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How to Sustain Nonprofit Relevancy and Fundraising Effectiveness

How to Sustain Nonprofit Relevancy and Fundraising EffectivenessThe late Jerold Panas*, fundraising guru and author of a bunch of books (two of which, Asking and The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards, I frequently use with boards to inspire philanthropy), left us with a gem of a final article published in the GuideStar Blog: Nurturing Your Potential as a Fundraiser.

It got me thinking.

All of the traits Panas lists (he calls them “verities” that distinguish consummate fundraisers from those who, I presume, just dial it in) are important. I encourage you to read the full list (or even the full book from which they’re excerpted, Born to Raise: What Makes a Great Fundraiser Great). Today I want to focus on one trait that particularly struck me.


You Need Impatience to Stay Relevant and Effective

I wouldn’t have thought of it, but ... the more I think about it, the more important I believe it to be. Here’s how Panas describes it:


Most of us grew up with the aphorism ‘Patience is a virtue.’ But in fundraising, impatience is equally virtuous. The successful professionals are itchy by nature. They don’t suffer easily standing still or treading water. They have a low tolerance with the pace of their program and its progress.”

Ask yourself these five questions to assess where you may have a problem:

1. Do You Find Yourself Standing Still?

It’s easy to get stuck bringing in roughly the same number of donors and dollars annually. Or making just incremental progress. Especially when there’s so much to get done every day just to prevent ourselves from falling backwards. But treading water is no way to excel in fundraising.

Sadly, this is the state of affairs with the lion’s share of nonprofit fundraising departments. Donor retention has been abysmal over the past decade, per the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. A lot of three steps forward, two steps back. If you feel you’re on a treadmill, you’re not alone.

2. Are You Guilty of Complacency?

When no one holds your feet to the fire to innovate, experiment, or take risks, it’s easy to rest on your laurels. Why? It’s comfortable.

Or is it?

When I talk to fundraisers unhappy in their jobs, inevitably it’s because their jobs have lost a sense of accomplishment. They’re no longer excited about their work. There are no highs and lows. No occasions for big celebration. Just a daily grind.

Complacency in business is a silent killer. It prevents individuals and organizations from pushing beyond the status quo to achieve exceptional successes. Ultimately, it impedes longevity.

3. Do You Adapt to Evolving Technologies and New Practices?

Too many nonprofit boards, CEOs, and chief development officers are afraid of change. Perhaps they lack the skills, and don’t want to become seen as dinosaurs. As a result, they ignore problems and avoid the difficult challenges of investigating how they might be addressed. But these problems can’t simply be swept under the table.

The need-to-adapt-elephant is in the room! I often speak of how fundraising and nonprofit marketing have changed more in the past 5 to 7 years than in the preceding 50. Why? The digital revolution.

It’s not enough to have made some changes five years ago, and nothing really since then. Just because you have a Facebook and Twitter account does not mean you’re up to date with how people communicate, access information, or conduct financial transactions today (see some examples of how things are constantly being disrupted in messaging and social networking and in television and music consumption. And check out a more comprehensive look at What’s Ruining Your Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising?

The successful fundraiser today understands “that’s not how we’ve always done things” is a red flag, and seeks to make dynamic changes to adapt to changing times.

4. Are You Becoming Irrelevant?

Sometimes your purpose must evolve. One classic nonprofit example is the March of Dimes (success). They began as an organization built to end polio. They did it! They could have gone out of business. Instead, they adapted. Today they fight for the health and welfare of all moms and babies and remain relevant.

A classic business example is Toys R Us (failure). For 70 years it was king of toy sales. But then e-commerce came along, and it failed to adapt. It didn’t make a good case for why folks needed to come into a store, so people simply ordered online from other companies and stopped coming in. Lack of initiative and attention to how Toys R Us could still matter to the world sent it into bankruptcy. Of course, Toys R Us is hardly the only retailer or industry to suffer this fate. Look at bookstores and video stores, just to name a couple.

Make sure the way you present your case for support falls squarely within that which your constituents find relevant. This means asking folks what they care about most. If you’re primarily talking about the program that’s of least interest to the majority of your supporters, it’s likely you’ll raise a diminishing stream of dollars.

5. How Do You Balance the Old and New to Stay Fresh?

We used to talk about work/life balance. Today we’re grappling with work/work balance. The old work and the new work. What yielded results in the past and what has potential to yield results in the future. 

They’re not mutually exclusive. Just because old strategies are no longer yielding the same results they once did (when I entered the profession a 2 percent return was standard for direct mail; now we’re over-the-moon delighted with .05 percent) is not a reason to ditch them. Yes, direct mail is less cost-effective than in the past. Frankly, everything is. I wish there was an easy solution.

Finding Your Patience May Be Holding You Back?

If you don’t stay fresh you become stale. So ... how do you stay fresh? You do it by taking as objective a look as possible at what you’re currently doing. You step back and ask some hard questions.

  • Ask yourself the five questions above and think about your areas for improvement.
  • Then take a look at the five additional questions presented tomorrow in Part 2 of this two-part series to determine if your nonprofit is keeping up.
  • Once you’ve assessed your potential problem areas, brainstorm ways you might tweak what you’re doing to move forward into the future.

Use impatience as a springboard into the future.

To your success!

How to Sustain Nonprofit Relevancy and Fundraising Effectiveness*Jerold Panas helped multitudes of people over his four-decade career. I want to thank him for all the inspiration provided over the years, and a legacy that will most certainly live on in the legions of fundraisers who have learned—and are still learning—from his wisdom. We were/are blessed to have had him among us.

How to Sustain Nonprofit Relevancy and Fundraising EffectivenessClaire 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.

Topics: Fundraising Fundraising Strategy