Fundraising: 6 Clues to Help You Know When to Fold ‘Em

Like many of you, I’m sure, I have a dishwasher in my kitchen (and I don’t mean the human kind). Its job is simple: clean my dishes. But to be honest, it fails miserably.

The other day, while muttering unkind things under my breath to this appliance, I realized how much like some fundraising activities my dishwasher is. The thinking that led to this rather odd statement went like this: “This dishwasher does not do nearly what I expect it to do. But it’s probably got several more years of useful life. Replacing it is going to cost time and cost money. And what if that replacement isn’t any better? After all, other people use this same dishwasher, and it works fine for them. Maybe the problem is us, not it …”

Now, replace “dishwasher” for any fundraising program you are currently keeping on life support: “This [event/appeal letter/website] does not do nearly what I expect it to do. But it’s probably got several more years of useful life. Replacing it is going to cost time and cost money. And what if that replacement isn’t any better? After all, other people use this same [type of event/appeal letter/website], and it works fine for them. Maybe the problem is us, not it …”

The time to look for that next new fundraising success story is before what you’re doing is on life support. Trying to launch something new when the past failure is still on display for everyone — including donors — to see is like pushing a large rock uphill.

So how do you know when it’s time to move on to something else? Here are a few tips.

  • Income is in a constant downward spiral. Don’t do a knee-jerk reaction with one bad experience. But if it just keeps getting worse, slowly but surely, with every effort, ask yourself if it’s time to find a replacement. Are your donors telling you, in their quiet, passive-aggressive way, that they want a new option for giving?
  • Your sponsors or major backers are showing less enthusiasm. If folks at an event who sponsor mentions that they will keep sponsoring but they think the activity has gotten tired, listen. That’s possibly just one step away from them reducing or eliminating their funding completely. If a major donor mentions the annual appeal for X didn’t contain any new information or lacked a compelling case for support, take heed. Major funding sources are key stakeholders, and their waning enthusiasm is a message worth heeding.
  • Volunteers are harder and harder to recruit. While all fundraising activities don’t use volunteers, if one does, the “temperature” of the volunteers is a good checkup tool. If regular volunteers are less eager to commit, have a conversation to ask them why. Don’t make them feel guilty; instead, let them know they are necessary to help you make an important decision. A side benefit may be a volunteer who takes real ownership in a replacement fundraising activity because he or she feels like part of the team that birthed it.
  • The time involved is feeling excessive for the return. If you can’t justify the time spent — including the “free” time provided by volunteers — it’s reason enough to take a hard look and think about a replacement. “We’ve always done it” is not a good enough reason to continue something that is draining more time for less net income.
  • It’s just not fun anymore. I realize work, by its very name, is not constant fun. But when working on a particular project becomes the equivalent of an invasive medical procedure in your mind, it could be that the activity is no longer having the kind of positive income effect that makes the work to accomplish it a labor of joy. (It could also be that you have lost your enthusiasm for the job in total, but that’s another issue.) When something is just drudgery for you, take a careful, thoughtful look at it, and ask, “Is it me, or is it this activity?”
  • Your colleagues are dragging their feet (more than usual). Whether it’s providing human interest for the annual media presentation or providing contact names for an invitation list, lack of response for reasons other than sheer overwork may be a sign that it’s time to start thinking about a replacement. Again, you need to make that decision thoughtfully, but ignoring a lackluster show of support by your own colleagues is worth considering.

When you do decide to explore a replacement, remember these three rules:

  1. Don’t get rid of something if you don’t know what’s going to replace it. You’re a fundraiser, so I assume you need income. Be sure you can launch the new in time to replace the income from the old before you cancel it. Avoid cutting off your nose to spite your face, as the old saying goes.
  2. Don’t make the decision alone. If the fundraising activity involves volunteers and/or other team members, make them part of the process to decide when and with what to replace it. If it doesn’t involve others, bring your leadership in the conversation; you may be glad for co-ownership of the decision if things don’t go as well as hoped (and budgeted) the first time you try it.
  3. Don’t expect miracles. It can take time to shift people’s thinking away from “the way things always have been.” We are creatures of habit. Allow anything new — a mailing, an event or whatever — enough of a chance to succeed.

This old dog knows how easy it is to procrastinate when it’s time to replace the dishwasher and equally how hard it is to give up on a fundraising activity that is at or near death. But isn’t it usually the case that when you finally do you ask, “What took me so long?!” Here’s to thoughtful change!

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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