought I knew that place. I thought.
Kolkata, is no picnic for Western visitors. It was rougher back then. The city was like a black hole, pulling in desperate people from a poverty-stricken hinterland the stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction. All kinds of political and social unrest kept the city on edge and struggling to make progress.
The sidewalks were lined with makeshift tents where whole families lived. A tormenting odor of raw sewage, thickened and intensified by the heat and humidity, hung everywhere. Sick, injured, and deformed beggars displayed their wounds.
If anything, it was worse than the nightmare place I'd been writing about.
But after a few days, my picture of the city developed some nuance.
The place where I was staying had a view into a walled compound across the street. It was apparently the home of a wealthy family. It was a lush, manicured garden, with more shades of green that I thought my eyes could take in, and studded with tropical flowers.
One day, I saw a holy man in the garden. He crouched and poured a crystal stream of water from a silver bowl over his head. The water flashed in the sunlight like a mirror.
It was a scene of heart-aching beauty that captured my imagination. To this day, it is my dominant image of Kolkata.
When I returned I home, I felt I had a mission: to teach everyone the truth that while Kolkata may be a place of poverty, pain, ugliness, it's also a place of real beauty.
Accounts of India that emphasized pain, ugliness, and poverty were anathema to me. My own fundraising began to emphasize the beauty and wonder of the place over the poverty and suffering. I was embarrassed about my pre-trip messaging, which had just imitated other fundraising I'd seen, majoring in the negative.
You can probably guess how my fundraising did.
My post-trip stuff did much worse than what I'd written before I'd gone. The educated, aware Jeff was a crummy fundraiser.
I might have stalled out as a mediocre, frustrated fundraiser -- never doing well, not understanding why, but annoyed with those stubborn donors who refused to accept the lesson I was giving them. Luckily, I found a mentor who opened my eyes to the reality of donors.
The beauty of Kolkata is beside the point for most of them. They give to combat the ugliness. My approach was like a doctor saying to a cancer patient, "Let's celebrate the fact that you are mostly tumor free!" If you have cancer, the tumor is what you need to focus on.
That's how I turned back into a fundraiser.
You talk to donors. Not to yourself.
(This post first appeared on August 29, 2013.)
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