Fundraising Under a Cloud

Have you ever faced a major personal crisis, which distracted you from your work and caused you to lose focus? I’m convinced that we all have.

In my case, at age 35, I was diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer that spread first to my lymph nodes, then liver, and then lungs. If you know anything about cancer, you'll know that the outlook was not encouraging. I was facing the serious possibility of my life ending not even halfway through my career, leaving behind a kindergartner and a long bucket list.  (Visiting Napa Valley, swimming with whale sharks and feeding a giraffe were all on there!)

No question about it, the last five years have been a battle. But through two recurrences; three major surgeries; three minor surgeries; 20 rounds of IV chemo; 2,352 chemo pills; countless biopsies, tests, scans, pokes, prods and procedures, I made up my mind that my diagnosis would not stop me from being an effective fundraiser, wife, mother and community member.

 Jessi Marsh with her husband and daughter

Jessi Marsh with her husband and daughter

Over the past five years (with the never-ending support of my husband, family, friends and colleagues), I have raised a now nine-year-old daughter, doubled my nonprofit’s operating budget, and run each year in the Pittsburgh Marathon’s relay race. In 2016, I was the top fundraiser for the marathon's Run for a Reason peer-to-peer charity program (raising more than $60,000 over five years, thanks to my generous supporters).  

I'm not sharing this with you to brag but because I know that struggles—big and small—happen to all of us. Physical or mental illness, marital strife, children with special needs, the loss of a loved one, addiction, the list is endless.

But I’m here to tell you that if I can do it, you can do it. Setting aside your challenges in one area of your life – health issues, heartbreak, even grief – and focusing on the task at hand is the roadmap to success. In my case, continuing to use my skills to generate support for a worthwhile cause energized me, helped me stay positive, and made the victories of our philanthropic work even sweeter.   

Following are practical pointers for fundraising when you're under a cloud:  

1. Believe in your ability to overcome pain, weakness and fatigue, whether physical, mental or emotional. Visualize yourself getting out of bed and having a productive, successful day. You might have to go slower, put in fewer hours, or ask a coworker for help. But you can get plenty done if you set aside your problems and focus on the great work you know how to do. 

2. Rest, refresh and recharge after completing a difficult project or an arduous day of meetings. Congratulate yourself and give your brain, heart and body time to recover. Take a few moments to celebrate your many reasons to be grateful.  

3. Ask for help. I had a dear friend who would "put the word out" for what I needed. When my energy was low, I would gladly accept a casseroles or a car wash, for example. Ask your boss for support, such as being able to work from home or use video conferencing to reduce commuting and in-office time.  

4. Share your story. I’ve been very open about my battle with cancer. I share it to connect with others, to be authentic, to offer hope, and to give the opportunity for people who care about me to offer encouragement and support. My community has been so kind to mein return. Give yours the same chance. 

5. Pursue joy and pleasure. Energize your spirit by engaging in activities you love. Indulge in a fluffy pure-beach escape read. Order that giant piece of carrot cake. Splurge on a round of golf at the amazing new course. Watch Golden Girls reruns.   

6. Cry in the shower. Another cancer warrior, my friend Mary, gave me the best advice. Emotions like fear, anxiety, disappointment, or grief can take over your whole day if you let them. Give these emotions their moment. Cry, freak out, yell and scream. In the shower, in the woods, in your car, or on the phone with your best friend. Then be done with it. Wipe those tears; take a breath; and get on with it.  You have a list of donors to thank!   

7. Focus on your organization's mission. You believe in it enough to dedicate this part of your career to it. Regardless of your personal struggle, there are still hungry people to feed; homeless people to shelter; puppies that to be adopted; veterans who need support; new facilities to build; students in need of financial aid; groundbreaking research on cancer therapies; and much more. The world needs you.      

Effective fundraisers capture the hearts and minds of generous people and connect them to causes that matter. With our donors' help, we're changing the world and impacting lives. We can't do it without you. Being needed and being effective is one of the best cures of all.

And, guess what, this May, I got to feed Louis, the giraffe. Life gets better and better.

The Pittsburgh-based Jessi Marsh worked for nine years at Light of Life Rescue Mission before joining Crouch & Associates earlier this year.