Part 1 of this two-part series, “How to Sustain Nonprofit Relevancy and Fundraising Effectiveness,” suggested five questions to ask in order to determine whether your nonprofit is simply resting on its laurels when it comes to your fundraising strategies. If this is the case, you’ll have trouble moving forward and pushing beyond the status quo to achieve excellence.
The world is changing faster than ever. What worked well yesterday may not work as well today.
Smart leaders must challenge so-called best practices and past assumptions. Smart leaders must re-imagine efforts, not simply refine past initiatives. Smart leaders must beware of herd mentality and engage in independent testing and experimentation.
If you, or your leaders, think you know everything, you have a problem.
Beware the Ignorance Ceiling
When it comes to nonprofit management, ignorance is the opposite of bliss. Yet it’s pervasive and insidious. Tom Ahern discusses how it’s a bit like the glass ceiling—a barrier to advancement—only it applies to all genders. If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do I convince my boss that XYZ works?” you’ve come up against this ignorance ceiling.
I suggest fighting back with knowledge. Trust me, I know it isn’t easy. Your leaders are smart people. They may be good writers. They may have advanced degrees. But ... not in fundraising! As Ahern notes, “Any opinion held by a non-professional is dead wrong and at least 50 years out of date.”
TRUE STORY: My boss once gave everyone on our executive management team sweatshirts emblazoned with this motto: “Maven University: Opinion above Knowledge.” It wasn’t a joke. It was a management style that emanated from the top.
TRUE STORY: Another executive director came back from Europe having seen a subway poster that impressed her. She wanted that year’s annual appeal to emulate it: Just a big photo + caption, and a general ask. Facts and figures on the reverse side. She insisted: “Nobody reads, and a picture is worth a gazillion words.” Well … photos are great, but you still need a compelling appeal that highlights a relevant problem, suggests a believable solution, and includes a specific ask. Can you spell T.A.N.K.E.D?
Tom Ahern notes, “Self-indulgent errors in judgement will cost your beloved nonprofit real money.” Your job as chief fundraiser is to prevent this from happening.
Put your professional development budget to work! Point your leaders to articles like this one. And to research about what works/doesn’t work. And to take-aways from conferences, webinars, or online courses in which you’ve participated. Or even to books like The Choice Factory, which help us understand our own cognitive biases when it comes to making decisions (it’s a great book to have your whole team read and discuss).
When Is Standing Firm a Virtue?
When you are 100 percent devoted to your course of action, and know in your core it is the absolute best possible option, then embrace your commitment. Share it passionately with others. Or as veteran fundraiser Jerold Panas said: “Your commitment to the cause must glow and glitter for all to see.”
Your conviction must be based on a problem-solving approach and research. Ask questions (see the five suggestions below). Seek out answers. Consider how you can apply what’s working elsewhere, or even what’s now working better for you based on your own testing. Then share this enthusiastically with your leaders. This will make you a “radiator” as opposed to a “drain.”
When you know you’re offering exceptional value to your donor, go forth and do everything in your power to lead your donor down the road to passionate, joyful philanthropy. Make sure you always answer the donor’s question: WIIFM—What’s In It For Me?” Put another way, ask not what your donor can do for you, but what you can do for your donor.
When Is It Time for a Change?
It’s useful to ask yourself some clarifying questions about what’s good and what’s bad in terms of how you’re living your work life. [Frankly, most of these questions can be applied to your personal life as well … but one thing at a time.] Stick this list of five questions up next to your computer (or take it to a group brainstorming meeting) and ponder whether you might have a problem.
1. What are you clinging to that’s no longer working for you?
Last year’s fundraising appeal language? Your mailed annual report? Your hard-and-fast rule of mailing no more than one appeal per year?
- It’s good to re-use/recycle.
- It’s bad to ignore the fact there comes a time when you need to clean/toss out.
2. What system(s) could be tweaked or upgraded to become more effective?
Your Excel spreadsheet database? Your data entry, tracking, and reporting? Your website navigation, home page, or donation landing pages? Your donor acknowledgement policies and procedures?
- It’s good to find a system that works for you and use it.
- It’s bad to keep using it when there’s overwhelming evidence better choices are out there.
3. What “best practices” do you employ that may have been supplanted by new “better practices?”
Your direct mail acquisition program? Your means of acquiring new emails? Your fundraising event(s)? Your donor communications? Your choice of social networks?
- It’s good to use tried-and-true winning strategies.
- It’s bad to keep these go-tos when they’re no longer working for you as they once did.
4. What are your current donor acquisition and retention priorities, and should they be re-ordered?
- It’s good to acquire new friends.
- It’s bad not to hold them close.
5. How could you build a more effective fundraising board?
Are you clear about board responsibility for fundraising when you invite folks to join? Do you have a formal board orientation? Do you pair current board members with new members as buddies/mentors? Do you have a board development committee? Do you ask your board to evaluate their satisfaction with their experience and performance? Do you have terms of office so you refresh your board with new blood?
- It’s good to build a dynamite board.
- It’s bad not to keep the board dynamic and passionate.
Don’t Be Wedded to the Status Quo
The present (what you’re doing) is nothing more than a springboard to the future. Never lose sight of the change you’re endeavoring to bring about. That’s what folks want to invest in. Positive, transformative change.
A danger to be avoided is losing sight of your vision to justify continued existence. This applies both on an organizational and an individual level. Don’t compromise your vision merely to keep your job. You won’t be happy. You won’t make anyone else happy.
It’s your job as a fundraiser to deliver happiness. Fundraising, as my mentor Hank Rosso used to say, is “the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”
At the end of the day, people give to what they value. That’s the essence of philanthropy.
- People value relationships.
- People value doing unto others as they would be done unto.
- People value someone—YOU—telling them specifically how they can be the change they want to see in the world.
- People value being able to accomplish their goals as easily as possible.
- People value getting the job done effectively.
Help people be philanthropists according to today’s rules of the game, not yesterday’s. Otherwise, you’re not being donor-centered. You’re just doing what’s easiest for you.
People give to people who help people.
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Check out her online course, Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies.