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What to Do When Fear Leads to Fundraising Failure

What to Do When Fear Leads to Fundraising Failure It may be noble for the captain to go down with the sinking ship, but a compelling fundraising offer it is not.

Stop being a downer.

After the big mean recession of 2008 cast its dark shadow over countless nonprofits, many leaders operated instinctively. From fear.

In response to grantors cutting back on funding and donors zipping up their wallets, salaries and benefits got cut. Seasoned professionals were laid off. Folks got out their sharp pencils, scalpels (and in some cases hatchets) and cherished programs got eliminated.

Everybody suffered. Donors too. They became increasingly discouraged by the lack of inspirational leadership.

Seven years out from the biggest stock market crash since 1929, have you rebounded as much as you’d hoped? Or, for reasons unbeknownst to you, are you limping along desperately trying to beat back the wolf at the door?

If failure is your biggest fear, read on.

I know you really thought things would get better. You imagined you’d go lean and mean for a period; then regroup, dig yourselves out of your hole and burst forth in full, new blossom.

Instead, signs point to too many nonprofits falling deeper and deeper. Donor retention rates are abysmal – on average you’re only keeping 41%, and for every 100 new donors you’re losing 102.

Something smells rotten.

What you’re smelling is fear. Fear of failure. Fear breeds caution and a certain tunnel vision. Folks begin to see only a few feet (or months) ahead of themselves. They make short-sighted decisions that yield unfortunate long-term consequences.

And how frustrating is it that, at the same time, you find yourselves surrounded by competitors who ae smelling like roses? While you had your sharp cutting tools out, others were working with shovels and hoes, planting and tilling and bringing forth new crops.

If you’re asking “Where Have all The Donors Gone?” you’re not alone.

It turns out more folks will follow a captain who leads them fearlessly toward a rising tide than one who assures them she’ll stay with them, until the bitter end, on a sinking ship.

If your culture is consistently one of hand-wringing about where you’ll get your next dollar, after a while your donors will disembark. It’s just not that fun to be in a constant state of anxiety.

If you want to get rid of the stench that permeates your organization, you can. But you’ve got to be willing to move beyond simply sweeping the smelly dirt under the carpet. You’ve got to stop neglecting your mission by trying to protect your turf.

I know nobody sets out to neglect anything. But… that’s how neglect happens. Literally, the word means “a failure to take care of.” So in fearing failure so intensely that you eschew bold moves forward you end up failing even more.

In the midst of the storm it takes exceptional vision, creativity and charismatic leadership to steer a clear course.

Stop fearing failure. The creeping neglect it leads to is letting your organization, and your constituents, down. If failure is not an option, then neither is success.

Knock away the collected cobwebs gathered after years of neglect, and engage in an honest-to-goodness deep cleansing. Do the opposite of “failing to take care of” and “take to heart.”

Lead another way.

Steer clear of fear and lead from joy. From your heart. Your passions. Go back to the future and find what started you down this path before you lost your way.

Begin by engaging your management and governance core.

If your top leadership isn’t radiating passion, who will want to follow you? Go step by step to reengage them and help them recapture their creative drives. Ken Burnett, one of the leading lights in today’s fundraising universe, makes the distinction between “radiators and drains.”

The radiators spread heat and passion, radiating the warm glow of making a difference.

The drains suck out the emotion, neutralize feelings and commoditize giving till it becomes like any other commercial transaction. The drains are passion assassins… more about analyzing than feeling, more about spreadsheets and ROIs than lump-in-the-throat testimonials and transformational storytelling.

Donors give in spite of the drains. They give because of the radiators.

You need more “radiators;” fewer “drains.”

Tend to your current radiator core. You. Your campaign leaders. Your board radiators, even if you’ve only a handful. Former board leaders. Whoever you’ve got who still has the fire burning. Hunker down with these folks. Build a plan.

Bring in some new radiators. Use your new and old radiators to spread the heat. Keep adding fuel. Stop sitting around the campfire watching the embers burn low. Fan those flames! Don’t let the fire burn out.

“Radiation,” or the lack thereof, is an issue of leadership.

It’s hard to radiate the joy of making a difference when mired in same old/same old. In fact, it’s hard to make a difference when stuck in yesterday’s paradigm. There’s nothing creative about doing what you’ve always done, exactly as you’ve always done it. And it makes little sense in today’s world.

The digital revolution ended business as usual. Nonprofit marketing and fundraising have changed more in the past seven years than the preceding 50. More than ever, successful development requires strategic leadership.

You’re in a battle to win over donor hearts – not just once, but over and over to sustain and build loyalty you can count on. You won’t win the war unless you pull together your team and get everyone together on the same page. And that page must be in line with the way today’s donors and advocates research, engage, and ultimately support organizations.

If your fundraising has plateaued or has been heading steadily downward, here are some changes you may want to embrace.

7 Ways to Successfully Turn Things Around

1. Create art.

Use your imagination. Dream bigger. If you’re just doing the same old thing, donors can find plenty of others doing that as well. Be prepared to say “this may not work, but we’ll give it a try.” People are seeking inspiration. Exude buoyancy. Lead with hope, faith, confidence and a bit of daring, not fear.

Leadership is about managing change—whether you’re leading a company or leading a country. Things change, and you get creative.” –Lee Iococca

2. Don’t go it alone.

Engage everyone in connections with donors. You can’t sustain donors over the long run any other way. If they only have a connection with the development staff person, they think you care only about one thing.

Revolutionize your culture to build sustainable donor relationships. Commit to customer service and put your donors at the center. Make them happy in order to keep them. Understand your relationship with donors is symbiotic; if you meet their needs, they’ll meet yours. Giving is not always its own reward.

3. Stop making fundraising about money.

It’s about the impact money will make. Tell your compelling stories so donors can see this impact. Take your donor on a journey from thinking to feeling. Move your donors from their logical brain into their emotional brain.

4. Embrace sales.

Commit to creating a development/marketing team. As Daniel Pink writes in To Sell Is Human, “We’re all is sales now.” Fundraising and marketing must be seamlessly integrated. They can no longer be separate silos.

The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaption to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.” – Daniel Pink

5. Hold a mirror up to your board.

Do they see a board member staring back at them? If your board does not embrace its dual role – governance and financing – your fundraising efforts will be fatally flawed. Bring in a consultant or a leader from another nonprofit you admire to help your board get on the right track.

Establish a Governance Committee to make a plan to build a more qualified board– develop job descriptions, identify needed skills and recruit new members who understand their leadership role in both governance and financing. Assign staff to actively support members and develop customized development work plans with manageable ambassador, advocacy and asking assignments for each individual.

Establish or expand the Fundraising Committee (consider adding a few former board, major donors, other committee or direct service volunteers or other influencers) and clarify their role overseeing, evaluating and approving fundraising initiatives. Delegate subcommittees, as needed, to steer major initiatives, events or campaigns.

6. Plan the work; work the plan.

Without a plan there’s no accountability. Don’t drift aimlessly. Determine what success will look like; assure you’ve got the strategies you need to get there in place. Then assign resources, responsibilities and deadlines.

The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work. – Peter Drucker

7. Think, see and live ahead.

Stop resting on your laurels and begin living the future now. Today this means investing in staff and technology that allows you to build relationships online. You can’t do anything if you don’t have the supporters you need to see your mission through to fruition. Pair your passion to further your mission with the incredibly exciting fact that digital tools and channels will ensure that the ways you can engage with people will be constantly evolving.

No one can afford to sit back and wait to follow. The world moves too fast today. There’s simply no substitute for leadership. This is beautifully summarized in Tony Elischer’s Rebuilding the Donor Pyramid:

In the digital world of fundraising it is the leaders who reap the rewards, rarely the followers.

Stop leading from fear.

Or as someone wise once said,

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

What to Do When Fear Leads to Fundraising Failure Claire Axelrad

The preceding is a guest post by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE. Claire was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Claire offers oodles of resources on her site, writes a monthly feature for Maximize Social Business on social media for nonprofits and is a frequent contributor to leading nonprofit resources including Nonprofit Hub, 4GOOD, Fundraising Success Magazine, Nonprofit.about.com and npENGAGE Experts. Claire Axelrad: Clairification was named “Best Fundraising Blog of 2013” by FundRaising Success Magazine.

Topics: Fundraising