Liz Henderson reveals the secrets of success of the fundraiser who says being good at her job means being “invisible.”
“If I am being really good at my role, I am invisible,” says Susanne Williamson, CFRE. Her goal is connecting charities with stakeholders in relationships that will lead to gifts being made while she stays in the background.
However, with the wisdom and skill she has amassed over more than 25 years holding senior marketing and fundraising positions at charities including the Heart Foundation, the Arts Centre Melbourne, Monash University and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (knowledge she generously shares as a tutor for the Fundraising Institute Australia’s Certificate of Fundraising and Fundraising Essentials courses) Williamson can’t help standing out.
In F&P’s survey asking readers to name movers and shakers within the sector, the head of fundraising at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research was put forward by the most people – including one of the organisation’s donors. There could not be many accolades more glowing than the comments of John Dyson, whose family supports the Institute through the Dyson Bequest. “We have always found Susanne to be extremely professional and genuine to deal with,” he wrote. “We support a large number of causes and deal with numerous fundraising professionals, without any doubt Susanne Williamson is one of the best!”
Beating organisational fear of asking
In just two years in her current role, the 53-year-old has launched the Institute’s Centenary Fellowships campaign aiming to raise $50 million by 2019 to secure 100 five-year fellowships for promising young scientists. In its first year, the appeal has already received $10 million. Williamson says she is most proud of building fundraising in an organisation that historically has relied on bequests – and also of combating “organisational fear of asking.”
“In every organisation I have ever worked in, the board, CEO and staff have always secretly hoped I will arrive with a magic money tree under my arm,” she points out. “It takes coaching and coaxing to overcome the fear.”
“One of my preferred strategies is to set up some early wins for your chairman and CEO. After I set up conversations with generous long-standing donors, I say, ‘You should really catch up with our director and chairman,’ and I know it’s going to be a fantastic meeting with a gift at the end of it. There is nothing more affirming than a face-to-face discussion with a donor that results in a gift.”
Williamson would know: She has helped raise $50 million, in total, towards medical research, youth and arts charities. These include securing one of the largest gifts towards performing arts in Australia: Miss Betty Amsden’s $5 million gift in 2009 to Arts Centre Melbourne.
Robin Penty, who at the time was working with Williamson as Arts Centre Melbourne’s Head of Participation and Public Programs, calls her former colleague “outstanding, results-driven, inspiring … in my opinion, Susanne is one of the top three fundraisers in the country. Her contribution to the knowledge and skill base of the next generation of fundraisers will be felt for years.”
Pondering what she is best at, Williamson is matter-of-fact. “I am a strong strategic thinker,” she says, “remembering that strategy is deploying resources to effectively achieve desired objectives … I am good at identifying an appropriate strategy for the organisation and developing a small, effective fundraising team to deliver that result.”
Slow and steady wins
Another secret of her success is resisting the temptation to rush in at a new charity with solutions she has seen work in other roles. “I do take the time and it’s usually about the first three months in a new role,” she explains. “Ask questions, get out and meet donors, meet whoever the beneficiaries are, take a thorough look at what’s been done before then document your recommendations. You are much more likely to come up with the right strategic response for that organisation.”
Williamson says her very first job (cadet journalist at the Latrobe Valley Express at age 17, after horrifying her parents by leaving school in Year 11) “was fantastic training for sharing people’s stories.” But her earliest lessons were watching her dad’s passionate involvement in Lions Clubs and other community work that he continues now, aged 80.
She’s also aware of her limits. Describing herself as “an introvert in an extrovert’s job” she reveals “my first instinct is not to join in things”. To recharge her engagement batteries, weekends are “quiet and contemplative”, and often spent gardening.
Of her career highlights, she says: “Multimillion dollar gifts are always a highlight, particularly as they usually involve a close working relationship with inspiring individuals. But one of my most gratifying moments was receiving a call from the CFO of an organisation I’d worked with three years prior – to say the direct marketing program I’d established was performing so well and was a bedrock of the organisation. It is really satisfying to embed sustainable fundraising practices that deliver long-term results.”
Advice for fundraising success:
Take it slow in a new role: “Occasionally I can spot an easy win but it is better to really give some deep thought to the organisation and its mission, it’s resourcing, history and talent and from that prepare a pathway forward.”
And keep taking it slow: “Effective fundraising requires equal parts patience and persistence.
Become a storyteller: “It is important to tell your stories within your organisation as it is to tell the stories beyond your organisation.”
Liz Henderson is editor of Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine.