Today’s interview is with Mary Cahalane, Principal of the non-profit company Hands-On Fundraising, LLC. Mary knows this business well as she has been working in nonprofits for 30 years, 26 of those years as a fundraiser. She is especially proud of this newest venture which is only 4 months old. When we talk funds, we’re talking numbers so it wasn’t a surprise to me that math is a part of what she does.
Can you explain what you do for a living? (Be specific!)
I help nonprofit organizations improve their fundraising programs. I focus particularly on annual giving, copywriting and donor communications and improving donor retention.
When do you use basic math in your job?
Fundraising is a funny combination of art and science. I could write the best appeal in the world, but I couldn’t judge it as such until I saw the results. We need to track donations and donor behavior. There are some measurements used all the time: Total dollars, Average gift, Response rate, Retention rate, for instance. All of those things require some math. Setting up and working with donor databases is another area. Information has to be quantified and categorized in order to be useful. How much to weigh this kind of information against that kind? What’s the hierarchy?
Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?
Oh heavens, yes. I no longer trust my brain to do even simple calculations on the fly. That’s what Excel and calculators are for!
But if you don’t understand what it is you’re looking for, all the machines in the world won’t really help. So I need to have a theoretical grasp before resorting to the calculator to do the arithmetic for me.
How do you think math helps you do your job better?
Too often, fundraising can be grounded in instinct. That can work if you’ve got very good instincts. And for the people side of fundraising, good personal skills are critical. Can you connect with people? How are your relationship-building skills? That can be very subjective.
But to measure success, it always comes down to the numbers. Did this appeal work? If your board chair loved it, but it raised very little money, then it did not work. Conversely, if it was so corny it made you cringe, but your donors responded well – it worked. It’s not subjective. It’s all about the numbers.
How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?
I’m pretty comfortable with math at work. I’m in my element there. Outside work, I don’t feel quite as adept. I often grab the calculator to tally the checkbook.
What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?
Math was definitely NOT my subject in high school. I believe our course schedule was Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II/Trig and then if you were a glutton for punishment, you could take Calculus senior year.
I was not a glutton for punishment. Geometry wasn’t too bad. The logic was probably verbal enough for me. I still get hives at the thought of trigonometry, however.
Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?
It’s funny. My first job out of college was so dull. I worked in the import office of a huge retail organization. This English major spent her days hovering over boring import documents and adding long lines of figures. Doing that day in and day out vastly improved my ability to add and subtract in my head. I was also a whiz at using my left hand on the calculator and my right on the phone. Unfortunately, those haven’t been highly sought after skills.
Anything else you want to mention?
Just thank you for the interview. This was fun!
It sounds like Mary sure knows the ropes when it comes to fundraising and math. She may not have confidence in all areas of math, but she has sure honed the areas she needs to make a large impact in the non-profit world. Have a question for Mary? Let me know, and I’ll be glad to get in touch with her again.