Strategic Development & The Bottom Line with Fundraising Guru Judi Cantor

Throughout her extensive career as a fundraiser with organizations such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Children's Museum, and the Museum of Science in Boston, Judi Cantor has raised over $100 Million.

Now, she works independently as a consultant for numerous organizations as an entrepreneurial change agent, guiding organizations towards the next level of their development. Notes On The Road caught up with Judi in Central Park for an interview (courtesy of Skype) on exploring the anatomy of change, the importance of stewardship, and how the right balance of these two elements are crucial to the success of any fundraising strategy.

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Judi, first off, thank you so much for lending your time to Notes On The Road.

I looked at the site and thought, "These are amazing people." Thank you. I'm truly not worthy.

You're already demonstrating humility. Would you say that's a prerequisite for success in your work?

I don't think anybody knows who the best fundraisers in the world are. I think they take guesses at people who head the organizations that multi-millionaires give to and usually those aren't the people who are the fundraisers. The fundraisers are behind the scenes.

What inspired you to leave a formal, institutional setting and work independently? What are some of the advantages of working independently as opposed to within an organization?

Well I think it's all about wanting to make change happen for the good of the organization-the kind of change in the Harvard model of forming, storming, norming, and performing--that kind of change. It's a model that was developed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965 and he calls it "Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing." They're sort of the street rules where, in order to really complete change, you have to have all four of those things happen. I would see incomplete change in organizations. I realized that in order to really help make that happen, you have to be a consultant. When I was hired as staff I've gone to the organization and thought, "You really need to do this, this, and this," and I've been a very impatient person and want good change to happen right away.

Then I realized, "This is an organization, a bureaucracy, this is going to take twenty years, and I'm going to be dead by that time." But if you get a consultant in there, the consultant looks at the big picture, tells you what you need to do, and the organization either does it or they don't. What I've found is that organizations are more willing to do what needs to be done if the consultant has credentials and is speaking from some distance. So I just got to that point where I said, "This is silly, I really need to be on my own. I need to be doing this, putting my heart into it, and really having fun with it."

You mentioned "change." What would you say is the relationship between change and fundraising?

In fundraising, it's all about change. If you keep doing the same things you've been doing for years and years, you're never going to achieve the level of fundraising that you probably want to achieve. But there are some organizations that resent that kind of change, then they sit back and go, "Why aren't we raising the money we need to raise?" Here's a perfect example: the Boston Pops-I don't know if you saw this article in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago-but the article said that the Pops was losing money. There is no reason in the world for the Pops to lose money. What it stems from is the fact that they lost a TV contract. Why did they lose a TV contract? Because they lost the funding from their sponsor. Why? Why don't we look at that a little differently? Turn that completely around and say, "Oh I see, the Pops is a real cash cow. How can we really create a fundraising organization for the Pops, dedicated to the Pops, rather than worry about one sponsorship?" But they're not doing it. So they're really losing by not doing it. So I think fundraising demands change consistently.

What do you do to inspire people to change and what is the most common resistance that you see that prevents that change from taking hold? What is it that makes institutions or people resist that change, especially when they can clearly see that what they've been doing is probably going to produce the same results that they've been producing?

There's a level of comfort, I call it dysfunctional comfort that happens in organizations when they get really set in what they're doing. I think those kinds of organizations are very much like dysfunctional families. They find this level of comfort, and even though it's dysfunctional, it's comfortable. And they don't want to step outside of it. So what is takes is someone who's willing to raise the flag and say, "We've got to change things, something has got to be different about this picture, and if we do, this is what's going to happen." It takes a fair amount of creating a dream and having buy-in from some of the Board to make that happen.

You've done a lot of work over your career with the arts. Is that a special interest of yours? What pulls you towards that area in particular?

I think it's part of our DNA. I think the arts speak to our souls, and when art is not a part of our lives, something feels as if it's missing. Even though I'm not an artist in any form or fashion, I absolutely recognize that I need the arts, so I love working with organizations that have anything to do with education in the arts.

Can you discuss the importance of stewardship for arts organizations and organizations in general and how that is important for their long-term fundraising goals and financial health?

Stewardship is absolutely essential. It involves that line of trust that you have with your donors that should be unbroken. It doesn't matter who your gift officer is or who your stewardship officer is or the CEO of the company you're giving money to. That organization should always be paying tribute to you for being a part of that organization. What I'm saying is that should be uninterrupted in your lifetime of giving. You as a donor should be deciding how much access you want to the product. I think in many ways, stewardship is not only the act of revising this relationship, I think it's also the act of giving access to the product. I find that in large organizations, your donors want access. Kimball Gallagher is a name and your donors are going to want access to you. They're going to want to know how you're doing and what you're doing. Whether or not you talk to them personally or just send them a note, they're always going to want that access because they feel part of you once they get to know you.

That's so interesting, the notion of being part of something. Stewardship allows people to feel included like they're part of an organization, and even though they may not be making decisions, they're part of the organization, the fuel for it.

Exactly. So much so that when people put an organization in their bequest, they're wanting to carry on the experience they've had for eternity. That's part of that whole unbroken line. So the fact that organizations need to wake up to stewardship is a fundraising essential. I think this is a for-profit thing too, that for-profits need to be more aware of-if they wake up to how important stewardship is to that company, it leaves them that legacy.

You're talking about a pretty large timeframe. That's pretty inspiring when you're thinking about stewardship over that length of time.


People talk about, "Oh, I hate schmoozing," or "You have to be so nice to people, I feel so fake doing that," and "Fundraising? You have to be so nice to everybody." I see that attitude among artists who are on the other side of the fundraising fence. Does that expectation ever pose a challenge for you? Or what do you say to people if they were to give you that negative attitude about, or people say, "Oh, of course she's nice, she's raising money." Can you speak to that a little bit?

I think that's such a good question. I'm reading this book about Glenn Gould and feeling so sorry for him because he didn't know how to give people access. I don't know if he had Asperger's or what. He didn't want to be touched. But he had many girlfriends and he had a life outside of his life of being a great pianist, but he really didn't have a life because he prevented anyone from having access to him. And he would say after a concert, "I can't go to the reception," and they'd say, "why not?" and he'd say, "well, I just can't, I can't face those people." On one hand, a person who's fundraising has to respect those wishes, and on the other hand, a person in fundraising has to tell whoever the concert master is, the maestro or CEO, that this is essential to the development of the organization that the people who give to the organization have to have access.

How that happens and how that manifests itself is all about how the artists want to portray themselves. If they want to portray themselves as warm and friendly, then they'll demand the maestro to give them access. If they want to portray themselves as sort of above the hoi polloi, access will change dramatically. But that organization has to think about how they portray themselves with the donors and how much they can give because if an artist, or a maestro or conductor, were to give the appropriate kind of access, that organization will never have to want it if they're doing their marketing and stewardship correctly. It's all tied together.

Is it partly the job of a fundraiser to sometimes guide or even coach different members of the organization around that?

Absolutely. And if the fundraiser can't do it, then they should bring someone in who can help them with that.

What is your background and how did you get involved in fundraising? On a larger scale in the scope of your life, when did you feel that you had a sense of how to unlock that process or that way of developing relationships to allow for those possibilities?

The way I got into fundraising wasn't the normal way that people would get into fundraising. I always thought that I was going to be a writer. I went to journalism school, and I've just always loved writing. Years ago I formed my own ad agency in Austin and thought this would be a great way to write. So I wrote ads, I won awards, and I built the ad agency from nothing to having eight employees and doing really well, and then I lost everything. We had a depression in Texas in the ‘80's. I lost everything: my land, my car, everything. And miraculously, I got into fundraising. Someone needed to produce a telethon, I was a producer, and I became the producer, director, and director of development for this children's hospital that was being built. From a real basic tragedy in my life came this wonderful thing called development. Marketing and development seemed to go together and made so much sense, and I decided to devote my life to it. So that's my story.

Is there a campaign that you started when you thought to yourself, "I've never even thought about raising that amount of money," or "I don't know how this is going to be possible," then you stepped into it anyway and were surprised in the end? From the moment of it seeming impossible to actually doing it, for you personally, was there an organization you worked with or a specific moment you felt was pivotal or remarkable in that way?

That is such an interesting question because I've never been faced with a goal I didn't think was achievable. And maybe that's what makes me a fundraiser. I've always been that kind of person who looked at a goal, and with the proper research, thought, "We can achieve that and more." Even when I was with the American Museum of Natural History and they told me we needed to raise $850 million--immediately, I started calculating who are the top twenty donors and I realized that they would make it. In fact, they overachieved it. That is such an interesting question because I have never, ever thought that it wasn't possible.

Well, it stands to reason maybe that that's an important part of the mindset is obviously just to believe that something's possible.

I think it's because I've come across so many people whom others thought could not possibly give in the seven figures and others who are not fundraisers say, "Who does she think she is?" And I would be able to think about what that person has done in their life and what their wealth aspirations were or are, and I would realize immediately somebody's judging them by what they're wearing or what they did. Look at this person: this is a person who owns his or her own business, this is a person who has come into a lot of wealth. If you really analyze the person, you would see that they have achieved and are much more than the package appears. I think that's a huge mistake of many fundraisers is that they look at the book by the cover. It really upsets me, frankly.

At the risk of sounding crass - if you need to raise a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time, you need to decide where your energy is going to be focused and which people you're going to be focusing on. Is that a mechanical process on some level? An analysis? How much does intuition play a role for you and how much is it really just pure numbers?

It's both. There is a mechanical process. There is something called a research overlay that you can do on high-net worth people, and you find immediately what their capacity to give is. So that's the science part of it. And then you look at their inclination to give. Their inclination is really well known in the fundraising field. When you really dig down into inclination, you've got to have someone in the organization who knows that person well who can tell you what their inclination is. So it is a science and an art.

Has it ever challenged your integrity to accept money from a source or a business that you know might be questionable? Is that something that enters the discussion?

Absolutely. There are people in many different situations who have wealth that aren't giving their wealth to the organizations for the reason you would expect. They have other motives. But that's rare.

Who would you say is your ideal client these days?

I think it's a small education or arts organization that is thinking of doing a campaign or wanting an assessment of their fundraising, and I can help them. Thank you for asking me that!