A few months into my job hunt, I saw an ad in the paper for a promotional company. I sent in my headshot and resume, and within two hours I got a response. The email invited me to a group interview at my local Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. It sounded odd, but I had nothing else to do, so I went.
It turns out I was interviewing to be a Miller Girl. I had graduated from Northwestern University four years earlier and I never pictured myself promoting beer as a job. But, it paid $30 an hour and I was broke. Little did I know, my time as a Miller Girl would help me build skills that I use everyday as a fundraising auctioneer.
I learned how to approach people without it being awkward and uncomfortable. Sure, I had a lot of experience doing this on the cruise ship, but this scenario was totally different. In a bar I couldn't be sure what mood people were going to be in when I approached them, and I had the very tricky goal of convincing people to stop drinking the beer of their choice and switch to Miller Lite in order to improve company sales.
Approaching people you don't know is awkward enough. Approaching people you don't know in an dark bar is super awkward. Approaching people you don't know in a dark bar while wearing skimpy clothes requires a fearless attitude.
Through trial and error I perfected my method of walking up to complete strangers and initiating conversation. What worked best for me, and what still works today, is opening up the conversation in a natural honest way. When I'm meeting a donor I don't know I simply walk in, introduce myself, and ask them how their day is going. I share a story about myself, something which is true and fairly mundane. This puts people at ease and gets them to talk about themselves. Once the first four minutes of conversation are out of the way, the rest flows naturally.
I learned how to be a good listener. Chatting with tipsy/drunk people usually leads to lots of listening. Most people just want to be heard. When they find a good listener who asks open-ended questions, their stories just come pouring out.
As a Miller Girl, I heard a lot about people's relationships, their jobs, their cars, their problems, and the Vikings. As a fundraiser, I hear about people's passions, visions, and dreams of making the world a better place. I ask questions about why they give to particular nonprofits, how they got involved with philanthropy, and why they're interested in making a difference in their community. Listening has resulted in more relationship-building conversations with donors than it ever did Miller Lite sales.
I got comfortable doing whatever it took to get the job done. Miller had tons of promotions going on each month. Sometimes these promotions were games or giveaways. Oftentimes, they required asking people to do things they might not be comfortable doing: taking a survey, playing a trivia game, singing a song, or doing a dance. I had no idea how useful this skill would be to me.
When I started working at my first nonprofit, I quickly put this skill to work. When I needed to call someone, I did. When I needed to have a conversation with a donor or board member, I did. When I was asked to run icebreaker games and board meetings, I did. I never said no. These days it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable.
I learned how to motivate others. Convincing brawny Minnesotan men to switch from drinking their beer of choice to Miller Lite is no easy task. It requires lots of excitement, energy, and enthusiasm, characteristics that are important whether the aim is getting people to try a new drink, attend a fundraising event, join a board, or make their first donation. The ability to motivate others is of paramount importance in the world of fundraising. It's the skill that I am hired for most often, my energy and ability to motivate groups to give is second to none.
I learned how to keep an open mind. I usually worked at big, chain restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings, Champs, Dave & Buster's, etc. Only rarely would we work at small, local bars. I remember one particularly cold night when our last stop was a small bar called The Nook, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was tired, I was cold, and my feet hurt. The last thing I wanted to do was go to some dive bar. We pulled up and the bar was literally the size of the kitchen at my parents house. I dreaded walking through the door.
It was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my short-lived Miller Girl career. The people were friendly and fun. Instead of treating us like pieces of meat, they invited us to sit down, share their baskets of fries, and watch the hockey game. As a fundraiser, keeping an open mind about donors, corporations, and your coworkers is super important.
Never in a million years would I have thought that my time as a Miller Girl would translate so well to my career as a charity fundraiser. It just goes to show that every job is an opportunity to hone your skills. Even something as seemingly unrelated as product promotion can give you ample experience working with the public and dealing with awkward situations, two things that are necessary for all professional fundraisers.