Documentation: Do or Die — Just Do It!

Fundraisers have an exciting job — hosting gala dinners at swanky hotels, taking major donors golfing, traveling to obscure locations to visit potential funders … But there’s one thing that isn’t often mentioned in a list of fundraising tasks, yet if you fail to do it, all your accomplishments in your tenure will be forgotten and your name will be cursed once you have moved on.


Recently, I have been reminded of that more than once as I’ve seen the results of a lack of documentation. The only fundraising employee at a small nonprofit who left without telling anyone the password for the organization’s email manager. (Hard to send out an e-appeal without it.) The head of a department at a midsized nonprofit who, after several years on the job, left absolutely no documentation so everything that needed to be done had to be reinvented. The nonprofit that almost missed an important deadline because no one left information about it.

Alas, no one is going to be named “Fundraiser of the Year” for leaving behind great documentation. But I guarantee you that you will be remembered — in a very unkind light — if you fail at this most basic of tasks.

Having once led a team to document more than 120 procedures in advance of the nonprofit moving cross-country (and the fundraising employees not moving with it), I learned a few secrets about making the job less painful and, occasionally, even fun. So, if you are documentation-challenged, this one’s for you …

Don’t try to do it all at once
If possible, write up the documentation as you go along. If that train has already left the station, do a little bit every day. It is helpful to make a list of what needs documenting so you can see the finish line, albeit far in the distance. Let’s be honest — creative people who are fundraisers aren’t going to salivate over “creating” documentation. So make it easier on yourself and be systematic but not fanatical.

Don’t delegate it to someone who doesn’t actually do the task
It’s tempting to push delegation down to an administrative person; after all, your time is too valuable for such a humdrum task. Yes, your time is valuable. But there are secrets inside your head that no one else knows. How do you expect the documentation to be accurate unless you hire a mind-reader to write it up? If you are the only person who knows how to do something, you have to bite the bullet and do the work; otherwise it won’t be beneficial to the person who follows in your footsteps.

Put it in writing
Obviously, if you know you are leaving, it’s tempting to just stuff a bunch of scribbled notes or emails into a file and label it “Documentation.” But five sheets of handwritten notes labeled “how to do direct mail” and stapled together will be far less helpful than a step-by-step, written process that thinks through all the things that can go (and have gone) wrong. And chances are, that rushed “documentation” isn’t going to take you out of range when the angry thought daggers are hurled in your direction after you are gone. It’s tough to document something you can “do in your sleep,” so your challenge is to not make major leaps in logic as you write it out.

Find a way to make it interesting to you
Turn documentation into a useful exercise (for you) whenever possible. I recently started documenting some procedures for a client. Boring! But I decided to use that job as a way to learn a few new tricks in Microsoft Word. My Word skills have improved along with the creation of documentation. That may not be the answer for you, but figure out what will motivation you. “A latte every time I finish three tasks” is not self-bribery; it’s a reward for doing a mundane but critical task.

Test everything
The system my team learned worked best was for the person who actually did the job to write it up and another person who didn’t do the job to walk through doing it using only the documentation. Any gaps quickly surface, and terms “everyone” knows (but in reality, they don’t) are quickly identified. And, people get to learn about new things and maybe gain a skill that can be beneficial to the organization in the future. If you are a one-man show, at a minimum try to write the documentation and then review it days or weeks later to see if you missed anything.

Keep a copy
You never know when you may be asked, “What’s the best way to do X?” or “When doing Y, should I … ?” And yes, I did get a call 11 years after the fact in one case, asking me if by any chance I still had a copy of the documentation. Unfortunately, it had gone AWOL between the two moves and job changes in those 11 years. But frankly, I still miss it. There was a lot there I could reuse now — if I only had the documentation.

I once worked for a boss who often asked, “What would happen to [name a program] if you were hit by a bus on your way home tonight?” Now, his deep concern wasn’t about the safety record of the Chicago Transit Authority (or most likely, about me, either), but it had to do with wanting to know if the fundraising programs would still function without my hand on the throttle, so to speak. In other words, was I documenting things?

At a certain point in life, we start thinking about our “legacy” — will I be remembered anywhere for all the work I did to raise funds for the cause? This old dog knows it isn’t award-winning kind of stuff, but at least I should be remembered in a positive light because I left behind documentation that let others carry on my work if they chose to do so.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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