Get Off the Internet and Raise More Money.


It is much, much to easy to dump upon Development Directors in today’s non-profit environment. Yours is an almost impossible job, responsible for Herculean revenue targets but without the authority to set priorities and budgets. Add all the bosses in the form of CEOs and Board Members who are difficult to engage and lead to success, even on the best day, and we wonder why the average tenure for a Development Director is still hanging at around 18 months?

For some perspective on this check out, Wild Woman Fundraising, who has sacrificed economic stability (and the rest of the benefits of full time employment) to be a happy freelancing author and consultant. I made a similar move myself six years, and I cannot say I miss the fundraising office.

So this challenging work. There has been plenty, much, written about the things you Development Directors should be doing – getting out of the office, engaging volunteers, networking endlessly for corporate support, picking up the phone every five minutes, and so on. But what shouldn’t you be spending your time on? What habits and tasks can you drop today to free you to raise some actual cash?

Want to Raise More Money? Start by:

  1. Getting Off the Damn Internet. We don’t often speak of this, but today’s office culture is a giant time suck of non-productivity, as everyone is screwing around online, all day long. Facebook. Twitter feed. Instagram. Video Games. At work. And don’t even get me started at the chasm of wasted professional energy that is Linked-In. Father Puff Puff tried to link up with me recently. Awesome. Whatever efficiency has come into our professional lives via technology and the internet has been cancelled out by the hours and hours workers spend screwing around on their phones and computers. Stop playing reindeer games on your computer all day long.
  2. Forgetting About Donor Research. Another classic time wasting exercise in our profession is the search for Capacity in our donors. How much could that Magical Prospect Give to Us? This can lead to an endless chase for clues, including expensive and unproductive wealth screening systems. I found my name in one such expensive system not too long ago. It reported a current marriage from a ten years gone by divorce, board service from the late 90s, and a most recent gift in 2006. I am not a wealthy guy by any means, but this is some nonsense. Instead of seeking out mystical formulas on the capacity of your donors, how about we get to know them personally? The generosity will follow. The rich are getting richer.
  3. Bagging the Internal Meetings. In you meet with your marketing department more than once a month as a fundraiser, that’s much too much. Skip the meetings. As many as you can. Lie about it if you need to get out of attending. Or, better yet, schedule meetings out of the office. With your donors and prospects. “Do I need to attend that internal meeting?” NO. No, I do not. 
  4. Chasing Small Sums. Grants take much time and energy. Corporate gifts are increasingly competitive. If it isn’t worth your time, don’t go after it. Focus on individual gifts instead. An eight page grant application for $5,000? Why not simply ask five people for $1,000 each? This is the wealthiest moment in the history of the world, and tomorrow will likely be an even wealthier day. Seek the cash.
  5. Stop Worrying So Much. Yours is such a stressful job, and I am sorry for that. And I see colleagues who are frozen professionally by the demands of the work. Worrying won’t help, not one time.

Breathe. Get off the Internet. Get After It.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | 5 Comments

Donor Centered Fundraising Is Not The Real Problem.


I’ve read, re-read, and then read a third and fourth time Vu Le’s recent broadside against the donor centered fundraising model and its moral limitations. Please study it if you haven’t already, for the issues raised are fundamental to our industry, and if you consistently read one non-profit blog, make it this one.

Placing a donor’s wishes and biases above all else in our fundraising programs is a slippery practice, and that’s just the start of Vu Le’s concerns about our current zealous focus on the wealthiest to make the largest investments.

We absolutely need, as a society, to recognize that there is only “we” and “us”, and that those with more have a moral duty and obligation to support those who have less. Vu Le rightly relates our industry to the larger inequities of our late age America, a time when most of us wonder if our civilization, like the Romans and the Pharaohs, is coming to an inevitable conclusion sooner rather than later. Everything has a beginning, middle and end, and where does American society look to you these days, reading the paper on Sunday morning?

So I get it. But let’s give a gentle pause to holding up philanthropy as an example of all that is wrong with America. Much of the criticism I see about philanthropy is an argument against wealthy folks getting buildings named after them for things that they should be doing anyway. But this much too simplistic. There are many, and better, ways to avoid taxes than by giving one’s money, and if giving away cash was the most efficient way to get one’s names on buildings, our President would be in the philanthropy business, and not the real estate game.

What does any single wealthy person owe your organization? Nothing. Not one single thing, regardless of your mission, moral certainty or good works. Is this fair? It is not fair. It isn’t. One of the giant challenges of today’s philanthropy is the near impossible necessity of potential donors to care about things as a precursor to support. And this really sucks, unless you are the beneficiary.

Let me give you an example that happens all the time in America: The Disease That Impacted Our Family:

The Wealthy Smiths are lovely people. The Wealthy Smiths also have strict guidelines about philanthropy, via the private Smith Family Foundation (focused on animal welfare and various scholarly publications) and, when asked to contribute or engage in most galas or fundraising campaigns, politely and privately decline almost always, citing current priorities and the vast number of requests received annually.

But then, a grandchild is born, with a grim medical diagnosis of pediatric diabetes, and the floodgates open. Grandma Smith organizes a gala, endows a position at the hospital, and joins the Board of Directors of the National Pediatric Diabetes Foundation. She becomes an unstoppable advocate in the community about this terrible disease, and a powerful force for good. As a direct result of her grandson’s unfortunate medical challenge, thousands of other kids will benefit from treatment and research, and the world is a little better place for it.

Did Grandma Smith have a sudden moral awakening that all children deserve good quality medical care? She did not. She had a personal encounter with a tragic childhood disease, and as a direct and singular result, opened her heart, network and checkbook. There was no educating her before the sick child arrived. She supported scholarly publications and puppies.

And so, what should a fundraiser do with this Gift from the Gods? Are you kidding? Embrace it. Ask for more. Start the Smith Family Matching Challenge Campaign. Make Grandma Smith the Hero of Children’s Diabetes. Name the program after her. Create a Donor of the Year Award. Anything else would be professional malpractice. 

And Yet…does this random chance occurrence (a child with a disease born into a wealthy family) demonstrate any sort of cohesive public policy or sustainable framework for society? Of course not. We’ve allowed wealthy citizens to pick and choose their pet causes, based on personal interest and preference, if they decide to engage in philanthropy at all.

And so none of this is working particularly well for society, but it is not really our fault as fundraisers. The fight here, truly, is not with non-profits, simply doing their best in very challenging circumstances. In our industry, we should be gentler with each other, accepting that we work in an a very imperfect society. This gross inequity of late stage America, of sickening wealth accumulated by the few at the expense of the rest of us, isn’t about overuse of the word “you” in fundraising letters, or overindulging in placing donors at the center of solving our problems.

The real question over what’s fair or sustainable for all is a much larger one, as the rich get ever richer. It is about regressive tax structure, and debating government’s singular reach to bolster (as in the 90s and the decades prior) a healthier middle class. It is about health care for every single one of us, so that the youngster born with type one diabetes gets the care he needs as a human right. There is no change we can make to philanthropy to solve this moral crisis, no way we can engage foundations or educate donors that will truly solve this dreadful inequity.

So, we do what we can in philanthropy, accepting that the system is deeply flawed. We celebrate Grandmother Smith in the battle against pediatric diabetes, and we cash the Smith Family Foundation check.

And, if we are serious about solving true inequity, there is but one solution. We Vote.

Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Be the Asker. Seek the Connector.

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Among the many daily challenges for the modern Development department is the care and feeding of fundraising volunteers. “Challenge”, though, does not even begin to describe the difficulty in recruiting, training, tasking, and stewarding the precious few souls willing and able to assist in the critical, but daunting, task of raising funds. It is perhaps the most difficult part of our work as fundraisers.

What does an ideal fundraising volunteer look like? Let’s see…independently wealthy (but also generous), widely known and deeply respected in the community (but also approachable), well versed in the organization’s case and mission (but not a micro-manager), capable of asking for anything with confidence (but not arrogant)…you get the idea.

The ideal fundraising volunteer does not really exist. Busy people know a lot of others in a community, but lack the time to dedicate to learning a case and actively managing solicitations. Generous donors are often uncomfortable asking others to join them. The result? Too often a fundraising committee of ill-equipped volunteers and a frustrated staff who cannot count on predictable output and effort.

What to do? For a start, let’s consider the two main functions of volunteer fundraisers: Connecting and Asking. Can volunteers be Askers? Some can. Most cannot. Salespeople are born and not made. I believe that in my soul, whatever your consultant is telling you. Asking requires rare courage and determination, and often, the unpleasant prospect of a No. It is why good salespeople make great livings, despite the internet age of instant information and access. It is why that goofy looking dude mysteriously has an amazing and beautiful girlfriend. Askers face No, and live through it. Most of us cannot accept this sort of rejection on a regular basis. We cannot.

Are there effective volunteer fundraising Askers? Of course. There are some rare volunteers out there who will ask, and from time to time, ask well, at the right time, in the right way (in person) for the stretch gift. But most will not, and cannot, whatever they promise you. And this means that you are wasting lots of time with your fundraising committee by assigning solicitations to volunteers who simply cannot perform the expected tasks. And so what happens? Activity languishes. What should have been a person-to-person conversation becomes a letter, prepared by staff, with a personal note at the end, probably mailed late because the meeting was never scheduled. And on and on.

What’s the alternative to expecting our fundraising volunteers to become magical Askers? Let’s stop wasting time chasing that Unicorn. Let’s seek out Connectors instead, those volunteers who are well-known, well-regarded, and with a network. These are the fundraising volunteers who can make things happen by opening doors, making introductions, and facilitating proposals.

So what do you need? A Connector to open the door, make an introduction, attend an initial meeting, follow up on your behalf, and help say thanks. A good Connector is someone who can say, “I know a guy at that Company. I can get you a meeting.” It is also sometimes, “I know a guy who might know the guy at that Company. Let me dig into it.If there is something more valuable to us than a personal introduction to a prospect, I don’t know of it. That’s way better than someone will just Ask. That’s a Connection. Galas are often chaired by good Connectors, but fundraising committees, seeking magical philanthropy beans, are not. Right?

What does this new focus on making connections mean for your fundraising committee? How about fewer meetings (spending the time making connections instead) and much less frustration (staff and volunteers agreeing to specific next steps rather than passing out names to solicit)? It also means a whole new opportunity for your volunteers. Rather than lengthy meetings (difficult for busy people) a good fundraising Connector can make one or two big things happen for your organization a year, and then call it a day.

Listen, if your organization is large enough to have a fundraising staff, or even an individual paid fundraiser, you already have an Asker. It is you. You are the one getting paid to hear No, and you are the one who understands the case, the mission, and the specifics of the opportunity.  Embrace this role. Be brave, and practice. Asking gets easier over time, and hearing No isn’t as bad as you fear. PRACTICE!

Expecting volunteers to Ask for you is a recipe for jumping between five jobs in seven years, always blaming the lack of a philanthropic culture for your career woes.

Worry less about assigning solicitors. Find some Connectors.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy, Volunteers | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Some Observations about Your Board Meetings.

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Whenever a non-profit colleague leaves a job, or is dismissed, and reaches out to me, the first thing I say is, “Well, at least you don’t have to go to the next Board Meeting” and that person’s spirits are immediately cheered. Is there anyone out there who truly loves the traditional, stuffy, overstuffed and dry board meeting? I haven’t met you. Why is it this way?

Some Observations about Your Board Meetings:

  1. Quarterly Might be Just Fine. If there are high functioning committees (executive, development, programmatic, but not marketing, hopefully) accomplishing the work of your organization, and if there is consistent conversation between staff and board members on an ongoing basis, a monthly meeting is likely a waste of time and resources. Why? One of the great secrets of non-profit management is that board meetings require an enormous amount of staff time to produce. No one wants to admit this. Assembling reports and summaries, preparing the meeting itself, organizing each committee member’s report, and so on requires hours of staff time that could be better spent doing literally anything else. Monthly board meetings mean lots of your staff are spending a DAY or TWO a MONTH prepping. Is this wasteful? Yes.
  2. The Chair must Chair. Good meetings need effective conveners. This means moving purposefully through the agenda, knowing when to let a valuable, but off topic, discussion continue, and when to wrap it up. It means encouraging participation from the introverts. Meetings should start on time, and end when they must. And, for all the hassle, I don’t believe it is worthwhile to dial members in by phone. It is almost universally disruptive for everyone actually attending the meeting, the dieal in participant rarely feels truly engaged as an active participant, and speaker phone technology has not advanced meaningfully since the 1990s. Until we have hologram communications, let those who cannot attend simply not participate.
  3. Staff should be Seen and (rarely) Heard. Or, even better, Back at the Office, Working. Having four or five (often even more) staff members in attendance at your board meeting is an expensive waste of time and resource. Board members should be giving reports whenever possible, with staffers there to answer follow up questions and share Mission Moments (see below). Or staff should stay, mercifully, back at the office. If you are an Executive Director who feels that the whole staff team needs to attend each and every board meeting, let’s sit and talk about your priorities.
  4. Consent Agendas are Your Friend. 40 page all-but-the-kitchen-sink printed board packets are not your Friend, however. The consent agenda is a wonderful development in non-profit work as it eliminates simple information sharing at meetings. Use it. But don’t print out a 40 page board packet of consent agenda filler and hand all that crap out in a three ring binder every month. Forests are literally disappearing. Send a pdf of the full report by email if you must. Do not PRINT ALL THIS DEBRIS.
  5. The Development Report Cannot Wait. When your Development Report is the 9th item on the agenda, no one is going to pay attention. Your Board is an active leadership group for your fundraising program. Prioritize this on your agenda. Prep the Development Committee chair to present a concise report outlining recent successes, progress to date, and areas of focus in the coming 60 days.
  6. Create a Mission Moment, for the love of all that is Decent. The average Board Meeting I attend has no magic, nothing specific to connect the necessary (but boring) business of governance with the mission and life of the organization. This is such an easy fix. Devote five minutes near the start of each board meeting to your Mission. Five Minutes! What to do? Introduce a new staff member from the program side, who briefly outlines their work. Sing a song. Share a impact story from a program recipient. Play the new marketing video. One of the best Mission Moments I’ve witnessed was showing off a new light board in a theatre. Are light boards interesting? You bet.
  7. Avoid Open Ended General Discussions. The worst board meeting is one that goes on indefinitely, based on squishy questions with no real strategic direction. “How can we better market to millennials?” “Which corporate contacts can each of us provide to fundraising today for immediate solicitation?” “What is our executive transition plan?” “How can we recruit a more diverse Board?” are all interesting questions but have no place for a typical board meeting agenda. There is a time and place for strategic discussions. Save the, for the annual retreat.

Board Meetings can be drag, but think about the opportunity they represent: a group of committed volunteers focused on your non-profit, bringing diverse skill sets and backgrounds to your vital work. Start with this list for improving yours!

Posted in Annual Fund, Board Development, Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The One Hour (daily) Fundraising Challenge


I was in Nebraska this week, with one of my favorite all time clients, and where the Marketing department is working hard to secure subscription renewals for next season. All day long, on the phone, one relationship at a time, one renewal at a time. Answering questions, upselling packages, gently encouraging the sale. It is a beautiful thing.

I guess that no one told these folks that subscription campaigns are dying, because this organization is in midst of a multi-year sustained audience growth trend. One relationship at a time.

What is the secret to this success? The Lowly Telephone. The most efficient method of communicating that has ever existed, in the history of everything.

What is the one thing that you can personally do to make your fundraising results stronger? You can pick up the phone. One hour a day. In four 15 minute segments.

Is this easy? No. There are many distractions to our work day. Will it get easier with practice? Yes. Will other priorities and distractions fade away? Yes.

Friends, spend one hour a day on the phone and your fundraising will improve, regardless of budget size or staff resources. If it doesn’t work, I will buy you lunch.

What do you do in that daily hour?

  1. Schedule a Personal Visit. 15 minutes. Your goal is to schedule one personal visit every single day. Thank you coffees. $5,000 lunches. Meetings with board members to follow up on prospects. Tours of the new tree house exhibit. You get the idea. Schedule one visit, on the phone, every single day and success is yours. Can you schedule one personal visit per day? You can.
  2. Say Thank You. 15 minutes. What if your fundraising program thanked every single donor for every gift by phone? That would make you singular in your stewardship. I made about 20 charitable gifts last year, and I got a single thank you call (great job Hoosier Environmental Council). Can you make 10 thank you calls a day? You can.
  3. Engage your Volunteers. 15 minutes. The Development Committee of any organization has a difficult task. If we are lucky, volunteers prioritize our work after their families, own jobs, friends, religious commitments, and so on. So helping to raise cash as a volunteer is hard, and we need to coach, encourage and inspire our volunteers at every opportunity. Can you call one volunteer a day? You can.
  4. Ask for Money. 15 minutes. As a follow up to your direct mail solicitations of increasing desperation, how about a simple phone call as a follow up? Do you know why a phone call is effective as a solicitation tool? It invites a conversation, back and forth, to learn from one another, to overcome objections, to subtly influence. Can you spend 15 minutes per day asking for money? You can.

I am fortunate in my professional life to work with many young professionals in the first third of their careers, which I find energizing and inspiring. Millennials are tremendous fundraisers, deeply committed to our work and in acquiring new skills. But they don’t like to pick up the phone. And I get this, for people don’t talk on the phone these days. But you, my young friend, can. You will get better at it. With practice.

When should you make your one hour of calls? I don’t care. The time of day does not matter. I like to make calls for 30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes in the early afternoon. Schedule the time on your calendar and close the office door (if you have one). Do the four things, and then get on with your day.

Will you try this for a month? Take one hour a day, and pick up the phone.

Improve your fundraising. Change the world. One hour a day!

Posted in Annual Fund, Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Donor Retention is (probably) Not Your Biggest Problem.

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We talk a great deal about donor retention in our fundraising programs, and with good reason. Acquisition is an expensive and time consuming endeavor, and donors who don’t return bum everyone out. But let me throw a Hot Take: we are worried too much about donor retention, and for the wrong reasons.

Our friends at Bloomerang recently published a major study of donor retention trends, and it is a fascinating summary. The key takeaway? “Donors are up. Retention is down.”  Much angst and hand-wringing is taking place about these trends, including from my sober minded colleague Michael Rosen, who is deeply frustrated with retention rates and wonders if anything at all can be done.

To all of this I say, let’s examine our specific data and segmentation before we declare a national crisis. For most of us, the sky is not falling, and in fact, lowered retention rates for certain segments are inevitable by-product of growth, and should be expected, planned for, and embraced. Why?

Innovation, mostly via technology, is driving first time giving, and is today changing the very nature of philanthropy. This means we are attracting first-time donors in new and creative ways. Social media is only about ten years old in the world, not yet a teenager. Online fundraising is even younger.

Philanthropy and technology together is still a baby, and yet still producing amazing results. Online giving, peer to peer fundraising Facebook campaigns, text to give, Day of Giving programs, and the rest are rapidly emerging as brilliant ways to attract first time donors in ways we could not have imagined back in the days when broad base fundraising was limited to direct mail, telephone solicitation and event attendance.

These are exciting times. Donor growth is very real. But a low likelihood of a renewal is the reality of a first time donor, most of the time, since fundraising began:

  1. First time givers tend to give smaller gifts. Why? Sometimes they are responding to a critical issue or trend (see the ACLU’s rapid growth these past weeks). Other times donors want to kick the tires and try something new. Whatever.
  2. Smaller gifts make up the majority of donor pools, for most organizations. That means a broad percentage of your donors are less likely to renew support. Why? Maybe the urgency is there, or priorities change, or something else comes along.
  3. A lot of the first time smaller donors will not return, and so will need to be replaced. Is this good or bad? Neither. It is a byproduct of marketing reality, and not an existential crisis to our industry.
  4. We are attracting new donors to our causes in new ways. Good for us! Some will return, lots will not. That’s a reality of any marketing effort. We accept this reality in other sorts of business. Coca-Cola introduces some new sugar free soda via a splashy Super Bowl ad. We try it. We don’t buy it again. First rule of sales: some will, some won’t. That doesn’t mean we did anything wrong.

However. Good Stewardship (and the lack thereof) does impact retention. And this is because donors are more savvy than ever before at about how they should be treated (a rapid and accurate written thank you, for example), how often they should be solicited, and how they want to be communicated with going forward. That donors are becoming more sophisticated and demanding about their philanthropy is a good thing for our sector. My pal The Whiny Donor reminds me of this weekly.

So, what should we really worry about when it comes to donor retention? Renewing mid-size and major donors through individual cultivation and stewardship should be your chief concern, and if you aren’t retaining 70%+ or so of our $1,000 (or whatever your leadership annual giving level happens to be) you have a real problem.

Instead of worrying so much about overall retention, let us focus upon retaining and growing our mid-sized donors. Why mid-size donors? Because they are much more likely to renew.

Instead of wave after wave of direct mail do every donor from last year, at every level, how about a laser focus on incentivizing upgrades. I am not a fan of stickers or tote bags as incentive to increase my giving, but I am responsive to experiences: backstage tours, special previews, and the opportunity to learn more about an organization up close and in a special way.

So, what if my local public radio station made some effort to increase my giving (every year, the same $100, for the past ten years) with an idea above, instead of sending me at least twenty direct mail solicitations every year?

How many of your $100+ donors do you talk with regularly? Try this test. Run a report of donors who’ve made consecutive $100+ donors for two or three straight years. These are real people who’ve made a real investment in you. How many names do you recognize? How many how you connected with? Why not?

Instead of all the hand wringing, let’s get to work on upgrading our entry level donors to higher levels and developing stronger relationships. Some smaller donors (maybe the majority of initial givers) will fall away after making that first gift. That’s okay.  Not everyone is going to drink the new Coke.

Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged | 3 Comments

Keeping it Moving: Continuous Improvements for Good (fundraising) Health


I was at the doctor last week, following up on some fluid checks as one must after age forty, and despite a Holiday of many sugar cookies, I had continued the positive momentum against my junky metabolism for the second straight year. Am I bikini season ready? Not quite yet. But better than last year.

Can the New Year be a spark for transformative change? I used to believe that anything is possible. But now I think, probably not, for most of us, with stretched resources and human limitations. The best most of us can manage is some better practices and continuous improvements, doing better each week, each month, and each year.

And that’s really okay. Doing it a bit better than last time is a worthy professional and personal goal, and if you do this, and nothing else this year, I expect good things will happen. Here is what I am thinking about:

  1. Perfect the Fundamentals. I love fundraising disruption as much as the next guy, but what about good application of best practices as a place to focus this year? Before you go blowing up the paradigm again after reading some thought piece on UK fundraising twitter campaigns, let’s all please commit to the consistent, the repeatable and the simple. If you are asking your board development committee to do more than three things, for example, that’s probably too complicated. Keep it simple. Develop a strong plan, and stick to that plan. Do it better, each and every time.
  1. Accentuate the Programming. I was with a group of performing arts professionals recently, and I asked them, “In ten words, what are you raising money for in 2017?” And the answer was sputters and terror. It is a difficult question, I grant you, for most of us, but especially so when we are so caught up in our fundraising world, that we don’t seek out the amazing and beautiful things happening in the day-to- day of non-profit life. Let’s talk to donors more about our good work, and how their gift makes a singular difference. Got a new elephant? Talk to donors about it. A new Barber of Seville? Talk to donors about it. A new nacho machine? You get the idea. Donors want inspiration. What does that mean for your fundraising efforts? Get in there with your program people. Hang out in the lunch room with the staff who wear name tags and uniforms. Develop trusting relationships with the people doing the actual work in your organizations. Bring them some bagels. Interesting things will happen.
  1. Seek out the Terrestrial. The internet is lovely, and I enjoy staying connected on the socials as much as anyone, but this year I am going to better connect with actual human beings more often. For me, the easiest meet up is a coffee appointment. Offer me a 20 oz. Dark Roast, and I will take your meeting. But I’ve done less of that the last couple of years, with increasing travel and family obligations. So I will do better, and spend time with more of you in person, talking, networking and sharing fellowship. As an example, I interact all the time online with my friend and colleague Steven Shattuck, the Resident Brainiac of Bloomerang, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually hung out in person, even though we both live in the same city. So I am going to fix that.

What else?  Stay Nimble. Have Fun. Ring the Bell when you win. Ask.

We work!

Posted in Philanthropy | 1 Comment