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How to Stop Being A Firefighter in Your Nonprofit

One person asked me recently, "As the single employee of a small nonprofit, how do I prioritize the daily issues of running a nonprofit before they become 'fires.'"

How can you stop being a firefighter in your nonprofit? If there are nothing but fires all day long, then something about your nonprofit work structure needs to change. And that means expectations for your job need to change.

It's really hard to get it all done. Nigh impossible. So resign yourself to the fact that some of it is not going to get done. And that you cannot be equally good at everything you are tasked with doing.

Look at how much many of our one-person shops are tasked with doing every day. There's no way you can be equally good at and enjoy doing all of these things:

  1. Creating a fundraising plan
  2. Getting people to throw house-parties
  3. Tabling at outreach events
  4. Grants research
  5. Grant writing
  6. Appeals
  7. E-Newsletters
  8. Marketing
  9. Doing speaking engagements
  10. Website updating
  11. Coordinating volunteers
  12. Recruiting volunteers
  13. Major Gifts
  14. Capital Campaigns
  15. Volunteer appreciation
  16. Encouraging board members to fundraise
  17. Coordinating the gala
  18. Getting sponsorships
  19. Finding a venue
  20. Soliciting auction items, entering them and giving receipts
  21. Managing the career fair
  22. Data entry of gifts
  23. Thank you letters
  24. Surveying donors
  25. Planned Giving
  26. Social media and blogging for your nonprofit
  27. Getting media coverage for your nonprofit
  28. Keeping on top of the latest developments in the fundraising field

It's beyond your capabilities. Because you are one person, and you are being asked to do 5 people's jobs. There is no way you could actually get everything done that you are asked to do. Really. You have a super job.

So first of all, you need to push back and tell your boss,

"There is no way I can keep up with multiple conflicting priorities. There is just NO WAY this is going to happen. What you are asking for is for me to do every job badly, instead of one or two things well."

You are going to have some things you're naturally better at. And you should focus in your areas of strength, and get volunteers, interns, or virtual assistants to pick up the slack in other areas.

The main point is that you have too many things to do, no one could do everything you're expected to do. All you can do is focus on one thing at a time, and be honest with your boss or board about what has to fall by the wayside to get one thing done properly. Multi-tasking is a myth. And you need to get as much help as you possibly can.Mazarine

I made this handy chart for you so you could figure out what to do first, in terms of fundraising.

In terms of managing an entire nonprofit, that's a bit trickier.

Start with your fundraising plan.

You've got to have enough money coming in the door to carry out the work you do. So do a fiscal check-up with your accountant and board treasurer. Where is your nonprofit at? What are your receivables? What are your payables? How fast are you burning cash? How can you cut costs and make sure your nonprofit is stable?

Once you've done this, you can start to look at how to keep money flowing in smoothly without a lot of effort. If I were in your position, here's what I would do.

1. Create a fundraising plan and communications calendar so you can plan backwards for each event, each appeal letter, each e-newsletter, each piece of your fundraising strategy for the whole year. I have a free webinar recording on how to create a fundraising plan right here.

2. Have weekly check-ins with board and volunteers where you start and end with what is going right at your nonprofit. If you want to learn more about solutions-focused meetings and questions, check out this post about Alan Kay's book, Fry the Monkeys.

3. Make sure your communications flow smoothly, including between you and board, and you and the rest of the volunteers. Give lots of opportunities for people to ask questions. It's important that they know what are your first priorities, second priorities, and so on. And likewise, you need to be telling them what you need to be successful, to push back on unrealistic expectations, and to know when things are coming up.

4. Hold regular conference calls with major donors and stakeholders to check in about issues with your agency, with fundraising, with programs, and to also appreciate those who are doing a good job. If you communicate about what you need, you're more likely to get it.

5. Be open about your mistakes. This will make people trust you more.

6. Visioning. It's up to you to hold the vision of the nonprofit. If you're the sole staff person, you need to keep clear on the long term vision, as well as the short-term, what needs to get done right now.

7. Get help. This means one-off help with virtual assistants, as well as longer term interns or volunteer help. Recruit volunteers with,, and corporate volunteers. Here's more about how to find volunteers

8. Start a monthly giving program.

9. Get more donors and board members by doing speaking engagements. Once you connect with a corporation, you’ve got to get in front of them. Ask to speak to their marketing director, corporate responsibility officer, or brand manager. Ask them if you could come in and speak about your organization, or do a performance for their employees during their lunch hour. This is how we got our foot in the door for a small nonprofit I worked for, and it really works. You don’t want to just ask for something straight off the bat. You want to show them what you’re about. Big corporations are FULL of people who are craving deeper meaning and deeper experiences in their lives, and your nonprofit can offer that.

10. When you go for your performance or speaking engagement with them, ask them if anyone would be interested in volunteering, serving on your gala committee, or even just coming to your next event. While you are there, stop by HR’s office and ask if employee volunteerism is compensated by the company. Also ask if there’s a group of employees who like to volunteer, or if they’re looking for new projects to volunteer on.

11. Send out an e-newsletter at least once a month

12. Cut down on the number of events you have. No more than 2 events per year

13. Start a major gifts program, name it, brand it, show major donors that you care with appreciation events

14. Look through your database and see who could be re-engaged as a donor or volunteer.

15. Ask your volunteers for donations.

What do you think? Have you ever been in this situation? Do you have any tips for how to stop being a firefighter?


Mazarine TreyzThe preceding is a guest post by Mazarine Treyz, founder of and author of The Wild Woman’s Guide to Fundraising. Mazarine’s 30,000 monthly readers come from all over the world to get advice about fundraising, nonprofit marketing, charity careers, and more. She is the author of three books, most recently: Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide, given 5 stars by in September 2013. Connect with Mazarine on Twitter @wildwomanfund or check out more stories at

Topics: Fundraising