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.





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.

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!

(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!

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?


The Hole in Your Fundraising Program.

Pull your donor list or annual report from last year, on your own, or better yet, with your team. Run through the roster of mid-level donors. What is a mid-level donor? It will be different for every organization, but for many of us, it starts at $250 or so. For you, it might be $100. Or $500.

Who on this list do you recognize? Who have you actually talked to over the past year, beyond a simple thank you call ? Who have you gotten to know one on one at an event, met up for coffee, or invited out to a performance or donor party?

The excellent Colleen Dilenschneide at Know Your Own Bone lays out the unpleasant truth. Most of us are doing a lousy job with the care and feeding of our mid-range donors. The data does not lie. And it is the Hole in our Fundraising.

Regardless of size or budget, most organizations take care of business tending to the most vital major donors. Why? Necessity. Almost every organization has a few key stakeholders whose philanthropic support is critical, who believe in the mission so deeply that they can counted upon for generous investment year by year. And those folks are stewarded carefully, often by the CEO directly. As it should be.

Similarly, most organizations do a fair job at basic stewardship of smaller donors. Reasonably prompt acknowledgement and email invitations to special events. In a good fundraising shop, a personal thank you for all donors, at any level.

But what do we do with our mid-sized donors? If Colleen’s data is to be trusted, most mid-size donors don’t feel they’ve been appropriately stewarded nor asked specifically to support the organization again. The disconnect here is one of expectation. For most of us, a $250 check is real investment. That’s cash that could have gone to expanding the vinyl collection or some nice dinners out, with the good Brussel sprouts, down in the city.

What is $250 to a non-profit? To an annual fund of $50,000 or $500,0000 or $5,000,000, $250 is a drop. What if the donor was asked to give $2,500, based on careful strategy by the development team and gave $250 instead? Will you be angry at the lack of commitment?

If a donor writes you a check of that size, particularly as a new gift or upgrade, you should really pay attention. Or better yet, pick up the phone. Find out what motivated the gift, what interests them, how they want the money to be used, and how they liked to be thanked. Set up a time to visit, or assign that task to a staff member. There is some reason the donor gave that gift. I’ve given $1,000 or so in recent years to various bike organizations in my town due to a deeply personal commitment to cycling, as both good for the environment, while also key to personal wellness, and none of the organizations can be bothered to engage me. What more could a donor do?

Talk to any donor and they will tell you horror stories about shabby treatment from non-profits. I favor $100+ gifts with my own personal philanthropy and I got not one thank you call in 2015 (and zero so far this year). So what can be done to better engage mid-level donors?

  1. Assign their care and feeding to a staff member. Someone on your team can be responsible for retaining mid-level donors. What is a better use of time? Twitter? Millennial cocktail receptions? 
  2. Engage a thank you committee of board members and volunteers. Not everyone wants to ask for money. But saying thank you, hosting events, and making donors feel special is a great way to engage volunteers afraid of the Ask.
  3. Find ways to surprise and delight your donors. You are doing a great job with your major supporters. They get to meet the guest artists and pet the baby rhino. But what about everyone else? Can you add a mid-level donor to every meet and greet now and again? Call a $500 donor for lunch? Invite mid-size donors to your fancy $1,000 intermission reception from time to time? Yes. You can do that.

Delta Airlines surprised recently in dispatching a young person to meet my seriously late inbound flight at the gate, taking me down the ramp, and driving me across the tarmac in a Porsche to make my connecting flight, when I had already accepted my fate of a Friday evening in suburban Detroit. I got home instead. In a Porsche.

I am a mid-level Delta customer. I am price conscious, and never, ever fly First Class. The Porsche rides are for Delta’s big timers. But I got my ride and I got home on a night when I didn’t think I would. What is my loyalty now to Delta? High. Waiting for that next ride in the Porsche.

Let’s do better with our mid-size donors.

Please Don’t Ignore Your Lapsed Donors.

Want to do better in your fundraising? Get to know the peeps at Bloomerang, purveyors of revolutionary software that affordably and elegantly delivers much needed solutions to our business: tracking and reporting donor data and engagement. I love these guys. Plus the corporate HQ is in my home city of Indianapolis, growing our economy while serving the Greater Good. And that is Shiny.

My friend Steven Shattuck, VP of Marketing at Bloomerang, is a brilliant fellow, one of the great young voices in our industry. And while I generally dislike the moniker “Disrupter” it fits Steven. He published a compelling think piece recently on being over reliant on lapsed donors as a source of future giving. Check it out:

Please Stop Saying Lapsed Donors Are Your “Best Prospects”

Now, we are all products of our experience. I get that. But I don’t quite understand the thesis here, not at all. Are non-profits regularly bragging to Bloomerang about their vast troves of lapsed donors as the primary source of future sustainability? I am not seeing it, at least in my work arts and cultural organizations, human service agencies, and educational organizations. I wish non-profits thought more about lapsed donors, actually. Of late, too many board leadership groups are spending time talking about converting millennial Twitter users via text campaigns involving craft beer and emoji. I am not kidding about this. 

Most organizations have such poor donor data hygiene that they cannot accurately pull basic reporting (donation dates, amounts, designation, response to appeal, contact information, and so on). This is due to bad practices of maintaining donor data first and foremost, thus the need for revolutionary products like Bloomerang.

Why is accurate donor data so rare? Staffing turnover has a great deal to do with it but is only the beginning of the story. The Big Fundraising Software Companies have aggressive sales efforts, and are very effective in convincing non-profit leadership and boards to invest in expensive and complex systems. Look, Raiser’s Edge is a terrific product and I know some power users who can segment majestic data out of the abyss with beauty and ease, but RE unicorns are the exception.

Most gift entry and development services managers (if the job exists at all, and not an 8th responsibility of the Development Director who will only stay 18 months) lack the training and sophistication for a complex product like Raiser’s Edge. An organization buys the Lexus, being promised that a great financial windfall is ahead. But they needed the sturdy Hyundai: simple, affordable and appropriate to the budget.

Most organizations would struggle to produce a list of SYBUNT (some year) donors from the past five years, with up to date contact information and full donor history. But let’s say your organization can do that. We’ve only just begun. Now I want to know (as appropriate):

  • Membership status, current or lapsed? Who is using the facility? Who is taking classes?
  • Subscriber status and history of ticket buying transactions. Who is coming out? How often?
  • Alumni status. When did they graduate and from what program?
  • Volunteer status. Are they now or have they ever been?
  • What events have our prior donor attended in the past?

You get the Idea. Not all past donors are the same.

So yeah, if you simply send expensive full color direct mail packages to the same static, large and unsegmented list, over and over, it is a waste of time and precious resource.

But ignore your past donors? I surely hope not, my friends.

The key here is segmentation and engagement, and this is surely where a product like Bloomerang can help you. When we segment a long lapsed donor list we want to:

  1. Identify past donors who gave multiple years in a row. We all miss an appeal or two. If a donor gave three straight years and then missed one, don’t give up on them. Please.
  2. Identify past donors who are engaged in other ways to our organization. Are they a ticket buyer or subscriber? A current volunteer but lapsed donor? A regular event attendee? You get the idea.We are looking for prospects who behave like current donors in other ways beyond recent giving.
  3. Identify past donors who have similar characteristics with your current donors, like similar zip codes or ticket buying patterns. I am not a fan at all of donor surveys. We aren’t good at constructing them so better not to try. Seriously, asking a donor, “Do we solicit you too much?” can only have one response. Instead we need to measure engagement. And the best engaged constituents show up and give cash. That’s a whole other essay.

So what do we do with a segmented donor list of our top lapsed prospects? We develop a communications strategy, actively engaging our past donors about our mission, inviting them to rejoin the fold, and telling them about our good works and impacts. We pick up the phone.

And yes, we should solicit them regularly. They are a much better source of future revenue that the “Friends and Family of Past Committee Members Who’ve Never Given” or some of Steven’s other creative constituent suggestions.

Where Steven and I agree 100% is on the urgent need for better retention strategies to keep current donors in the family. Non-profits are awful at this, and getting worse year by year. It is quite expensive to acquire donors. And then we don’t call them to say thank you, don’t communicate with them regularly, and too often they don’t hear from us at all until the next solicitation. And we need to do better.

Segment those list. There is Gold in the Data.