Fundraisers Have No ‘Summer Slump’

For many nonprofits, fundraising energy becomes sluggish as the temperatures rise. It may not be prime event season, donors may be too busy for a visit, mailing an appeal letter might be put off until fall, and online efforts take a back seat to vacation and “summer hours.”

While the challenges of raising funds in the summer are real in many cases, it’s not an excuse to coast for eight or more weeks. After all, summer is followed rather quickly by what is typically the most important quarter for fundraising—and that annual occurrence, Dec. 31.

So while vacations and enjoying the warmer activities should not be neglected, neither should fundraising. In fact, there are some great things to focus on before Labor Day, especially if you want to achieve your annual goals and have a spectacular year-end.

Review and revise (as needed) your appeal plan for October through December. Are there groups of donors you’re neglecting? Do you have a great plan in place for reactivating lapsed donors and just maybe getting some people on that big list of non-donors to take the plunge and give? Do you have in your schedule time to work on a request that arrives in-home in early January, asking monthly automatic donors to consider upgrading? Do you have enough time built in to get all the e-appeals and letters you want to send out in November and December done—not simply “somehow,” but with the best copy and graphics possible to capture attention and move donors to respond? Do you have some clear offers that you can build into reasons to give?

Review your online giving portal to make sure it’s donor-focused and robust enough to handle even more responses. Online giving is going to increase each year (in most cases), so what was “just fine” last year may now be inadequate. Don’t wait until your system crashes to find that out. Use some downtime now to make sure it’s ready for what you anticipate will be your best year-end online giving response ever.

Figure out what you want to learn before year-end to be a better fundraiser—and get started. Whether it’s the book you want to read, the course you want to take or the mentor you want to secure, use the summer to move that dream forward. We’re all extra busy in the fall, so ask more seasoned fundraisers for advice or recommendations when they have more bandwidth to help you.

Take a risk. Summer is also a great time to try a fundraising skill that is new to you. Whether it’s writing a newsletter article, meeting with a donor, researching foundations, planning a new event—or whatever else—use your time to explore new possibilities. You may just find a previously unknown talent that makes you an even better fundraiser.

Talk to your donors. Pick up the phone and make some calls—not just once, but every week. Thank your donors. Tell them how much they mean to your organization. Let them know if programs that will be launched or expanded in the fall. Build their excitement—and deepen a friendship at the same time.

Send me an email if you have a question you’d like me to tackle. I can’t answer everything since I’m still on a journey of learning, too, but I’m always looking for “felt needs” to discuss in this column. So if your summer reflections lead you to wonder about something related to fundraising (especially direct response and operations), contact me at While I can’t promise you fame and fortune, if I use your question you will get a mention in “Old Dog Fundraising”!

Regardless of how you spend your summer, this old dog hopes it’s a great prelude to your best fall ever. After all, the work we do as fundraisers builds on what we’ve done in the past, so make every minute count—and don’t forget to have fun, too!

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Fundraiser, What Are You Selling?

I was speaking recently with Dave Goetz of CZ Strategy, and our conversation turned to challenges facing nonprofit organizations. When he asked what I thought was the biggest challenge fundraisers had to deal with, I didn’t answer with the usual suspects (e.g. declining donor loyalty or retaining staff), instead pointed to a lack of differentiation by the nonprofit itself. How can you “sell” something that feels about as unique as generic white bread?

I’ve moaned about this before, but the challenge remains: In a quest not to shut anyone out as a potential donor, we instead become “OK” to all people, but the “absolute best” to very few or none.

If you want to be unique in the world of organizations that are tackling the same overarching problem as your organization does, ask yourself these questions:

1. What one positive attribute do I want our donor or prospect to know about us that few or no one else can claim?

For example, do you work with a specific market segment or have a solution that is yours alone? Do you have a true expert on your team, or are you the only partner with acknowledged experts?

In sales, this is called the “Unique Selling Proposition.” As a fundraiser, think of it as the unique story of your organization—the one thing you can say that will make person want to become your donor.

2. Are we consistently proclaiming that unique story everywhere?

It’s not enough to have a great website and a cool video if you aren’t saying what it is that makes your story unique. Make it crystal clear why you are different—and yes, better—than all the others that are doing what can be perceived as “the same thing” to a casual observer.

3. Am I focusing enough energy on making sure our donors and advocates know what it is that makes us unique, or am I assuming they “get it,” instead of focusing on the currently skeptical or disinterested?

Do you proactively offer supporters a regular diet of “proof,” or do you expect them to go find it on their own?

4. Does what makes us different really make sense to someone who has only a peripheral knowledge of our organization, or are we indirectly demanding they work hard to figure it out?

We can’t expect our supporters to sift through stacks of data to understand a technical nuance; we have to find a way to make it understandable to a layperson.

5. Why does our unique story matter?

Can we point to changes that are a result of those successes? Do we measure our impact and communicate that in donor-friendly language, or are we still trying to figure out what exactly it is that we accomplished and hoping we have enough smoke and mirrors to appease the donors?

While creating your unique story depends on your programs, your results and your dreams, it begins with your mission. What is the driving force of your organization? What makes people get up and go to work for your nonprofit? Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick, gives us a straightforward recipe for mission statement success in his short video, “How to Create a Mission Statement that Doesn’t Suck.” As a fundraiser, you may not be able to change the mission statement, even if it is terrible. It’s what you’ve got and you have to deal with is. So then what?

Figure out your unique story, even if it doesn’t embrace every aspect of your mission. (It needs to have an obvious relationship to the mission, though it might be a sub-point, not the entire thing.) Start telling that story every chance you get—in letters and newsletters, in presentations and one-on-one. Feel free to say, “While XYZ organization does many things, I am truly passionate about ______. Why? Because I have seen how it is changing lives/history/etc.”

Make that unique story your entrée into people’s hearts and wallets. Once you’ve “hooked” them on your organization, they might want to know more. Just like consumers can still like and use Tide, if they don’t know about or use Swiffer (both brands of the same company), your donors can love your unique story and be loyal to you without embracing every aspect of your organization’s work.

Sure, you might offend a colleague if you aren’t giving every part of the program equal billing. But this old dog reminds you that your job is to raise money to carry out the work of the entire organization. If a donor starts paying attention when you talk about X instead of Y, go with it. If you don’t, you may never get a chance to tell them about the great attributes of Y if you lost them before they even felt a connection to one thing you do.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

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.

Get to Know Your Donors

Ah, the perfect world: When we have plenty of money to do research and make decisions based on those well-education findings that provide a deep level of confidence. But most of us don’t live in the perfect world. In fact, we may only have money for the very basics—and donor research hardly fits that category in the minds of many non-fundraising decision-makers.

While “winning the lottery” and “find that pot of gold” are nice strategies to dream about, there are some more practical things you can do to get a better understanding of who your donors are—and they won’t require any more expenditure of your already stretched budget. Of course, none of these suggestions applies to every donor, which is why you need to use them all to get the best—albeit unscientific—representation possible.

Stop Looking in the Mirror
There is a good chance that your typical donor does not look (think or act) like you, especially if you are younger than 50 years of age. Yes, you’re heard and read this repeatedly, but the majority of donors do skew older. That’s not an indictment of younger people’s spending priorities or philanthropic tendencies; rather, it’s reality. When you are worrying about college loans, buying a house, putting braces on the kids and starting a college fund and a 401(k), making significant gifts to charity often is postponed. Once you have accomplished all those things and more, it’s easier to find disposable income that you can use any way you wish—and often, or at least some of that, goes to charity. Even if you are older, the mirror is still not an accurate reflection of your donors because the very fact that you are working at a nonprofit means that you have a different philanthropic understanding than others. This isn’t to say that you are better (or worse), but simply that you have an inside-out view of your cause rather than the view one gets when looking in from the outside.

Start Reading
What are your donors writing to you in letters and emails? Yes, some of them are angry rants and some are pure fluff, but if you make it a habit to read a random selection of written comments regularly, you can glean ideas that help you get a picture of a portion of your audience. What are they complaining about? While you don’t want to make a wholesale change based on three comments, if you start seeing something repeatedly, you may have found a place where a possibly quite simple change can pay off in terms of donor retention and giving. What are they praising? What makes them cry? What makes them feel proud? Those are the things you want to do more of.

Stop Catering to Insiders
In addition to not looking like you, your typical donor probably doesn’t look much like your leadership team of board members, either. After all, there’s a level of insider knowledge that few donors have—or want. While your appeal copy or e-newsletter may seem to your organization’s management team like “dumbing down” your amazing work, they are not the audience you need to communicate with. Your donors quite often don’t know what the acronyms mean or where a region where you work is located (if you aren’t local). Most of them won’t take the time to check online for the definition of “food insecurity,” “income eligible” or other terms we use that are accurate, but not donor-focused. Yes, we have to be true to the work we do and honoring to those we serve through our programs, but we also have to use appropriate terminology that a donor understands and can visualize in his or her head.

Start Talking
Answer calls from donors when you can. Call a few every week just to thank them for their donation and ask them what they love about your organization. It goes without saying that it is vital to talk to major donors and others who come to events. But call some of those who will never be at the gala or invited to an insider’s conference. These average donors can give you a window into the larger pool of donors who faithfully give. What do they enjoy reading about? What project especially speaks to them? What would they like to know more about? What makes them proud to be your donor?

You may have read about the recent study Temkin Group did to explore emotions consumers experience after taking a specific action. While this research related to consumers, Jeff Brooks noted that feeling excited, appreciated and happy leads to the greatest loyalty—and that certainly is applicable in fundraising, as well as consumer marketing. A thoughtful phone call that doesn’t ask for money, but strives to engage the donor and hear his or her thoughts about the organization is a great way to learn more about your donor—and to positively influence their excitement about the mission, their sense of being appreciated and their happiness about being a donor.

While this Stop-Start-Stop-Start plan makes no claim to be a replacement for scientific research, don’t give up when there is no budget for scientifically analyzing your donors and what makes them tic. Instead, pick up the phone or the written communication, put down the mirror and learn. No one donor represents the entirety of your donor file (well, I hope not!), but bit by bit, this old dog believes you will come to see what makes your donors special and how you can help them fall in love again and again with your cause.

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.