Updated: Jan 11
Whenever I’m at an event that asks people to share an interesting fact as an ice breaker, I always have an easy one to use.
I knew how to fly a plane before I knew how to drive a car.
That always brings out inquisitive looks and lots of questions about how that came to be. Learning to fly was something I lucked into that ended up being a formative feature of my teenage years.
As a kid (and still as an adult), I had a fascination with flying. I’ll never forget my dad taking me to a parking lot across the street from Lambert Airport in St. Louis to watch planes take off and land. Everything about watching a machine take flight captured my imagination. To this day, I’m the rare person that loves getting a window seat on a flight so I can watch the world go by from 30,000 feet.
It was my good fortune that, when I was a teenager, we had a family friend named Barry who was a flight instructor who needed to get some extra hours in the air as he was pursuing his commercial pilot’s license. Because you can take flying lessons at any age (14, in my case), he gave free flight instruction to me so he could build up his hours. I would build up hours with him until I turned 16 and could legally fly solo.
I did exactly that. Before I took my driver’s test, I got a student pilot’s license from the FAA, and when Barry felt I was ready, took to the air by myself in a Cessna 172. It will forever be one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Being airborne and relying only on your own ability as a pilot is a unique thrill, and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, was something that was full of lessons that applied to other parts of your life.
I’ve even applied many of those lessons in my fundraising career!
Here are some of the things I took from flying that guide my nonprofit work:
Trust your instincts: My first time flying solo my instructions were simple: take off and land 3 times. My first two landings were picture perfect, but with my third, something was off. As I was approaching the runway, my airspeed was too high. I probably could have landed safely, but my gut told me not to take a chance. I pushed in the throttle, climbed, and came back around to try again.
How often does that gut feeling pop up when fundraising? Maybe we’re about to ask for a gift a donor may not be ready to make. Maybe we get the feeling that we haven’t done enough to steward a donor, and we need to set up a meeting soon. Those gut feelings tell us larger things, and as the main point of contact for our donors, we have to trust them.
Remember to breathe: One thing Barry was clear on was that he wouldn’t take it easy on me because I was young. If I wanted to fly, then I had to learn the same way as everyone else. One time early in my training I was navigating back to the airport, and he called me out on the flight being sloppy. I was losing altitude, not maintaining airspeed, and letting a crosswind push me off course. I asked what to do, and he laughed and said “you tell me. You want to be a pilot.”
I had to take a deep breath, fall back on what I knew, and fix the problems that had arisen. It’s the same life lesson that helped guide me through my work as a fundraiser during COVID. Our events were canceled, some of our donors had to stop giving, and some grants were in jeopardy. What did we have to do? Take a deep breath, fall back on our knowledge, and come up with solutions.
Know where to direct your focus: My first cross-country flight (which is a trip of 50 miles or more) took me from my little airport in St. Charles, MO, to Springfield, IL with a stop in the small town of Litchfield, IL on the way back. The trip from Litchfield to St. Charles was the real test, as I wasn’t allowed to use GPS or any other navigational equipment. That’s exceptionally difficult when you’re over a vast expanse of corn and soybeans. As I was struggling to find my way, Barry reminded me to focus on the important things. I can’t tell cornfields apart, and I don’t want to assume I’ll always be able to see the next town over the horizon. I had to look at my heading, fly until I found I-55, and follow that to the river. Sure enough, that got me home.
I’m always amazed at how many things lead us off course in our attempts to fundraise. Maybe they’re events that don’t make enough money or pet projects that only pull our focus away from the bigger picture. Know what you’re navigating toward and always fly in that direction. Above all, your job is to raise funds and keep your mission afloat. Don’t let the other things pull you off course.
After flying all the way through high school, I put the hobby aside when I started college. It’s something I intend to pick up again after my kids are grown (after all, small planes don’t have the best track record for safety), but the lessons have served me very well in my fundraising career.
We all have moments where we’re overwhelmed, lost, or feel something isn’t quite right in how we’re operating. We’re the ones at the controls, though, and we have to fall back on training and experiences to get where we need to be.
Do you need someone at the controls with you to help solve a fundraising problem? Our team of nonprofit fundraising consultants is here to help, whether you need a co-pilot or just some extra help.
Another part of my fundraising story that is dear to me is my flight instructor, Barry Chapman.
Barry threw me into the fire as a student pilot and taught me about resilience and trusting my instincts. His lessons were a big part of my formative years. Tragically, Barry lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2014.
Please consider donating to great organizations like the American Cancer Society to give hope to people battling this terrible disease.