Don’t you hate it when you have donors (or potential donors) who are not supporting your efforts to the extent you believe their passion would indicate? They’ve expressed support, maybe even enthusiasm, for your mission, and yet their financial gifts don’t reflect the same level of engagement.
I faced this situation as the executive director of an educational organization. Our greatest challenge was getting donors to increase support for (we thought) traditional post-secondary scholarships. Donors were giving substantially, but their contributions weren’t meeting student needs.
The first step my colleagues and I took was to talk with the donors to determine their interests. Sometimes these conversations revealed simple roadblocks we could overcome. Often, however, donors told us they were happy with the program(s) they were supporting and felt they were giving at an appropriate level.
That’s where we had to get creative. We analyzed the problem and realized that many of the unmet needs were not going to be resolved with traditional scholarships. The limiting factors for many students weren’t the costs of tuition, books, registration fees, and dorm fees. Instead, they were unexpected, seemingly minor expenses—transportation issues (a car battery dying without the financial ability to replace it), child care costs, lack of technology, etc. To connect donors with students who had these non-traditional scholarship needs, we created the Last Step fund. It was essentially a micro-grant program that students could access to overcome what for them were insurmountable roadblocks.
When we described the proposed program to donors, they were enthusiastically supportive. This excitement expressed itself in significant increases in their support, with the growth directed to the new fund. What we had not anticipated was that other donors would want to support the Last Step fund. When we shared the stories of students who had used the fund, the financial support increased again. Because the Last Step fund was directly addressing student needs, it directly fulfilled our mission.
As we debriefed on the process, we realized that before we created the Last Step fund we’d had a systemic problem. We’d been trying to work harder at communicating current programming that wasn’t A) meeting the full needs of our students nor B) inspiring our donors. It was incumbent on us to develop new programming that connected these needs while assuring that we were not falling into the trap of mission drift. At that point we resolved to regularly evaluate our programs to make sure they were fresh and innovative. That resulted in a regular cycle of innovation that incentivized our donors and supported the sustainability of an organization that was getting a bit stale in its approach.
Bill Hoffman is CEO of Bill Hoffman & Associates, LLC, a Tampa-based consulting firm with national-level independent sector expertise in educational engagement strategies, on profit leadership transitions, and organizational and board development. Bill has senior-level nonprofit management experience in education, having been the president of one of the nation’s top K-12 education foundations; functioned as interim CEO for prominent national and state education and philanthropic associations; and led national, regional, and state boards of directors. He is also an adjunct professor at National University, teaching Non-profit Leadership and Board Development.