6 Fundraising Lessons from Lord of the Rings
At least once a year, I read and watch the Lord of the Rings books and moves. Sure, it’s a little dorky—but, on top of being super absorbing, the books and movies are also full of great life lessons.
Some lessons are universal. There’s always time for a snack (especially if you’re a hobbit). Don’t trust people with gross table manners (Denethor is super gross). You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (Gimli and Legolas, aww). The books and movies also have some great life lessons for fundraisers!
Need an excuse to watch Lord of the Rings at the office? Tell your supervisor you’re learning valuable lessons, like:
Lesson 1: There’s power in diversity
There’s value in teamwork, especially if you build a team of people with diverse skills. Think of your fundraising team. You’re all working together to meet your organization’s goals. It’s natural for those with different fundraising skills to compete with each other, but it’s much more effective to let everyone play to their strengths. Everyone should have the support of the rest of the group.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, everyone had their own ideas about how Frodo should dispose of the ring. Arguments erupted. People shouted at one another. It was chaos, and nothing got done. Only after the Fellowship was formed did the quest get underway. Everyone in the Fellowship had their own talents to offer: Gandalf was wise and powerful. Aragorn was a ranger who knew the terrain and how to survive. Legolas had great eyesight (not to mention enviable hair) and was a valuable scout. Sam was loyal and practical. Everyone was different, but each was indispensable to the overall goal—getting the ring to Mordor.
Similarly, a development team should include a variety of skills, each a valuable part of getting you to your fundraising goals. If your whole team focused exclusively on major gifts planners, your year-end gala would be terrible. If everyone was only concerned with writing grants, your individual donors would suffer. You might not need Aragorn’s sword, Legolas’ bow, or Gimli’s axe, but you need a diverse team of fundraisers if you want to reach your fundraising goals.
Lesson 2: It’s okay to ask for help
There aren’t really many good .gifs of this moment from the movie, which I think is kind of a shame. If you haven’t watched The Two Towers, here’s a short rundown. Aragorn and Gimli are both fighting at the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and they encounter a situation that requires they leap a considerable distance to drive off a horde of orcs. Gimli, being a dwarf, can’t jump that far… so he asks Aragorn to toss him. It’s funny, but it’s actually a very sweet moment! Gimli is notoriously prideful throughout the movies to this point. Asking for help is not easy for him! It’s a big deal for him to put aside his pride to do something heroic.
And man is it easy to relate! Pride can be a beast, and it can be so hard to ask for help when we fall short. Take it from Gimli: it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. You might feel the need to be the invincible fundraising professional who can handle every task that’s thrown at you—but nobody is invincible. We all need help from our friends sometimes… especially when it’s January and you have 300 new-donor thank-you cards to write.
Lesson 3: Sometimes changing plans is unavoidable—be flexible
If you’re anything like me, you like to have a plan… and you hate changing it. But it’s important to recognize when it’s time to change your plans. Just ask Frodo and the gang—they were all set to climb up Mount Caradhras and take Redhorn Pass on their way to Mordor. But the evil wizard, Saruman, foiled their plans by sending a raging storm their way. Defeated, Frodo had to decide whether they’d risk dying of exposure (or being squished by enormous avalanches) on the mountain or risk going through the mines of Moria. Neither option was ideal. But Frodo made the difficult choice to go through Moria, and the Fellowship followed his lead.
Changing plans is the worst. It makes you feel out of control, and it’s often hard to let go of our visions of how those plans would work out. Flexibility is important, especially when you’re fundraising. When your plans aren’t working, when you come up against obstacles you can’t power through, give yourself permission to make changes. Change that appeal that’s not resonating with your donors. Revamp the event that isn’t inspiring people to register. Update the donor retention plan you thought would work but fell flat. It’s okay.
We just hope your new plan doesn’t involve as many goblins as Frodo’s did.
Lesson 4: Even in the face of overwhelming odds, there is always hope
The people in the Fellowship felt hopeless… a LOT. After all, they faced a huge, huge mission. How on earth could one little group of people destroy one of the most malevolent forces of all time? I’m sure there were lots of times they were tempted to give up. I definitely would have given up a few times, especially if I’d known I was going to be potentially eaten by gigantic evil spider. It would all just seem like too much.
Burnout is a huge issue in the nonprofit industry. There are a million contributing factors, and I’m not going to get into weeds with those today. One thing I hear from many of my friends in the nonprofit world is that things can just get really overwhelming.
Fundraising goals are changed at the last minute. You have to juggle new programs, existing campaigns, board members, and volunteers. Budget cuts limit your resources, but your goals stay the same. All that pressure adds up quickly.
On top of all of that, nonprofits tackle huge global issues. Talk about overwhelming! When you’re working to alleviate world hunger, educate the world about mental illness, or solve any other problem that affects the world, it’s natural to feel intimidated sometimes.
When you’re overwhelmed, remember: there’s always hope. You might not solve a global problem today. You might not see how you’ll reach that goal or make that budget work. But there’s always hope. You’re creative and determined and good at what you do. You’re making a difference in the world, even if that’s a hard thing to remember sometimes.
Lesson 5: It’s important to recognize your supporters
First off, I’m just gonna throw this out there—if you didn’t cry during this scene, I don’t know if we can be friends.
Aragorn is pretty cool. He’s a Ranger, which means he’s great at fighting, tracking, and surviving. The most beautiful woman in Middle Earth is in love with him. He’s the most recent descendant of a line of kings, and he’s the heir to the throne of Gondor. At one point, he helped launch what was a pretty hopeless attack on the Black Gates in Mordor to give Sam and Frodo a better chance at destroying the Ring.
He doesn’t let it all go to his head. He stays humble, even when he is crowned King of Gondor, and is careful to acknowledge the hobbits who helped him take his throne.
When you’re a nonprofit fundraiser, it’s critically important to recognize, thank, and honor your supporters. When you meet a fundraising goal or hit a new benchmark, it’s totally fine to pat yourself on the back—just be sure you recognize the people who helped you get where you are. Aragorn wasn’t crowned king on his own—a lot of people helped. Make sure you acknowledge the people who help you, too!
Honoring your donors, volunteers, partners, and other staff is critically important. Take a leaf from Aragorn’s book and make sure you go out of your way to express your gratitude to them.
Lesson 6: Everyone can make a difference—including you
Frodo’s a small guy—literally and figuratively. He’s short. He isn’t a seasoned fighter like many of his other companions. He makes mistakes. And he’s definitely not a hero in the traditional sense—but he still saves the world.
That’s a powerful lesson! You don’t have to be the top fundraiser at a huge nonprofit to make a difference. Singlehandedly raising a million dollars isn’t the only way you can change the world. Your work matters, and it makes an impact. Every dollar you raise makes a difference. You change the world with every person you help. Even the smallest person can change the course of the future—including you.