A Case for Realistic Fundraising: 6 Things You Can Do

Unrealistic expectations seem to be rampant in the fundraising field. And in a way, I get it—after all, we want to expand the work we are doing so we can make progress on our mission, which represents a form of change that we believe in. But we need strategies, budgets and programs to make fundraising succeed. Simply saying “because I say so” isn’t enough.

So, what can you do if you are facing unrealistic expectations? Try these six things:

1. Be honest. Say why you don’t believe the expectations are realistic. Give as much attention to what is doable as to what is not. Your goal is not to be a doomsayer, but to lay out the case for what looks plausible, given what you have to work with (your donor file, your budget, your mission-related programs, external forces, etc.).

2. Back up your words with reality. “The sky is falling!” is much more believable if you can pick up a piece of sky off the ground and pass it around the room. One of the easiest ways to make a case for investing in some fundraising programs is to show what will happen if nothing is done. For example, if you have 5,000 donors, a 50 percent attrition rate and no investment in acquiring new donors, in 10 years, you will have five donors (plus any that just happen to come to you on their own). That’s not hyperbole; it’s a simple spreadsheet.

3. Listen to your donors. What are they saying in their calls and emails? Are they expressing dissatisfaction or confusion with what you are doing? Are they in love with your mission but facing economic hardships that are widespread in your region? Make some phone calls or send out a survey and ask a few questions. You can plan all you want, but you can’t plan your donors into giving.

4. Represent the “voice of the donor” with leadership. Make sure your colleagues are hearing what you are hearing. Some will ignore it or write it off as “uninformed.” But some may be challenged to think about donors and how they view what your organization does. Wanting to appeal to donors is no excuse for bad programming, but sometimes small changes can add the sizzle that makes a program much easier for a donor to embrace and support. So make sure others on your team hear from donors, too.

5. Keep learning and trying. It’s frustrating when nothing you do seems to make a difference. You’ve tested copy, design, premiums, e-appeal chasers, photos, colors and a million other things. You’re constantly reading about best practices and trying to make sure you are following them. Truthfully, if there is a way to turn around your fundraising, you are unlikely to find it unless you are constantly looking for it. Stay the course until you can’t deny it any longer.

6. Know when it’s just impossible. For whatever reason, sometimes a fundraiser can never do enough to change the sorry state of funds raised. It may be a board that won’t allow any investment in fundraising or programs that are so weak you can’t fool the donors no matter how much lipstick you put on the pig. It could be that you are just not the right person for the position. It’s not that you’re bad or the organization is bad—you simply don’t have the chemistry required to mesh with the board, leadership and donors.


Some people are better at leaving a job than others. But if this is the year you need to take the next step in managing your career as a fundraiser, start preparing now. When you are in a dark space career-wise, it’s hard to remember the great things you made possible. So keep a file of your own successes, and update your resume regularly even if you have no intentions of moving on. And be sure to take the extra step and look at the Form 990 of a potential employer and see what kinds of funds they have been raising in the past few years. Are they asking you to come in and do the impossible? You’ve already “been there, done that.”

This old dog knows that getting lost in a sea of impossible expectations can drown the best fundraiser. We are privileged to do the work we do, especially when we’re challenged and have adequate resources. But we have to understand that we can’t do magic. So, in the words of the great fictional magician Albus Dumbledore, “Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”

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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