Our Biggest Fundraising Challenge? Following Up.


What is the magic in fundraising? Those times when the strongest connections are made, the right donor at the right time to the right project. But it is awfully hard to get there.

We can all recognize those moments: the backstage tour, the vibrant conversation with our CEO at a donor lunch that advances a key relationship, the gala speaker who brings tears to the eyes of everyone in the room telling the story of organizational impact.

These moments are amazing, of course, and worthy of celebration when we make a meaningful connection between the prospects and donors who support us, and the living, breathing good work of our organizations. For me, that’s the definition of fundraising.

Capturing a prospect’s attention is tremendously challenging in our distracting and competitive world. As fundraising staff, we spend considerable efforts engaging volunteers and board members to make connections on our behalf, cultivating current donors through conversation and opportunity, all while networking to the corporate community relentlessly.

So what happens when we get a hit? What is next when our CEO hosts a donor to that terrific cultivation lunch, or our board chair introduces us to a key corporate leader? What are our immediate action steps following another fabulous gala?

Too often, my friends, there is no proper Follow Up, and this is driving me to distraction. Wonderful conversations are started, events are held at great effort and expense, questions are asked, suggestions are made for future involvement, and creative proposals are advanced. And too often, as fundraising staff, we don’t take the required next action steps. We passively wait for something to happen, or we move on to the next flood of activity, the next event or prospecting trip. If nothing else, the role of fundraising staff needs to be the Head of Following Up.

Don’t complain to me about your Board or Development committee if you haven’t driven follow up activity and next steps to prospective donors they’ve brought to the cultivation dinner. If you, as a staffer, aren’t driving follow up action, it won’t happen.

Ask, after a successful donor cultivation move, have we:

  1. Promptly thanked the donor by email, or better yet, a simple snail mail note card? Want to demonstrate sincerity? Write an actual personal thank you note. My handwriting resembles that of an 8 year old with an attention problem, and I still send thank you notes all the time. On personalized stationary, with a stamp.
  2. Documented the activity, including what we learned about the donor’s interests, preferences, or response to a proposal? In this era of technology, the percentage of organizations who log visit reports and activity into the donor database appears to be going downward. It used to be very common ten years ago, that a donor visit would “count” towards activity expectations ONLY IF it was properly documented into the database. Now? Not so much. Why? It is only a guess but I believe most of our databases have grown so cumbersome that gift officers and staff solicitors don’t bother to learn the fundamentals. And so information, the most valuable resource, is lost. This is costing your programs dearly. Document your fundraising activity.
  3. Set clear expectations for a next step? This is the most damaging of all. Our enthusiastic board member introduces us to a corporate contact. We all sit at lunch to good conversation, including a review of a folder’s worth of organizational information, and perhaps even an initial sponsorship proposal. And then we say, “See ya soon” and thing happens. We blame our board member for not following up, and the opportunity is lost. Or we wait a month or more to reengage. Fundraising is a momentum game. A month is too long to wait.

What is the cost of this lack of follow up on our fundraising? In our push to make this year’s fundraising goal we only see the bottom line of the request that wasn’t funded in this particularly year. But it can and will cost us much more than that when we don’t follow up on our conversations and proposals. Donor interest is fleeting. Your good meeting that doesn’t go anywhere this year may not be possible again next year. Think of it from the donor’s perspective. They met you. The listened. They asked questions. They expressed some interest. And poof, you were gone.

Why in the world would your prospect have a second conversation? Lots of other organizations out there. Onward.

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

Smoldering Piles: Will Philanthropy Survive the 2016 Election?


Will America recover from this election? Whatever the result, there will be lasting impact to our society, as actual American Nazis, misogynists, and bigots of every persuasion have crawled out of their bunkers for a public hearing. This has damaged our American experiment, and the impact will be felt for years. Can you imagine eight years ago, when President Obama was elected, that we would be giving a voice to American Nazis in 2016?

Common decency and mutual respect have been on the decline, but also has the good name of Philanthropy, by extension, in this shit show. Our vital business of connecting people to good work has been pulled into the fray by very real questions about Trump’s Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, and it is in our best interests as non-profit leaders to understand the issues and defend our work.

Let’s start with Mr. Trump. Creating one’s own “Foundation” has never been easier, and it is a popular, but unfortunate, mechanism for wealth preservation. There are good family foundations, doing essential work, and there are marginal ones, focused more on tax avoidance. There are more than a few out there that do more harm than good.

Trump’s approach to philanthropy represents an absolute new low for our sector, and if you haven’t already done so, check out The Washington Post’s sensational coverage of Mr. Trump’s truly horrifying charitable shenanigans. It is some deeply, deeply shameful business. New York is aggressive in policing non-profit malfeasance, and I hope they skewer the guy for the damage he has done to the reputation of our philanthropic enterprise.

But what of the Clintons? This is more nuanced, but doesn’t reflect well on our sector. The Clinton Global Initiative does extraordinary work around the world. Like many foundations and NGOs, the CGI works nimbly on critical issues like eradicating disease, educating girls, and providing economic development opportunity. So what is the issue? The appearance of a pay to play relationship between powerful leaders (Bill and Hilary Clinton) and wealthy influencers. Even the hint of governmental actors seeking influence on American foreign policy matters doesn’t pass the sniff test, however much good the CGI does day to day. The stink of this will impact all of us working in fundraising.

Why does this matter for our Philanthropic Sector? Americans are losing faith in our institutions: government, business, and non-profits. But we who work in Philanthropy can least afford the hit. We must rebuild trust in our sector, and deal with the very real questions arising from this election:

Are Family Foundations a Force for Good? The dubious wealth management strategy of personal “foundations” should be closely examined. Ideally, we should have better guidelines to the nature, purpose, and spending minimums of these organizations. And let’s start calling them something else entirely, like a Tax Deferred Giving Fund or something. They are not truly foundations. Legitimate foundations have grant making priorities, competitive applications processes, and, most importantly, are led by experienced professionals.

Should we accept that Big Donors wield Influence? Access is a legitimate leverage point in our fundraising toolbox.  Listen, it would great if the CEO, honorary board chair/famous person, or basketball coach all had unlimited time to devote to EVERY donor EQUALLY. That’s not the world we live in, so we must prioritize somehow. Should bigger donors expect reasonable access to leadership for occasional favors, a listening ear, or special opportunity? Of course they should. Can this seem icky and unpalatable? Maybe, but this the reality of our funding system for non-profits in the United States. And the good outweighs the bad.

But we do need transparency and openness. This might mean limiting anonymous contributions and more transparent reporting. If charitable gifts are made in the public good, in place of governmental spending, we should reasonably ask, as tax payers, that donations should be made public, if the donor expects to receive tax benefit.

Are Non-Profits to be Trusted? Philanthropic institutions are under the same scrutiny and lack of faith as religious, governmental, and corporate organizations in this cynical age. Americans, and others around the world, simply have less faith in every sort of authority, and this is contributing to a slow growth of our sector, where giving as a percentage of GDP has been stagnant for many years.

Are Americans less generous than before? I don’t think so, but we in the non-profit sector need to make our cases compelling, our stewardship thoughtful, and to be confident in our Asking.

Let us use this moment to robustly defend our sector, and make the changes necessary to better regulate private foundations and anonymous giving. It is in our sector’s best interest.

And Vote. Please, please Vote.

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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 , , , | 2 Comments

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 | 1 Comment

Quit Selling Sponsorships. Start Cultivating Partnerships.

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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 | 1 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.

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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!

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