Should You Know or Do Fundraising?

I’ve been debating (with myself) lately about the difference between knowing fundraising and doing fundraising. This internal conflict came up as a result of a class I am helping develop. Although I have taught university-level courses in fundraising and nonprofit management, I still consider myself a fundraising practitioner, not an academic, so that’s the lens through which I view this discussion.

Given that when I started in fundraising, there were few courses, no Internet or webinars and only a small offering of books and publications. I first learned fundraising through (referred in Wikipedia terms to as) “the School of Hard Knocks”—the “(sometimes painful) education one gets from life’s usually negative experiences.” I’ve occasionally mentioned the first fundraising book I ever bought: “The Art of Asking: How to Solicit Philanthropic Gifts” by Paul Schneiter. At that time, that book cost me princely sum of $7.95.

We’ve come a long way as a profession since then, but the question remains (at least for me): Is it better to know fundraising or do fundraising?

As with many of these types of questions, I am convinced that the answer is both. Learning is done best when there is context. It would be difficult to understand the difference between stick shift and automatic and why routine maintenance matters for safe driving before you have learned to drive. By the same token, it’s difficult to understand the nuances of asking for money unless you understand the vehicle in which that ask will be delivered—in person, via a letter, at an event, etc.

I gravitate toward certain aspects of fundraising, because I have tried them and found a measure of success and enjoyment as a result. I tend to avoid or at least minimize my role in other aspects of fundraising, because I have tried them and found less fulfillment (for me and the cause). That’s neither an indictment of the method nor me—it’s a matter of where my skills and interests are best served. As a result, the fundraising methods I enjoy most are the ones I dig into in terms of gaining more knowledge.

A challenge comes if you have never tried some fundraising method. You may be an untapped major gift cultivation superstar in your organization, but if you never actually do it, you’ll never know that. So sometimes we have to take a chance and try, hopefully in a situation where someone else can mentor us who is exceptional in that skill.

Your organization may provide opportunities for you to increase your hands-on skills, or you may have to look at volunteer experiences to get a chance to experience new skills. Either way, expect to have to do your homework and get input on best practices; don’t assume you can go in cold and start “winging it,” because the outcome matters too much to not prepare for success.

It can also help to read an overview of fundraising to get a broader feel for the mechanics of a technique. An old edition of “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” by Stanley Weinstein was a guide for me for years, and that’s why I was honored to work with Stanley on the latest edition, available here. You will also want to choose a few authors whose content regularly resonates with your needs and keep an eye out for their new posts, publication and articles.

So back to where I began: Should you know or do fundraising? This old dog recommends you increase your knowing by adding to your knowledge, and then expand your doing based on what you are learning and where you think you have affinity and ability. You may find your fundraising passion in an unexpected place if you’re willing to keep learning and trying.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

3 Things to Consider When Fundraising Is No Longer ‘Fun’

Have you had a day when you just felt like there had to be a better career to pursue than fundraising? I know I have. Fortunately, those days have been far outnumbered by those days when I feel honored to do the work I do. But sometimes, they pile up and lead to starting the process of finding a new fundraising position, leaving the field all together or something in between. And this results in a big loss to the nonprofit community because when a fundraiser leaves, he or she takes away passion and experience. Sure, you can always replace Person A with Person B, but unless Person A was a bad hire to begin with, it’s going to take time for the replacement to learn the organizational nuances, personalities and programs well enough to think on the spot and become a passionate advocate for your fundraising program.

The statistics are well-known about longevity in fundraising, and they aren’t encouraging. The study titled “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” provided insight into challenges with filling key development roles and a lack of stability among fundraisers. The prior year, Penelope Burke found that average tenure of a fundraiser at a job was 16 months, and direct and indirect costs of finding a replacement were greater than $127,000. The “2016 Compensation and Benefits Report” from the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) was a bit more optimistic, finding that their respondents reported that the average number of years the stayed at an employer was 3.9.

OK, that’s the somewhat sorry state of the industry in terms of job longevity, but what about you? What if you are finding that being a fundraiser is no longer the exciting experience that it used to be, but instead is a daily slog to meet goals and keep your head above water? What can you do to regain the joy of the job?

First, ignore the statistics. (Yeah, I just gave you some, but do as I say, not as I do!) Thomas Campbell, ACFRE, has worked at DeSales University since 1988—29 years! I never met Campbell, but he’s inspiring to me. In a 2012 article on the AFP website, Campbell said, “I’ve gotten to see this university grow and expand before my very eyes… Knowing that I’ve been a part of that—that our fundraising efforts have helped to build something real and compelling—it’s an amazing feeling.” Who do you know who has stayed in a position, growing into more and more responsibility? Maybe he or she hasn’t come close to Campbell’s nearly 30 years, but what makes them stay? Is there anything you can take away from a conversation with that person that could help you carve out a better role for yourself—without leaving?

Next, be honest with your manager. Too often, annual reviews are rote or even nonexistent. Instead of waiting for your next formal review and hoping it gets beyond generalities, set up a meeting to discuss your future at that organization. Be honest about what you enjoy and where you feel you have made the greatest contribution. Don’t threaten, but explain that you want to grow professionally and that you would like to work with your manager to explore ways you can do that for both your own benefit and the benefit of the organization. The response you get to that conversation will give you a big clue as to whether or not you are in a place to grow or a place where you will stagnate. If it’s clearly the latter, you have a decision to make.

Finally, take charge of your own future. Stop waiting for your employer to invest in you and instead, find an article or a webinar online that covers a new-to-you skill. Volunteer somewhere to learn a new skill or see if you’ll enjoy a different aspect of fundraising. Take a course. And don’t feel the only career path is the one that moves up toward major gifts or foundations or another “higher end” form of fundraising—unless that interests you. As a direct response practitioner, I have occasionally had people ask why I never “advanced” into major gifts. The honest reason? I find it boring. I’ve done pretty much every aspect of fundraising, but I love direct response. Sure, it’s not the aspiration of many fundraisers, but it makes me happy. Figure out what you absolutely love, then become the very best at it you can.

I admit that, on occasion, I get frustrated in my work. It’s not always perfect. But every day, I strive to do something I love, even if it isn’t the most profitable thing I do all day. I write an article, read an article that just looks competing to me, I talk to someone who is also passionate about fundraising and (I admit it) I even look back at some things I’ve done that make me especially proud of how I have invested the last 38 years of my life. Unlike Thomas Campbell, I haven’t stayed at one place (my longest tenure was about 14 years), but I have done a lot of work that I am proud of and that I believe has made a difference.

This old dog knows that when it comes time to transition into a former fundraiser, I’ll look back and laugh about many things, shake my head over a few, but I’ll mostly feel joy that I was able to make a difference—albeit small—in a few corners of the world. How about you? Are you working today because it brings you joy, or is it just a job? I encourage you, if it’s the latter, start today to take steps toward rediscovering the joy—and the fun—of fundraising.

Originally published in Nonprofit Pro.

Mistakes: The Unavoidable Fundraising Nightmare

A few days ago, I work up to an email from Disney that had some exciting news for me—except the subject line said, “Jeffrey, your Castaway Club news is here!” Oops! No Jeffrey here… But in Disney’s defense, that kind of mistake happens. No matter how many checkpoints we put in along the way, a mistake can slide through.

But since mistakes are inevitable, how a fundraiser responds to those errors is what can really set the organization apart. Instead of spending all our time on looking for someone (anyone but me!) to blame, our first priority needs to be our donors. While a wrong name in a subject line is not a big deal (though it can feel sloppy to a recipient), an incorrect receipt, a broken link in an eAppeal or failure to respond to a call, email or letter with a question can make a donor less inclined to give again.

Since mistakes are unavoidable, here are some time-tested (and experience-tested) ideas for responding:

Say “I’m sorry.” Maybe I’m showing my age, but someone actually apologizing in a tone that conveys sincerity seems to be a dying art. And perhaps because it is rare, it’s memorable. When something goes wrong, surprise your donors by first letting them know you are sorry for the mistake. You don’t have to beat yourself (or another person) up, but you do regret that the mistake happened—so let the donor know.

Correct it when possible—and when it matters. Send out an accurate receipt, get the link fixed (and notify donors of the new link) or pick up the phone and call if a donor is frustrated that his or her letter went unanswered. The secret is to “make it right” as quickly as possible and without further frustration for donors. But don’t call attention to a mistake that was probably not noticed by most of your donors. For example, it’s not that serious if you had a misspelled word (unless it was offensive), a duplicated inset or a flopped photo. Just thank those who call it to your attention and apologize. In these cases, a mass apology just makes more people think something they didn’t care about in the first place is a bigger deal than realized.

Go the extra mile to make fix the problem. Even if it’s a small thing, when a donor writes, emails or calls in about something, it’s a big deal to them. So, fix the problem. You’ll strengthen your relationship with the donor if he or she feels you really care.

Fix the root of the problem. This happens behind the scenes from what your donor sees. Figure out what went wrong, how to fix it and how to keep it from reoccurring. Here’s a tip: This can be good for your career, too, because it shows you are proactive, not just reactive.

Don’t make it a habit. “It’s no big deal” may seem proportional to the mistake in your mind, but if a donor cared enough to bring it up, it is a big deal to him or her. The first time a mistake happens, it’s time to fix it. There is no excuse for repeated sloppiness because that says to our donors that we aren’t exercising care… and it’s not too far to go mentally from using the wrong name in an email to misusing donations. You may think this is silly, but I’ve seen small things escalate into lapsing donors—something none of us want or can afford.

Don’t beat yourself up. Mistakes happen. If you haven’t made one recently, just wait. Albert Einstein, who I think we can agree was a pretty smart guy, said, “A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.” And Ralph Nader is credited with saying, “Your best teacher is your last mistake.”

This old dog knows making a mistake can be an uncomfortable way to learn, but not responding appropriately to a mistake can compound the pain. So, take a deep breath, say “I’m sorry” and move on. Life is a journey of learning… even though sometimes we wish for less time in the “classroom.”

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Random Fundraising Resources and Thoughts

I’ve been ruminating on some random fundraising issues this week, perhaps because I have been in my car more than usual. While each is worth mentioning, none fills a full column, so here’s a compilation of some “news you can use,” as it were.

Learn from others. I’ve been reading “Cases in Nonprofit Management: A Hands-On Approach to Problem Solving” for a class I’ll be teaching in the summer. This 2017 publication by Pat Libby and Laura Deitrick reads like a novel in the sense that the cases are presented as narrative, but the topics feel like they are right off the pages of a fundraising news report. The book includes cases covering the board of directors, strategic decision-making, grant-making and 11 other relevant topics.

While you may not want to sit down and read this book cover-to-cover (it can get depressing after a while if several of the cases strike too close to home), but it is a helpful way to direct your thinking if you are facing a similar situation or want to avoid getting into one. The questions at the end of each case are a great tool for a nonprofit leader, board member or fundraiser wrestling with similar situations (or hoping to avoid them altogether).

Measure what matters. I was recently talking with someone who was feeling a bit overwhelmed with a robust software program that can do just about everything, if you only have the time to figure it all out. For fundraisers, if we have the flashiest donor management system or one that is lacking, it can still be difficult to sort through the options to determine what numbers to study to be able to set actionable goals for measuring success.

The “donorCentrics Index of Direct Marketing Fundraising” from Target Analytics looks at results from large nonprofits and reports on key measurements. While you may not see any logic in comparing your smaller organizations to the gargantuan members of our sector, the report is a goldmine when it comes to knowing what to measure. If you focus on the eight they include in their publically available report and add in total revenue and number of gifts (breaking it out between new and recurring donors, if possible, and fine-tuning it a bit further to consider average gifts, gifts per donor and revenue per donor), you will have a goldmine of information that puts stepping stones in front of you for determining where you need to go to make significant improvements. You’ll need to determine priorities, of course, as trying to do too much not only can lead to competing goals but can lead to despair.

Start out right. Throughout my career, I purchased books from time to time that I felt would be go-to references for the future. Like you perhaps, my employers had no money to build a library for me, so every book or magazine (this was before free online newsletters) had to be more than the latest publishing flash-in-the-pan. I still have the first book I purchased; it shows its age and is definitely outdated, but it reminds me that, when starting in fundraising, having a foundation based on the knowledge of those who have already done it is essential.

That’s the reason I worked with Stanley Weinstein to update “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” (fourth edition). I have owned a copy of that book for more than 20 years and, while I have never begun a fundraising program from the ground up, I’ve dog-eared its pages checking out best practices, advice for a new (to me) process or ideas to consider when I wanted to change something to (hopefully) make it better.

Live out thankfulness. Earlier this year, Boomerang reported on their study of closings in emails and found that the most effective closings (in descending order) were thanks in advance, thanks and thank you. It’s easy to see the common thread here—saying “Thank you”! Other studies have been published with variations on this same theme, and it’s hard to argue that a simple thanks is more than just an addition to your word count.

Many fundraisers write “thank you” notes and letter (both for mass distribution and one-on-one to a donor), and it can get incredibly routine. Sara Algoe, PhD, from the University of North Carolina has published multiple times on her research on gratitude, including the Find-Remind-Bind theory of gratitude. In brief, this states that expressing gratitude not only helps you create relationships, but also helps those relationships flourish.

Learn from others. Measure what matters. Start out right. Live out thankfulness. This old dog knows that it takes more than these four things to be a successful and fulfilled fundraiser, but this isn’t a bad place to begin for anyone new to the profession or looking to hit the reset button on his or her career in the nonprofit sector.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Nonprofit: It’s Still a Business

I recently had a few conversations that reminded me of one of my principles of fundraising: You may not consider your nonprofit organization a business, but if you don’t run it like a business, you will go out of business.

You may be nodding as you read that statement, especially if you have been part of a layoff when a nonprofit organization simply didn’t have enough money to keep operating at the same level it had been. You know the frustration of hindsight or, as the old saying goes, “closing the gate after the horse has escaped.” Seasoned fundraisers know there is no unlimited supply of silver bullets for raising money fast, and a lack of accepting a financial reality and adjusting accordingly has been the curse of many a fundraising program.

If you’re not sure why “business principles” matter to a nonprofit, consider these three characteristics of an effective nonprofit organization that can withstand the financial ups and downs that can occur seemingly without warning.

Characteristic 1: Leadership
A nonprofit that is running like a business has a board of directors that questions, challenges and sometimes says “no.” While a rubber-stamping board may sound like a dream, the reality is that, as employees, we can get myopic when viewing our organization, forgetting that we can’t control the actions of our donors, the media, staff turnover, government regulations and the many other things that can impact our bottom line. The board needs to be engaged and to set the course for long-term stability, not just short-term sizzle.

I was recently talking to an executive director of a growing nonprofit that was established about a decade ago. I asked how their board changed as the organization grew from a start-up. The reply was, “The board stopped counting pencils and started leading.”

Characteristic 2: Financial Sense
In a blog entitled “Ten Characteristics of a Successful Business,” Neil Ducoff wrote:

“Financial literacy is a non-negotiable skill in business. This doesn’t mean that the owner needs to be an accountant or have the skills of a bookkeeper, but it does mean that the owner knows how to read and understand financial reports and use them to make the best possible business decisions.”

I recently had a conversation with someone who was talking about some very real challenges with cash flow. Yet, in the midst of these lean times, other staff members were talking about moving staff from part-time to full-time. An organization that is looking toward a long, successful future knows that sometimes “not now” is the best answer when confronted with an opportunity—no matter how great—that will increase expense. Lost opportunity may cost, but running out of money brings a price that may be far steeper.

Characteristic 3: Systems and Procedures
Managing your nonprofit organization or a department, no matter how small or large, means keeping one eye firmly affixed on the future. But it also means making sure you have a strong structure today. This means contracts or letters of agreement for everyone who provides a contractual service, job descriptions, expense policies, etc.—all conforming to best standards.

I have heard some nonprofit employees use “less-than-market pay” as a reason why staff policies are loose or personal relationships as an excuse for not having an agreement in writing with a contractor. Having a structured system in place should not deter employees or service providers. In fact, they should be welcomed as they make clear what is expected on both sides. Again quoting Ducoff, “Anything less than a deliberate and structured approach to business infuses mediocrity into all activities. Mediocrity never wins in business.”

So what can a fundraiser do if his or her company lacks the basic business structure that is attributed to successful companies? The bottom line is to control what you can control. You may not be able to write policies for the entire organization, but you likely can:

• Set standards and institute procedures for your own team—even if the “team” is only you.

• Determine to operate at all times within budget and avoid committing to an impossible goal simply because “we need the money.” When you have no choice, be polite, but firm about why you believe that to be unattainable. End by saying that you will work as hard and as smart as you can to achieve it.

• Prepare reports to the board that give short-term results, but also lay out a strategy that is focused on the future. If the board wants to “count pencils,” don’t argue, but also invite them to step up to leadership through thoughtful communication that generates discussion of eventual opportunities.

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister who brought his country from the brink edge of defeat to victory in World War II, said, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” This old dog encourages you to accept that instilling business best practices into your nonprofit organization may not happen overnight, but if we truly believe in the work we do, it’s a charge worth leading.

Originally published on NonProfit Pro.

Questions I Have for Nonprofit Organizations (As a Donor)

I get a lot of fundraising mail, which is good because to this fundraiser, that’s like food to a starving person. I receive great nourishment from other people’s mail (OPM)—creative stimulation, chuckles, thoughtful moments, emotional engagement, smiles and an occasional tear.

But I also have questions.

Now I know I am not the target audience. After all, I am a fundraiser, so I will never approach OPM like Sue Donor, who doesn’t even know that fundraising is a career, approaches it. But late at night (which is when I usually look at my accumulated stack of fundraising appeals), I feel much less like a fundraiser and more like an exhausted, multi-tasked woman who always has more ideas for how to use disposable income than actual funds available. Sound like your donors?

So while recently reviewing the OPM I had received in recent weeks, I jotted down these questions that I wish I could ask the people who so faithfully write to me every few weeks, monthly or merely occasionally.

Why did you spell my name wrong? I sent you a check that had my name clearly printed in block text. So I can only conclude that the reason you call me “Pamely” instead of “Pamela” is you just don’t care enough about me to bother getting my name right. It’s tough to be friends with someone who doesn’t even think my name matters.

Why didn’t you say “thank you”? Yes, my old, familiar rant… but if you appreciate my gift, it would be nice if I knew that. I am not assuming you are grateful; I am assuming that, once again, you really don’t care about me. You can’t be broke—you mail me address labels, cards and letters every few weeks. But no budget for a simple “thank you”? Shame on you.

Why don’t you call me by name? As a fundraiser, I understand three-way matches; economies that come from personalizing a reply form, but not the letter; and all those other production issues. But as a donor, I wonder why you can put my name on one piece, but on another I am merely “Caring Friend.” If I like you and believe in your work, I’ll get over it, but it does feel strange—from the point of view of someone who isn’t an insider—that you “forgot” my name on the letter by remembered it on the reply card.

Why do you keep talking to me like a current supporter years after I stopped giving to you? I received a letter recently that reminded me (through the window on the envelope) that I have been a “Supporter Since 1998.” The problem is I stopped being a supporter after that one gift 19 years ago. Another nonprofit to whom I donated a memorial gift 12 years ago—stating clearly that it was a memorial gift—still sends me an occasional letter. It’s one thing if it is a letter that treats me like a potential supporter (after all, as a donor, I have pretty much forgotten that I ever gave to them), but to talk to me like we’re picking up from a conversation a week ago feels phony.

Why don’t you ever mail to me? At the opposite end of the spectrum is the organization I gave to recently, but I never hear from. Sure, I can find you online if I want it badly enough, but I have a few thousand other things vying for my attention. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I kind of forgot about you. A polite interruption once in a while might be helpful—and just could result in a gift.

Why don’t you tell me I made a difference? Yeah, I get it—my lousy $25 or $50 is no big deal for your organization. But I was hoping it would do some little bit of good. But I never see anything that shows me that somewhere, somehow, something is better because I gave up some lattes to make a donation. A newsletter would be nice. (And don’t tell me to go online. Did I tell you I am too busy to remember to buy more milk, let alone to find your website?)

Sure, these are just the questions from a crabby old dog who needs to get a good night’s sleep instead of staying up even later to read OPM. (Like that’s gonna happen…) But wouldn’t it be telling to ask your donors what questions they have? I wonder what they would say. Or better yet, if you’re not already doing it, as a smart fundraiser, take time in the next few weeks to read the letters and emails and answer a few calls that come in from your donors. What are they grumbling about? How can you respond—without destroying your fundraising ROI, but still showing your donors you really do care?

Remember: You don’t deserve a donation. You earn it. And we have to work to earn it every day from every donor. The job of nurturing donors is never done… and the devil really is in the details.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.