Before there was “Giving Tuesday”, there was Lotta Hitschmanova!

It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that Lotta was the greatest fundraiser that our country has ever known. Indeed, she wrote the book on fundraising long before there were professional fundraisers, or any fundraising books at all.

Today is November 28th, “Giving Tuesday”, and thousands of Canadians will be responding to fundraising appeals from charities and non-profits across the country.

Coincidentally it is also the 108th anniversary of the birth of Dr Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990), a WWII refugee to Canada who profoundly shaped the society she encountered in her adopted homeland, and indeed, she planted the very seeds for the “Giving Tuesday” that we are celebrating today.

It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that Lotta was the greatest fundraiser that our country has ever known. Indeed, she wrote the book on fundraising long before there were professional fundraisers, or any fundraising books at all.

Lotta developed three ingredients essential to all successful fundraising:

  • a clear identity that made her and her organization, the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), instantly recognizable,
  • a clear and compelling message that resonated strongly with her audiences; and
  • a hard-to-define ‘personal touch’ that she brought to all encounters and communications with supporters.

Corporations and charities spend millions of dollars creating and perfecting their images, their identities, their ‘brands’. But before there were brands, there was Lotta. Everyone knew her. Everyone recognized her uniform, her Czech accent, even her street address in Ottawa: 56 Sparks Street!

It is hard for people who did not grow up in the 1940s, 50s, 60s or 70s to comprehend just how strong Lotta’s presence was in Canadian society during those years.

In this age of branding, messaging and spin, Lotta never forgot what was most important. Yes, she made great use of her voice and her uniform; but ultimately it was her heart, and the sincerity of her message that created that lasting impression among Canadians.

Lotta was a tireless campaigner, criss-crossing the country for months on end. In an era before 24/7 news flashes, or other ways of hearing what was going on in the rest of the world, Lotta vividly brought that world right into the church halls and living rooms of Canadians across the country.

She made people care and she mobilized a whole generation to take action and help those in need on the other side of the globe.

Lotta was a journalist by training, and had a gift for telling stories and for bringing out the human element in all of her work. As her biographer, Clyde Sanger, noted,

“She could talk to young children as effectively as she did to elderly farmers, who offered her boxcars of wheat and remembered the USC in their wills.”

Lotta was ahead of her time in terms of donor cultivation and stewardship. She instilled a profound sense of friendship and loyalty among supporters.

As long time volunteer, David B. Smith of London, Ontario, noted:

“One received an impression of her utter sincerity towards what you had done and towards all her endeavours. Once you were thanked by Dr. Hitschmanova, you came back to do more.”

An event organizer remembered being downcast when only a dozen people came to a public meeting in Hamilton. But Lotta was not the least bit upset.

“If she got to a few new people, or reinforced the faithful a bit, that was enough,” said the organizer.

Lotta’s genuine gratitude for even the most modest level of support is something all charitable organizations can still learn from and emulate. She said:

“The personal touch is our most precious ingredient. In many ways, [we are] very old-fashioned. I sign hundreds and hundreds of campaign letters night after night…a warm relationship is basic to the kind of agency which I dreamt about when I founded the USC.”

Today is “Giving Tuesday”, and I encourage Canadians across the country to support the charities of their choice.

At the same time, give a thought to a humble refugee to Canada who planted the seeds of compassion, caring and giving that are still sprouting in our society today.

Happy Birthday Lotta!

David Rain

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