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New Book by Rev. Dr. David L. Heetland Explores Fundraising as Ministry and All the Happy Surprises

Rev. Dr. David Heetland

Shortly after David Heetland accepted his first job in development, a friend approached him to say how sorry he was that Heetland was leaving the ministry. Before agreeing to head up Dakota Wesleyan University’s development office, Heetland had been serving as dean of students there and before that, as campus minister and assistant professor of religion and philosophy

Upon hearing the news of his job change, another friend warned him that fundraising was a “series of disappointments, interspersed with a few happy surprises.”

Now, after many years in development, Heetland can definitively say that both friends were wrong. “I did not leave the ministry,” he said. “While fundraising may not be the image many people have of ministry, I have found it to be a vitally important one. It can be a spiritual experience for both the asker and the donor.”

Furthermore, he continued, for him fundraising has been a series of happy surprises, interspersed with occasional disappointments. “I have found that the happy surprises far outnumber the disappointments,” he said. “It is the happy surprises—never knowing for sure who will make a significant gift, or when, or why—that have kept me motivated all these years.”

Heetland, who joined Garrett-Evangelical’s development office 36 years ago, has documented many of those happy surprises in his recently published book, Happy Surprises: Help Others Discover the Joy of Giving.

The purpose of his book is twofold. First, he said, he hopes to inspire development professionals, volunteers, and trustees—anyone who is asking for money—to see it as a joyful experience and an opportunity to connect individuals and institutions. After every vignette, he asks, “What can we learn from this happy surprise?” He then goes on to share a lesson they might find useful.

The second purpose, he said, is to help people discover the joy of giving. “Throughout my career, I have discovered that fundraisers can help people grow spiritually by inviting them to invest in something bigger than themselves,” he said. “And in the process, they discover the joy of giving.”

Heetland started sharing stories about his “happy surprises” with Garrett-Evangelical’s former president, Neal Fisher. “Every time I shared one of my memorable visits, he would say, ‘Another chapter for your book someday,’” Heetland recalled.

Several years ago, Heetland started sharing his stories and lessons with Garrett-Evangelical’s Board of Trustees. “The Trustees really seemed to enjoy them, and in fact, before each Board of Trustee meeting, some Trustees would ask me if I had a happy surprise to share with them that day.”

A few trustees suggested that others could learn from his stories as well, and so Heetland wrote 36 vignettes (one for each year he has been at Garrett-Evangelical) and sent his manuscript off to Wesley’s Foundery Books, who happily agreed to publish it.

In his book, Heetland teaches others about the importance of passion, persistence, and patience when creating and sustaining long-term personal relationships with donors.

“First, we have to be passionate about the institution we represent,” Heetland said. “Don’t be afraid to tell your organization’s story. It’s the only way to get people excited.”

“You also have to be persistent, telling that story again and again to anyone and everyone willing to learn more about your mission,” Heetland continued. “If you really believe it and are passionate about it, it doesn’t get old.”

In his book, Heetland illustrates persistence as he tells the story of Sharon, an active church member he thought might be interested in supporting Garrett-Evangelical. After more than a year of trying to schedule a visit with her, he finally found a time that worked. During that visit, Sharon said she thought that Garrett-Evangelical might be a good place to support, but she wanted to visit the seminary first. Despite Heetland’s many attempts to schedule a visit, it took more than five years before she came to campus. Not too long after that, Heetland received notification that she had included the seminary in her estate plans for $100,000. “What we learned from that is persistence pays,” he said.

The third lesson he champions in his book is patience. “We can be persistent as long as we think it is appropriate to do so,” he said. “But we also have to learn to be patient because donors give on their schedule, not ours.”

According to Heetland, the most significant takeaway from the book would be the importance of building long-term relationships. “In real estate, it’s location, location, location,” he said. “But in fundraising, it is relationships, relationships, relationships. I have discovered that if you are willing to tell your story passionately and then be willing to hear their stories and what motivates and excites them, amazing things will happen. It is when these long-term relationships are nurtured, happy surprises result.”

David Heetland has given us delightful snapshots of generous people who have translated their hopes for the church into tangible help for preparing future spiritual leaders. Seeking to be a blessing, these donors have themselves been blessed by the knowledge of the difference these leaders can make in the future of the church.

Neal Fisher, President Emeritus,
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

A book of inspiring stories from a long and successful career in fundraising. Happy surprises yes, but more than that, they are the result of David’s commitment to provide genuine ministry and build authentic relationships with donors.

Ron Gunden, Partner,
Gonser Gerber LLP

Happy Surprises: Help Others Discover the Joy of Giving can be purchased through the websites of Cokesbury, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.