Hyper responsibility is not your friend

It is typical of fundraisers that we are over-responsible.  We are conscientious problem-solvers, and so we often try to solve problems that are not ours to solve.  I spoke to a fundraiser recently who was struggling with how to generate the content for a monthly email newsletter to major gift prospects.  The problems she was talking about were very real: program staff are too busy to write stuff down, she is too busy to pursue them, program staff don’t tell her about upcoming events until too late, the communications team is preoccupied with action alerts, and so forth.  BUT, when we talked to the executive director a few days later, and all the problems melted away.  The ED recognized that monthly emails to major gift prospects were a good idea, and said she would make it happen.

Remember — that sense of hyper responsibility is not always your friend.  Other people may be better placed than you are to make things happen.  Go forth and delegate, upward, downward, sideways — whatever it takes to get the job done.

Where to start

I met a development director in a one-person fundraising shop this morning.  He had been in his job for 11 years.  He said that he and his boss had spoken many times about starting a major gifts program, but it kept getting swept away by more urgent (though less important) things.  He asked me where to start.  Here was my advice to him:

  1.  Begin with a manageable prospect list.  If you can only handle 5 prospects, that’s a great beginning.
  2. Measure success before the money starts coming in.  Building relationships takes time.  It can’t be rushed.  So avoid discouragement by tracking your progress in non-financial terms.  Getting board members to do thank you calls.  Getting a board member to host a house party.  Getting program staff to describe their work to donors at a tour.  Getting 100% giving from your board.  All of these are important prerequisites to the first big ask.  So celebrate when they happen.
  3. Look at your calendar through a donor cultivation lens.  Do you do an annual gala?  Invite prospective major donors to come as your guests, and assign a board member to escort each of them through the event.  Do you have in-house celebrations, like graduations, that you could invite prospects to witness?  Could your prospects address your students/clients on an area of their expertise?  Using the opportunities presented by your existing calendar, you can draw your best prospects closer without a lot of extra effort.

I hope this is helpful.  Start where you are.  Do what you can.  Use what you have.



Jargon ban

We all know that good writing and speaking is free of jargon.  But jargon is insidious.  It’s not just obscure acronyms and five-syllable words.  It’s language that is devoid of human warmth.  Very helpful for manipulating concepts in strategic plans and budgets.  NOT helpful for talking to donors.  Think about it.  The donor wants to know that his or her contribution is making the world a better place.  What happens to that enthusiasm if you talk about personnel issues, finances, or other administrative tedium?  If the donor asks questions about people or finances, of course that is a promising sign of engagement.  But the relationship does not start with anyone wanting to balance budgets or pay salaries.  So please don’t start with the mundane.

It is natural that the internal details occupy our heads.  Those are the problems we are solving every day.  So it takes a deliberate re-orientation to talk on the level that makes sense to people whose relationship is primarily inspirational.  Here are a couple of tips.

  • Remember what you first learned about the organization and why it attracted you.  Connect with why you first flushed with pride about working there.
  • Listen to donors talk about why they are inspired.
  • Follow program staff around for half a day.
  • Imagine you have been invited to do a Career Day presentation at your daughter’s fifth grade class, and you want her classmates to tell her how cool her mom or dad is afterwards.
  • Declare next Monday a Jargon Ban day — anyone who uses jargon in the office has to put a quarter in the jar.

Slow down and raise more money

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”


The Queen spoke with derision about “a slow sort of country.”  But isn’t that where we redqueenwould all rather live?  And wouldn’t we serve our donors better if we operated in a slow country that allowed us time to treasure each one of them?  Here are a few ways you can slow down and work more effectively.

  1. Keep events simple.  Events have a place in the fundraising toolkit, but the fatal temptation is to make each gala more elaborate and time-consuming than last year’s.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Find ways to make your mission come alive in your events, and work all other details around that goal.
  2. Don’t nag board members.  Instead, set up agreements with each of them about how they would like to help the organization in the coming year.  “How can I help you succeed?” is the beginning of a much more pleasant and fruitful conversation than  “We need every board member to sell ten tickets to the gala.”  I know a fundraiser who has board members lining up to talk to her after every board meeting.  That is because every meeting she brags about how different members have advanced the cause.
  3. Focus on big donors and big prospects first.  Block the time off on your calendar, put a “do not disturb” sign on your door and figure out how to advance your relationships with each of them.  Or take your donor list for a walk, and give a few minutes’ attention to each name.  You may think of ways to advance the conversation that don’t occur to your sedentary self.  I have found a handheld dictating device very useful for this purpose.
  4. Set aside time for meeting with donors.  Quality time.  Real listening time.  Exquisite attention time.  I once suggested to a fundraiser in a one-person office that she meet with the organization’s most generous donors.  “That’s the icing on the cake,” she said.  Meaning, when I finish the grant proposals, the appeal letters, the database nightmares, the walkathons, then I will have time for getting together with donors. The fact is that relationships are the icing, the cake, and the cakeplate. 

Lewis Carroll, who created the Red Queen in 1871, was a shy Oxford math professor.  Was he protesting the breakneck pace of academic life in Victorian England?  Perhaps.  Find ways to slow down and encourage your organization’s relationships with donors to thrive.   

Thanks, visible

A couple months ago, I introduced a friend of mine, a grantwriter, to an organization.  They gave her a contract, and she just sent me a $200 gift certificate to the Shakespeare Theater Company.  The gratitude has been ricocheting around my mind.

I was able to do a favor for a friend, and it’s nice to be able to do a favor.

Thank you!She noticed/remembered that I gave her the introduction, and it is nice to be noticed and remembered.

She sent me a gift, and is nice to get a gift.

The gift was a chance to see Shakespeare — did she know I am crazy about Shakespeare?  It is nice to be known.

I get to go to the theater a couple times in the next year — 10 times if I opt for cheap seats at discount performances.  Nice!

Altruism is reinforced when it is noticed.  Thanks for doing it in the past year, and best wishes for your adventures in attending to altruism in 2014.


New fundraising idea!

Can I be a curmudgeon for a minute?

There was a story in the 11/11 New York times about some Wall Street hotshots who have a new idea for supporting charities: a stock market for non profits.  I don’t know what that means.  I couldn’t get past the first paragraph in the article:

What if?  That’s the way Lindsay Beck, a two-time cancer survivor and the founder of a newsuccessful charity, started thinking about how the world of finance and Wall Street could revolutionize the staid nonprofit industry

The word “staid” stuck in my craw.  I wondered if the writer of the article has any idea how vital and varied the world is that the innovators propose to revolutionize.

I have seen a magnificent variety of organizations serving humankind.  Some non profits struggle to meet their budgets every year, and some make it look easy to grow existing programs and sprout new ones.  The successful organizations have found some way to become conduits for the generosity of people who are inspired to accomplish good things.  They know how to craft the organization’s story in a way that a donor can see his or her own story merged into the next chapter.  It is not a new idea.

A stock market for non profits – let’s wait and see.  In the meantime, non profiteers, keep doing what you do so well.  And if your problem is staidness, let’s shake things up before your organization gets bought out (hostile takeover!)  by a Wall Street tycoon.

A tale of two nonprofits

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….

I have two friends who raise funds for social service agencies that are 90% dependent on government grants and contracts.  One of them learned that her boss had never in her 25 year tenure launched a new program.  She confronted the executive director, and said, “We need to do something differently.”  The ED talked to her coach, and then said to the fundraiser, “You are right.  It is going to take some patience, but there is no one I would rather have guide that transition than you.”  So fundraising is starting to change at that organization, from galas and grants to mission-focused conversations with donors.

My other friend has been banging her head against “we have always done it this way”. She just told me she thinks she is ready to move to someplace her talents can be put to better use.

We see organizations thrive or fail all the time, but it is a little startling to see the early sprouts of success and doom so vividly.

Who owns income projections

Who owns the income projections for your organization?

“We just make up the income projections to match the expense projections.  All non profits do it that way.”

“When I was hired as the first fundraiser, they told me that my goal was to raise $200,000 in my first year.  But then when I reached that target, I was told that the REAL gap between income and expenses was $500,000.”

These are actual quotes.  From smart people, at competent organizations.  But each indicate a blind spot, and in my experience, this blind spot is one of the most crushing frustrations of development officers.

It’s a simple truth, but one that evades many: income projections should be based on capacity, not need.

My friend Steve Haddad, a top-notch fundraising consultant in Baltimore, describes the ideal scenario.  The fundraiser figures out what is possible, based on a number of factors (the likelihood of major donors and foundations to increase their gifts incrementally or dramatically, the track record of event and mailings, and the odds of miraculous intervention.)  The head of finance figures out what the organization needs to accomplish its mission.  The two meet, slide their opening bids across the table, and then discuss how to bridge the difference.

The most significant thing about this drama is that the two characters are meeting as equals.  Respectfully.  No one is bandishing ultimatums.

Fundraisers are often described as having “responsibility without authority.”  In other words, they have to accomplish things that are out of their control.  Top-down or arbitrary income targets epitomize that trap.  Fundraisers, say it with me – “I am not going to take it any more!  I own the income projections!”

Superman and Fundraising

Superman, that great icon of American male power, is a cartoon version of the LeadershipSuperman prototype.  The square jawed guy in the corner office works tirelessly, makes correct split-second decisions, and inspires the enthusiasm of his followers.  I know that when I compare myself to him, I am slow-tongued, wracked by anguish, and sometimes rumple-suited.  But maybe, for us who are not Superman, we can get more mileage out of honoring our limitations than trying to live up Mr. It’s-a-bird-it’s-a-plane.

The fund raising profession is crippled by that the Superman mystique.  Lots of people believe that succeeding in fund raising requires nerves of steel, telepathy, and a Kryptonite handshake.  The truth is, good manners and a little ambition will get you far.

If you find that Superman’s Textbook for Fund Raising doesn’t help you so much, here are some alternative ideas.

  • Superman is self-reliant.  As my mentor Andrea Kihlstedt is fond of saying, “every organization is perfectly configured to be itself.”  That means change is hard.  If you want to be an instrument of organizational transformation, find allies.
  • Superman is never insecurePay attention to your insecurity.  Once you recognize that your nerves are made of some material more like pliable than steel, you can tune them to signal that something is off kilter in your relationships with your donors.
  • Superman is unerringly persuasive.  Your donor has assigned your organization to a certain groove in her brain, and that determines her decision to give $X instead of ten times $X.  Your job, as a fund raiser, is to try to move the organization into a different brain-groove.  This is nervous-making.  You can face this nervousness by asking permission to propose something bold, by acknowledging that you are going out on a limb, or by any one of dozens of other ways of humanizing the encounter.  Once you admit you are not Superman, all kinds of possibilities open themselves.

Superman, go catch a flying train or something.  We have work to do.

The fundraising equivalent of the four minute mile

I would guess that in your organization the fundraising equivalent of the 4 minute mile is waiting to be conquered. It could be a gift of $25,000, or $100,000, or $1,000,000 – enough to make jaws drop, hearts skip a beat, and feet to float off the ground. When that gift comes, it does several things.

• It gets the attention of other donors. Most donors are cautious, and will be moreRoger-Bannister inclined to “step up” after someone else has lead the way.
• It gives confidence to the staff. For people immersed in the daily work of the organization, it gives a huge morale boost to know someone cares enough to give that much.
• It inspires board and staff leadership with visions of new possibility. It is natural to slide along in the groove of current reality. A big gift will elevate them out of the incremental doldrums.

So who are the possible “Bannister donors” on your prospect list? Make it happen. I have always found it helpful to start by envisioning the donor writing a big check, and then working backwards to figure out how to get there from here. On your mark….