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The Power of an Authentic Fundraiser: Reflections on a Distinguished Career As Told by John Scales

Wednesday, March 30, 2016  
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The Power of an Authentic Fundraiser: Reflections on a Distinguished Career

As Told by John Scales

Senior Vice President for Development, Retired, Texas Children’s Hospital


Being an authentic fundraiser may seem intuitive, but it can be difficult to describe. In a recent interview with upcoming presenter and distinguished Houston fundraiser John Scales, this topic became the cornerstone around which he recalled his 47-year career in fundraising. It’s the single most important piece of advice he recommends to fundraisers at all levels.  While explaining the importance of authenticity, he explained, “When you fundraise for a cause and ask others for their support, you need to be authentic by showing your belief in what you represent. It cannot be an act because if it is, people will see right through that.” To stress this point, John recalled an early experience that shaped his career:


I began in development in 1969 at Oklahoma Baptist University. During my very first campaign, I worked with a very good Chief Development Officer who approached fundraising in a totally different way. I tried to model my approach after his, but I didn’t have much success.


When he left, I told the president I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay. Specifically, I wasn’t comfortable approaching fundraising in the same way as my predecessor. The president said, “Have you ever tried being yourself?” I told him I didn’t know that was an option. I explained that my approach was sharing the stories of the cause I represented. Once I used that strategy, the rest fell into place.


His advice was right because, at its best, development is being yourself, building relationships, leading others to a better understanding of what you represent and giving them the opportunity to support it. I believe you can only be successful if you are consistent with who you are. My eyes opened in that one experience of almost walking away because I wasn’t being myself.


John credits that advice with his ability to handle challenging campaigns like the $1 billion dollar campaign he led in the early 2000s at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Ashe explained this campaign:


Right after I came to the school, the Dean left. A new one came in and I became the Vice President of Development under him. So while managing the biggest campaign of my career, I found myself rebuilding a development shop. After I recognized what I was thrust into, I enjoyed the challenge because I love to build development programs and mentor the people that come into those roles. My efforts, as well as those of the people I worked with to rebuild the program, made the campaign a successful one.


Throughout the different campaigns and shops where John has worked, he credits the Association of Fundraising Professionals with providing the advancement opportunities and networks that ultimately helped him get there. As John explained:


I think I was one of the early members of the National Society for Fundraising Executives. That was the society which preceded AFP. In my first role, I was fortunate that Byron Welch worked with us as a consultant. He encouraged me to join and I still have my membership card. It only has 3 numbers and was within the first 1,000 people! I have to give Byron the credit because he helped me understand the value of this group. It gave me leadership opportunities and a vast network for support.


For his generous support and involvement with AFP, John received the Byron Welch Award for Lifetime Achievement in Fundraising from the Greater Houston chapter in 2009. In John’s opinion, this was the most meaningful award he has received for his commitment to fundraising. It was made that much more memorable because Byron Welch himself presented the award to John.


John’s concluding reflection about his career highlighted not only the importance of personal authenticity as a fundraiser, but that of the team you build. He explained the importance of this team in the following way:


You’re never alone in doing this work because there’s an intimate team that can help you. I couldn’t have accomplished anything without help from the teams I’ve led. Ours is a challenging profession, so you want to find the best people to work side-by-side with you. I think that’s the key; getting the right people to help you. I’ve never found that gifts fall out of the sky. They come after a lot of hard work and great ideas that make giving attractive, especially if the gift is something the donor always wanted to do. That’s what we do best as fundraisers; namely, shine the light on how people can give and make important things happen. 


Join the AFP-Greater Houston chapter as we recognize John’s distinguished contributions to fundraising in Houston on Friday, April 8th, from 11:00am-1:00pm at the Junior League of Houston. He will present other reflections, turning points in his career and advice from which we can all benefit. A special reception to honor John’s longstanding support of fundraising in Houston will follow his remarks. 


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