The Seven Virtues of High Achieving Fundraising Shops


I got to spend time in Omaha this week, one of America’s great philanthropic cities, and was happily reminded of the force for good that is a high functioning fundraising department. Show me a focused group of professionals devoted to donor relationships and revenue targets, and I can anticipate world-class results.

We have had a fond look at the bad habits of shabby fundraising shops, but what of the virtues that define successful programs? What makes for a good fundraising department? Is it plentiful staffing, and high salaries that leads to success? Often, alas, that matters little.

What, then, makes for a high achieving fundraising teams? Robust departments tend to:

  1. Have strong leadership. High functioning fundraising teams, like most work groups, tend not to be democratic, with everyone having an equal voice and decisions made by committee. Rather, they are generally led by benign dictators, who seek input and buy in where appropriate, but who make unequivocal and timely decisions, pushing everyone forward to a common vision and ambitious, achievable goals.
  1. Own the Data: If there is a single, consistent indicator of a strong fundraising team, it is in the Ownership of Data. Strong programs have database Power Users, the go to resource expert who is singularly focused on manipulating and reporting data. But more than that, there is a shared understanding that EVERYONE on the team is responsible for data: documenting activity, correcting mistakes, mastering basic functionality and understanding reporting. A fundraising program that accurately, and on a weekly basis, reports annual fund results year to date/against budget/compared to last year, is a program that gets things done.
  1. Face Outward: Bigger teams are so often burdened with layers of weekly meetings: event planning, Marketing Coordination, special projects, and so on. I have seen many teams who go weeks without talking to donors with all of this naval gazing. What does a strong program look like? Gift solicitors are out and about, meeting with donors. Support staff keep solicitors in motion by producing written proposals and useful donor research. Staff members do not eat lunch at the desk. Marketing is going to do what they want to do anyway, so why meet with them so often?
  1. Focus on Goals: What must be done must be measured, and good programs have high expectations of the activity of every team member, based on written plans and clear revenue targets. Weekly, monthly and annual goals for donor visits, proposals developed, board members engaged, and so on. How could it be otherwise?
  1. Maintain a Sense of Humor: Ours is a challenging business, and, if we are doing the job right, we hear “NO” as much as 2/3 of the time. So a sense of humor is terribly important, if we are to thrive. My first job, back when consultants had to fundraise first to learn the trade, was as Annual Fund manager in a large zoo fundraising office. We had big goals and lofty activity expectations. We also had a RED SWINGLINE STAPLER, a beauty, right out of Office Space, that everyone coveted. It was stolen by colleagues at every opportunity. Leave it out on your desk, and someone would carry it away, and you would have to steal it back.
  1. Stick Together: I left my last staff team five years ago, at a large performing arts center. My core team is still there, supporting one another, working to build a comprehensive fundraising program from the ground up, five years later. Can you imagine? That result is rare, but good teams build a strong institutional culture, and can replace colleagues who move on while maintaining donor relationships. This continuity is lacking in so many programs, and it is deeply hurting our profession.
  1. Love the Donors: Our best fundraising programs place donor relationships at the center of all efforts and activity. They personally solicit donors for meaningful annual gifts. They steward relentlessly, giving thanks every single day through phone calls and personal visits. Good fundraisers understand the donor is our work, not simply the cash we raise.

Cheers to the 4th Quarter. Go raise money!

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Seven Deadly Sins of Hapless Fundraising Shops


Labor Day is behind us, football has begun, and the time for actual work is now. Congrats, friends, it is fundraising season once again! I hope your shop is ready, with an actionable fundraising plan.

Traveling to meet a new client, I am always interested in the first few minutes walking into the office. What is the energy? There is an almost immediate feel to unhappy fundraising offices, and my first instinct usually proves true, even months later. Either the culture is there, and the team is functional and productive, or, too often, the fundraising office is guilt of one (or all seven) of the these Fundraising Sins. Which ones do you recognize in your shop?

Bad Fundraising Shops Tend to Be:

  1. Quiet: This is the biggest indicator of fundraising potential. Happy fundraising shops are lively places, with noise, phones ringing, people talking to each other and on the phone, and a general din of life. Staff showing up with the new baby, or the new puppy. Show me a quiet fundraising office, and I will easily predict a team of low producers, unengaged with each other and the community. Be Not Quiet.
  2. Slothful: Quiet’s twin bro is Sloth, and it is a fundraising killer. If staff are hanging out at their desks more often that not, we have a real problem. I am patient and tolerant, willing to invest in most. But laziness is not ever acceptable. Be Not Slothful.
  3. Internally Focused. When I meet with staff members for the first time I tend to ask, “How are you spending your days?” If more than 20% of the work is engaged in internal committees, task forces, planning groups, and related nonsense, we have a fundraising problem. Fundraising shops must be, by necessity, focused towards the community and engaging donors and prospects. How much time are you spending with fellow colleagues on internal business? Look out the Window. 
  4. Somber. Show me a central fundraising office at a University, and I predict a no fun having place with lots of serious looking people in black suits. Ours is a serious business. Being so damn serious 100% of the time makes for a grim work week. No fun fundraisers tend to talk a lot about the Donor, but never call any, and Philanthropy rather than Fundraising. Be Not Somber.
  5. Lacking a Sense of Humor. This is my least favorite sin of junky fundraising shops. I can teach someone to fundraising, and coach teams to work better as a group and focus outwardly. But if a team lacks a sense of humor, if they cannot be playful with one another and appreciative of the absurdity of existence, there is almost nothing to be done. The one precondition to fundraising success is a joyful heart. Forget it if you are grim and morose. Laugh a little.
  6. Afraid. More than a lack of skill or knowledge, fear is what keeps us from achievement in life, work and fundraising. Fear of failure for many, but for others feel of success, or fear of everything. How does this manifest? Fear of talking to donors. Fear of asking for money. Fear of change and best effort. Be Not Afraid.
  7. Eating lunch at the Desk. Sin comes in all forms. Show me your office’s break room. Let’s open the refrigerator together. Is it full of leftovers and lunch sacks? Don’t do it. The best performing teams are out and about, especially at lunch. Getting after the $5,000 gifts, meeting prospects and donors where they live (and eat). If you don’t have a lunch appointment, at least get out for a walk at lunch to get some exercise. Get away from the excel spreadsheets and the newsletter copy. Don’t eat your lunch at your desk.

Happy Fundraising. Go change the world.

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged | Leave a comment

Quit Selling Sponsorships. Start Cultivating Partnerships.

2013-07-17 17.48.52

Working with non-profits and arts organizations, my most practical advice goes mostly unheeded. Most of you should not be bothering at all with corporate sponsorship. Why? Local decision making is increasingly rare, as banks, law firms, health care organizations, and other community engaged companies consolidate regionally and nationally.

The corporate pie is increasingly small, and non-profits are compelled to pursue corporate marketing and advertising budgets as true corporate philanthropy is just about extinct. These marketing sponsorships are the most difficult gifts to secure, harder even than competitive grants, where at least the expectations and funding interest are generally clear. Imagine you have dollars to invest in local media and with non-profits for corporate marketing exposure. Everyone is coming at you with their VERY BEST IDEA, all day long. We can hardly compete.

So there are better ways for you to raise money. The $5,000 you chase for months from a local law firm via meetings, complex proposals, and endless negotiations could be secured from a major donor via a simple luncheon over Cobb salads and Arnold Palmers. In 90 minutes. Or if you aren’t ready for $5,000 individual solicitations, why not a series of non-profit porch parties, via the excellent Gail Perry?

So quit chasing sponsorships. Not yet ready to do that? Great. Let’s worry less about the singular Sale and focus instead on a true Partnership between two entities. What’s the difference?

  1. Sales are pursued by Closers. Quit hiring a commission based salesperson to go out in the community without a net and Sell. Selling is for suburban lifestyle magazine advertising. Corporate engagement folks need a different set of skills. Good ones are relationship focused, educating and connecting the right partners with the right opportunity.
  2. Sales are Transactional. Too many sponsorship deals fall into the Once and Done camp. You pursue the law firm’s marketing budget to sponsor your Kitten Mozart Series for $25,000. Eight meetings and six proposals later, the commit to $5,000. Everyone is bummed. They don’t have a good experience. They don’t renew. That’s the pits
  3. Sales are Outcomes Focused. Far too many non-profits suffer from AYI (are you crazy?) budgeting, with philanthropic revenue targets based on expense budgets. What this means is your corporate people are going out there By Any Means Necessary. Getting the deal and moving on.

What does a true Corporate Partnership look like?

  1. Partnerships are renewable and long-lasting. This is the most critical of all. Sponsorships take forever to secure. If we are going to bother with this, it should be towards a long-term relationship. Have $10,000 to invest? For me, better a two-year partnership at $5,000 per year than a one-year deal for $10,000. That gives us time to dance and make magic together, strengthening the first year’s results.
  2. Partnerships are Activated. Non-profits truly struggle with this critical step. A proposal is offered and an investment is made. Now what? What are the mutual expectations? How are we going to announce the partnership? How can we over deliver? We’ve all seen this fail after a sales is closed, even for the most basic of benefits. What is the value of free tickets to the concert if they are forgotten in the desk of someone’s overworked administrative assistant.
  3. Partnerships are Inspiring. The very best partnerships build loyalty and love between organizations. The best partnerships are fun. When is it working? When the board member who works at the company brags about the partnership and wants to grow it for next year. When the CEOs greet each other and grin at the event, recognizing a mutually beneficial win for like-minded entities.

Quit treating Sponsorships as a Sale. If you cannot, quit pursuing partnerships. Your major gifts program is a much better return on investment.

Posted in Fundraising, Performing Arts, Philanthropy, Sponsorship | Tagged | Leave a comment

Internal Efficiencies & Tragic Fundraising Communication.

I love fundraising samples from organizations, good and bad. For years I kept every solicitation in an overflowing folder, until finally paying someone to scan them for use in an Annual Fund course I taught at Indiana University. The poor kids had to sit through me picking apart at least 100 of them that semester, including some whoppers from the Romney campaign in 2012. They targeted me as a likely GOP voter because I buy suits online, or something.

I don’t keep many fundraising letter or gift acknowledgements anymore  but, fundraising peeps, please know that I read every word when you send me something. Colleagues send me wonderful and wacky samples. Case Study #1 is a horror show from a well supported higher education performing arts organization. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty. Everything else is presented as written for your enjoyment:


  1. The Premise: We appreciate your support. Why else would we write? Did we thank you as a Donor four to five times over the course of the year?
  2. The Real Premise: Wait, what? Someone has decided that the written acknowledgment letter represents an unmanageable burden. What? Thank you letters mailed in the mail are too demanding of a full time and adequately staffed development program? Did you just proclaim “internal efficiencies” to the donor as a rationale for shoddy gratitude? Internal efficiencies?
  3. The Offer: Wait, there isn’t one. Want to still receive written acknowledgements for your taxes or personal enjoyment? Too bad. Confirm your email. Even if is is still the AOL one. Even if you don’t want to get email from our organization. This email will serve as your receipt for tax purposes. You are lucky to receive it, you ingrate donor. Never mind the opportunity to educate, inspire and engage via a generous thank you. Nope. A receipt is what you get. Like at CVS. Wait, except they give coupons with receipts. To reward loyalty.
  4. The Staff Pain: Seriously, you donor guys. Written acknowledgement letters are HARD. If only the staff got paid to conduct this misery. The least you can do as a donor is confirm your email. Just do it. Ingrate.
  5. The Donor Drama: Seriously you fundraising dummies. Are you kidding with this from a donor perspective? From your grandmother you learned to send thank you notes. This is a disaster. Someone should be fired.
  6. The Chief Advancement Officer: This is the giveaway. This “new system” could only have been schemed by a Disrupting Administrator. As titles move away from “Fundraising” or “Development” I see more and more of this sort of nonsense. My guess is that the staff teams spends so much time pondering Philanthropy that they cannot be bothered to fundraise.
  7. The Takeaway: If I am a donor to this place, the answer is easy. Clearly my support is burdensome and rife with internal inefficiency. So I will direct my giving elsewhere. No worries. Take a long lunch. Think about how Pokemon Go can work into your next donor event. Go fly a kite.

Send proper thank you letters. Don’t be a Chief Advancement Officer.

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Leadership, Performing Arts | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The 7 days of Week 52. End the (fundraising) Fiscal Year With Tacos.

2012-07-12 10.50.07

The Annual Fund, when properly planned for and administered, is a full year proposition. That is 12 months, 365 days, 8,760 hours of hard work and determined focus. Mostly. There has to be time to fight with marketing about the survey monkeys and the stupid newsletter photos they insist upon. But otherwise, a full twelve months of board engagement, avoiding lunches at your desk, and sexy sponsorship proposals. Beach Vacation (fundraisers really should take holiday in July. There is no good fundraising to be accomplished) is just around the corner.

So, for most organizations, June 23 mean exactly a week to go is the fiscal year. What’s left to do?

  • Day 1: Take Stock. Assess, as always, progress to the plan. You are making your goal, yes? What is left? Too late to write grants? Yes. Is the board fully committed and on time with payments? Where is the remaining opportunity? What volunteer can still help? There is only time for sure bets with a week to go. 
  • Day 2: Focus on Renewals. It is a mistake to give up on any renewable gift, even if you are at or ahead of your fundraising goal. A donor is much less likely to come back if they miss a year. Those renewal calls are about relationships, not just the money. Leave no gifts behind. Not even one, if you can help it.
  • Day 3: Unveil your Gadget Fundraiser. I am not a big fan of kickstarters and so forth to raise renewable revenue. But fiscal year end is a good time to try one. It doesn’t have to Fancy. Send an email (along with a link to an online giving portal) with a challenge….”If we can raise $2,500 in 24 Hours, the Kittens get to go to Band Camp”. The secret of social media fundraising is to keep the campaign short and sweet. No one wants to promote Kitten Band Camp on their Facebook page day after day for weeks on end. Kitten Band Camp was the name of my 5th Band. 
  • Day 4: Surprise a Donor. Summer is high season for many wonderful programs in our world. Who would like to see the kids learn to fix bicycles, check out the new tree house, or meet the baby platypus? Me. I would. Call me and invite me.
  • Day 5: Rest. It is Sunday. Hang out with your kids. The new Bourne film looks solid. For your donor relations folks in the basement, they call that yellow blob in the sky, “The Sun”.
  • Day 6: Taco Party. Every fundraising shop needs an occasional taco party. There is a good taquiera in your town, I promise. Al pastor, carnitas, fish for around $1.50 each. Everyone loves tacos.  Just don’t get the chicken tacos. Chicken tacos are sad. And if I hear you order yours with sour cream, I will judge. No CFRE for you.
  • Day 7: Say Thank You. I am a huge fan of reserving the morning of June 30 for making thank you calls. Gather a group of board members and development committee. Call a bunch of donors, at all levels, and thank them for an amazing year. No ask. No secret agenda. Just a thank you, sincerely, and with joy. A happy fundraiser is an irresistible force for good. Maybe have tacos again while you call donors. Bliss.

Bravo. You made it. See you on July 1, when we pursue 125% of this year’s goals with the same resources and, if we are lucky, 65% donor retention.

Enjoy the Beach!

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

(Fundraising) Staff Retention Made Easy.


Those of us who got to go to college have it pretty well off in the United States these days, with unemployment levels for graduates holding at less than 3%, which is to say full employment, or pretty close. Listening to the news and our presidential candidates, it certainly does not feel that way. But the opportunities are out there, and it is becoming a Seller’s market for talent across many industries, including the fundraising business. Salaries are climbing ever higher, with even early mid-level professionals commanding $60k+ or more with three years of experience. Good for candidates, challenging for organizations. Good people are hard to find, and harder to keep.

The excellent Penelope Burk, among many others have noted the high replacement cost for fundraising staff members who leave for more money or new opportunities. Relationships and expertise are lost, as well as the momentum, continuity and experience required for a well-oiled annual fund campaign or major gift program.

It hurts my heart when successful professionals are offered more salary or bigger responsibilities, and their current organization does nothing to try and retain them by matching salary offers or finding creative ways to keep them. It is money, relationships, and experience walking out the door every single time you let a staff member go. We have to slow this trend as employers. It is hurting us, badly.

Salary budgets are tight. I appreciate that. And fundraisers tend to be the highest paid administrative staff members already. There are limits to the salary we can offer and our entire non-profit industry has an almost universal aversion to merit based salary increases. What to do instead to retain our good people?

Almost any sort of professional development is a relatively inexpensive way to reward and retain staff. Seminars and specialized training is great, though it can be difficult as an adult to sit in a classroom all day. Bringing in consultants can feel like punishment (or at least more work) rather than reward. Tuition reimbursement in non-profit organizations is such a rare unicorn that it isn’t worth mentioning. Webinars are tragic. I haven’t ever sat all the way through one. Have you? Are you telling the truth?

My favorite? Send your team to a Conference. Every year. For each staff member. Protect this budget line as sacred in your budget. Why?

  • Everyone enjoys traveling, that sense of anticipation as the trip draws closer and thinking about the days out of the office and the fun of experiencing a new city. All your staff would like to attend a conference in the coming year, and would see it as a meaningful benefit to employment.
  • Conferences are fun. It is fun to travel, to meet other professionals and to check out a new place. I am on the road 40+ weeks this year and was still pumped to attend the Opera America conference in Montreal recently. I love getting a conference lanyard, hearing the guest speakers, meeting new folks, hitting the local restaurants, and partying it up (a little) with new friends. It is okay that your staff enjoy themselves professionally. That outcome is desirable, even.
  • Conferences are relatively inexpensive compared to bonus programs and replacing staff members. The average cost is something like $2,000. Tell me some better way to reward, invest in, and retain a successful fundraiser for that sort of money? You cannot.
  • Your staff will actually learn some new skills. My challenge to conference attendees is always, “Bring me back three new good ideas.” In fundraising one new good idea pays dividends pretty fast.

Here is what tends to happen with senior management. They get conferenced out. They’ve heard and learned enough and do not care to attend any longer. That’s okay, unless they begin to project that bias on to staff (and this is entirely too common). That’s not okay.

The best of the Bosses don’t budget themselves to attend a conference. A true leader would rather send a staff member than attend themselves. The best bosses I know (and have had) have always taken themselves off the list first in a budget pinch, protecting the opportunity for team members to learn, grow, experience, and come back refreshed and appreciative of the opportunity.

Here is the thing that happens. Over and Over. Professional development is seen too often as a luxury in non-profits, and it is the first thing to be axed at the hint of budgetary woe. This is the best example of short-term thinking I can imagine (other than being so damn cheap about technology).

How should a staff member be made to feel when informed that their professional development opportunity is gone for the year because of belt tightening? They are updating the old resume more often than not.

Cut your professional development and then you will have to replace your people. In a competitive job market. Where it will be expensive. And time consuming. Invest in your people instead. Some will leave you no matter what. Others will stay for years.

Send your people to conferences!

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Love, Humility, Fire. The Fundraiser’s Heart.

I interview many potential candidates for fundraising positions, particularly early to mid-career professionals. We are very much in a seller’s market these days for talent. Good for employees. Challenging for employers. So I tend to favor younger professionals, on the way up the ladder in career trajectory, rather than on the way down, and often without the bad habits and stubborn assumptions of the more senior folks. After all, It is a millennial world. Soon face tattoos will be no biggie for fundraising staff. Onward we go.

But what makes a good fundraiser ? Generally I am looking for someone disciplined, coachable and self-motivated. Former athletes, dancers and classically trained musicians fit this bill, understanding the necessity of practice for mastery (it really does take 10,000 hours to be a great fundraiser). I have a bias against both blowhards who think they know everything (and want to tell you all about it) as well as sycophants who suck up to the bosses or board chair.

What makes a good fundraiser? Love, first and most importantly. Love for others, for service, for teamwork, and for the good works we do in the non-profit sector. I have interviewed, and so, probably, have you, lots of corporate types ready to downshift to non-profit work as an opportunity for better work/life balance. Forget about it, Mr. VP of Sales. You have no idea how under resourced and hard working we get to be on our side of the fence. We fundraisers are workers. Hard workers. Passionate, tireless workers.

It is a tricky business being a confident fundraiser but also a humble one. Our success, after all, is a reflection of other’s generosity and the efforts of those came before us. We are the tips of the spear of institutional success, and humility and good humor are critical, win or lose. No one likes arrogance.

Love, Humility, and what else? Fire. That’s the final ingredient. Fear is the dominating theme of our civic life these days, from the Presidential election to our entertainments. In our non-profits, this manifests as a Fear of Failure. It is why we don’t innovate, are resistant to change, and it is why we don’t Ask.

Ask a successful fundraiser how many times they’ve been told No. Constantly, if one is doing the job with Fire. It is a horrible feeling to fail, to be rejected in any circumstance. But that’s our job. It is okay to be afraid of rejection as long as you act anyway. An old time fundraising mantra is that if a prospect says, “Yes” too quickly we maybe should have asked for more. There is truth in that statement. Fortune really does favor the bold.

A Fundraiser with Fire is someone who will Ask. Ask for the gift. Ask the volunteer to make an introduction. Ask for help. Fire is asking three prospects, so that one will say Yes. That means hearing No two of every three times. And that’s okay. Hearing “No” smacks the ego every single time. Anyone who claims they don’t mind hearing not is lying. But one yes in three can lead to heroic outcomes. The .333 hitter is going to have a long major league career.

A Fundraiser with Fire has the courage to influence others, to invite participation and to seek common ground. She owns fundraising goals, to the penny. She takes career risks and asks for what she deserves in salary negotiations. She asks and asks and asks, with pride and purpose. She does not eat lunch at her desk.

What sort of Fundraiser do you want to be?


Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , | 1 Comment