Developing Your Fundraising ‘Swing’: Lessons Learned from Rowing

Developing Your Fundraising ‘Swing’: Lessons Learned from Rowing

March 16, 2017 by Dan Schipp


“When you get the rhythm in an eight, it’s pure pleasure to be in it.  It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes – that ‘swing’ as they call it. I’ve heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it’s a thing they’ll never forget as long as they live.”

 - George Yeoman Pocock, as quoted in The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

The book, and accompanying note, arrived shortly before Thanksgiving. It came from a chief advancement officer to express gratitude for being part of the leadership team of a successful campaign and to bring closure to the work of that team. 

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I expected it to be a book about leadership or vision or philanthropy, but I was wrong. It was a book about rowing! It was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a #1 New York Times bestseller about the crew of working class boys from the University of Washington (UW) who, against all odds, competed for the eight-oar gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Boys in the Boat is a well-researched, gripping and inspiring narrative about UW’s eight-man crew’s quest for rowing excellence and the roles played by the boat designer, coaches, rowers, and coxswain in that journey to gold. Brown’s spellbinding account takes place in the 1930’s when the United States was suffering through the Great Depression, Germany was seeing the rise of the Third Reich, and rowing was enjoying popularity second to only track and field among Olympic sports. Not long into The Boys in the Boat, I discovered that it was not going to be easy to put the book down. Brown is an enthralling storyteller, and he offers great insights into life, as well as rowing.

Take, for example, what the master boat builder, George Yeoman Pocock, had to say about the primary traits of a high-performing rowing team -- “Harmony, balance, and rhythm . . . there you have it . . . that’s also what life is all about.” That insight, as well as others regarding teamwork, patience, persistence, and preparation, is one of many from The Boys in the Boat that apply to fundraising.

Another prominent fundraising take-away from the book is the importance of a fundraising leadership team developing its “swing.”  It was this insight that prompted the chief advancement officer to give The Boys in the Boat to his institution’s chief executive officer, campaign chair, development director, and campaign consultant.  He believed that they, and he, had found that “swing” in their recently completed campaign.  In his note to the campaign leadership team, he said, “. . . we had that swing and we all shared, at various times, the duties of boat builder, coach, rower, and coxswain. We had the right attitude, the right personalities, the right skills.”

What can we learn from The Boys in the Boat about developing that swing in fundraisingI believe Brown’s book points to four key elements:  skills, shared vision, self-discipline, and trust.

  • Skills – Everyone on the fundraising team – institutional chief executive officer, development staff, volunteers, counsel – has a particular role to play. The rest of the team relies on that individual to apply his/her unique skills to that role, whether its casting the vision for the institution; guiding, managing and evaluating the fundraising process; strategizing and carrying out the cultivation, solicitation and stewardship of donors; or building trust and confidence in the institution.
  • Shared Vision – Just as the boat builder, coaches, coxswain, and oarsmen were singularly focused on getting to and succeeding in the Berlin Olympics, so too must the fundraising team be committed to the institution’s core values, guiding mission, and aspirational vision.
  • Self-discipline – The quest for excellence required the “boys in the boat” to devote themselves to the hard work of improving their skills, taking and acting on constructive criticism, and learning to pull together in harmony, balance, and rhythm. Such discipline is also required of a successful fundraising team.
  • Trust – Rowing is built on trust. The coaches rely on the boat builder to craft a worthy vessel. The oarsmen and coxswain look to their coaches to meld them, with their individual abilities and personalities, into a competitive team. The oarsmen, all facing away from their destination, depend on the coxswain, the smallest and least powerful person in the boat, to direct their actions and lead them to the finish line. Excellence in fundraising requires similar deep trust from the full development team – institutional executive leadership, development staff, volunteers, and counsel.

As I learned from reading The Boys in the Boat, it is not a book just about rowing.  It has a lot to teach us . . . and inspire us . . . about life . . . and fundraising. I highly recommend it.


For more advice on building a high-performing development team, review some of our other blogs: