Four and a half years of fundraising, on the streets of three cities. Four and a half years of conversations, with thousands of people, hundreds of which have signed up for charity donations. Four and a half years of leading teams, and training fundraisers.
That's the story of Alexander Steven Hughes, one of DialogueDirect's longest serving fundraisers. Recently, Alex took the reigns of the Chicago Campaign as its City Coordinator, and I knew I had to feature his incredible story. It's a long one, with ups and downs, struggles and triumphs. Without further delay, here's Alex, on how to build your career in face-to-face fundraising.
I started fundraising in Denver, about four and a half years ago, in January 2012. I'd just moved to Denver, it was a brand new city for me, I had very little money, and I was staying with a friend in her basement. I needed a job, and I needed to hold on to it. I found DialogueDirect, and they hired me.
I was excited to be working for a great cause, getting kids sponsored, but I was nervous, too. I had no idea what to expect, and back then, the Denver office was very small. I had just one leader to train me, so it was up to me to adapt quickly and jump right into street fundraising. Definitely a trial by fire, but despite the pressure, I found I loved it. It was challenging, it will always be challenging, but I needed to keep working, so I pushed through it.
Just a few months in, the leader who trained me suddenly left the team, and suddenly Denver was an office with no Team Leaders, and just one City Manager. Even though I was still relatively new, my Manager asked me to step up and lead the rest of the team. I knew I needed to do it, to keep the team on track. I pushed my doubts aside, and said, "Someone needs to do this, and I'm going to step in and do it. I'm going to make it work." And it worked!
A few months after taking on that unofficial leadership role, I was promoted to Site Representative (Team Leader in Training), along with three other fundraisers. We would be the core of Denver's new leadership team, but the pressure was on to earn that title. Our Manager told us that we had just six weeks to build a team, from scratch, and that our new team needed to meet our charity partner's expectations, otherwise, we'd be demoted back to Dialoguer.
We had tough targets to hit, both for team fundraising averages, and total donors signed. It was another huge challenge, and I only hit my goal for the first time on week five. I worked weekends, I came in early, I stayed late, just to barely hit what we needed to hit, but my team and I did it! I was promoted to a full Team Leader.
Then, suddenly, DialogueDirect HQ told me that they needed leaders to help train the teams in Portland, Oregon. They asked me if I wanted to go. They knew I could start a team from scratch, that my teams could be successful, and they needed me there. I said yes. Just a few weeks after my promotion, I was off to Portland.
When I arrived in Portland, the campaign was struggling. At one point, I was the only DialogueDirect fundraiser in Portland, period. It was another brand new city, I knew no one there, and I had to pull our campaign back from the brink. It was the hardest start I've ever had, but I put my head down and did it. It started by rebuilding our team with some key players. We brought back Ivey, who used to fundraise in Portland. Her energy and passion formed the cornerstone of our new campaign, and we built on that foundation by adding more talented former fundraisers to the team. Ivey and I worked early mornings, and late hours, to pull the team together, putting extra effort into building tangible team bonds, and creating a warm atmosphere for the team. It's a hard thing to do, and it's impossible to fake. We needed real buy in from our fundraisers, and we struggled with that.
That's where Taelor Boddington came in. She arrived to lead the new Portland team as our City Coordinator, bringing a ton of face-to-face management experience, energy, and passion. She got us all on a new level of motivation, and really brought the whole campaign to life. Successes led to more successes, that success formed the foundation of a strong team bond. We didn't need to force our office culture anymore: it was there. Our fundraisers wanted to be there, doing what they loved, and they wanted to be standing next to their teammates. People were excited to go to team nights. By the summer, we were really rolling, and Portland was signing donors like crazy. We had leaders, and a team, that worked well together, and Portland was riding high.
Taelor, Ivey and I made a great leadership trio. We each had our own role to play, and while there was overlap, we quickly found a rhythm that worked for us. Ivey brought the energy and creativity that powered the whole office. I focused on our team's drive, holding fundraisers accountable for their goals, and making sure we gave it our all every day. Taelor's experience shone through as she built the office culture from the ground up. I saw how she worked to involve new teammates in that culture, folding in people outside of the core of our campaign, showing all of the Portland leaders how to lead in the field, and after hours. She taught me how to invest in a trainee fully, how to make it fun for them in the field, and outside of work. I took the lessons to heart, and they're still a part of my leadership philosophy today.
Fast forward a couple years. I was still in Portland, leading a very successful team, as a part of a very successful campaign, alongside Ivey, Taelor, and Aaron, one of my best friends. Everything was solid, but I knew I wanted to keep growing. Portland is a small market, and so growth to the next step, Campaign Manager, would be challenging here.
Then, I got the news. DialogueDirect had put out an open call, to leaders across the country, to move to Chicago and revitalize the campaign there. Aaron and I were invited to take advantage of the opportunity. When we got the news, we literally jumped up and down, we were so excited. We packed our bags and prepared to put another city back on its feet. It would be the biggest "put your feet to the fire" moment of my whole career.
I arrived in Chicago, and found a team that was struggling on almost every level: morale, performance, and team culture. Bringing that team up to speed stretched our leadership skills to the brink. We got someone promoted to a Site Rep position, only to see them leave, just four days later. Despite the challenges, Aaron and I, along with the rest of the leaders from across the U.S., kept our heads down and focused on keeping our momentum going. We built a solid foundation for our office culture, which I felt was our greatest accomplishment.
My leadership philosophy, which is a combination of everything I'd learned in Denver, and everything I'd learned in Portland, revolves around three things:
First, you inspire your trainee to succeed for you, their leader. You form a partnership with them. You help them understand that you don't succeed, unless they succeed. You help them understand that you take pride in their success. They want to work hard, and they want to be successful, because they want to make you proud.
Then it's your job to get them invested in their team. You foster those bonds between veterans and trainees, you help them feel a real connection to the office culture, and you form that bond in the field, and off the field. You teach your trainee that they can lean on veteran dialoguers when they need to, and you teach your veterans to back up your trainees, creating a culture of support. Now your fundraiser wants to make you proud, and their team proud. They want to succeed for the person next to them.
Third, you teach them to do it for themselves. You help them find what it is that motivates them to give everything they have, every single day. You get them to a place where they're so self-driven, that you could put them on any corner, in any city, and not only will they get the job done, they will excel, because they love it. Independence and personal work ethic are the tools you use to help a trainee transition into becoming their own fundraiser, and their own leader. Those leaders will form the core of your team, and you'll find yourself leading a campaign. I found that this three step process does wonders for building up exceptional fundraisers, and the hands-on training we provide has been really effective in building the Chicago campaign.
Finally, I've found that to succeed as a team, you need to want to be with the people you're working with. You need to have team nights that revolve around people having actual fun. You can force some nights with fun little antics, but really, you need your team to be able to kick back and relax together. The leaders and I decided to get people together on the weekends, after Saturday, the most challenging shift. We bought them some pizza, a few beers, and chilled out together.
We had fun together as friends, and as a team, and that built a lot of camaraderie and trust, quickly. In the field, they saw us doing our utmost, putting in time six days a week, coming in early, and working late if they needed support. They saw our buy in to the campaign, our investment, professionally and emotionally, and that helped them create their own buy in. They invested in us, and we invested in them.
Finally, after a few hard months, it all paid off. After bringing back yet another team from the brink, I'd get to run this one. They told me I'd be City Coordinator of the Chicago Campaign. I arrived last week, and I couldn't be more proud of my new team!
What else is there to say? Thank you for sharing your incredible story, Alex. Congratulations on your promotion!
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