Fundraising Is a Long Game
“We need to raise money now! What can we do?” This question is asked repeatedly in nonprofit board rooms in response to worries about having enough funds to support mission delivery. In fact, conversations about how to raise money immediately are happening even more often this year as nonprofits face pandemic-related decreases in projected revenue. Panic levels are rising.
Two popular responses to the question of how to raise money quickly are:
- We need to hold an event, so we can get ticket and sponsor revenue right away.
- We should hire a fundraiser who can raise everything we’ll need by the end of the quarter.
Unfortunately, attempts at such quick fixes may appear successful initially, but do not support sustained change or improvement. You could go all out to hold an event that will bring in funds right now (assuming you have the upfront money needed to host the event), but in doing so, you could unwittingly damage your nonprofit’s ability to raise funds in the long term — because fundraising is about relationships, not transactions. As for hiring a fundraiser with the expectation that they will raise large amounts of money on their own in a short amount of time, it is not only 100% unrealistic, but will result in dissatisfied board members, executive directors, development staff and donors.
Fundraising Follows Industry Standards & Best Practices
One contributing factor to the sometimes haphazard way organizations go about fundraising is that nonprofit boards of directors and executives don’t always realize that fundraising is a profession that follows very specific best practices. Fundraising tactics are unique to each organization, but are grounded in solidly tested methodologies and industry standards. Organizations often take the time to plan programs and mission delivery based on relevant expert guidance, but don’t apply that same formula to creating a map for successful fund development.
Just as for-profit companies that want to become premier providers of products must lay out game plans and comprehensive strategies based on core marketing principles, nonprofits can best achieve fundraising goals by planning and employing sound strategy and tactics.
What’s a nonprofit to do? Step back, take a breath and look at the full picture. Effective fundraising for nonprofits is a long game; it is a system that favors long-term strategy over short-term “Band-Aid” solutions.
Quick Fixes Can Create Bigger Problems
In the book “Systems Thinking for Social Change,” David Peter Stroh describes factors that contribute to potential unintended consequences, such as stunting the organization’s overall ability to fundraise effectively:
“People implement a quick fix to reduce a problem symptom that works in the short run; however the quick fix also creates long-term unintended consequences that exacerbate the symptom over time. Moreover, people do not recognize these negative consequences as deriving from the quick fix because of the time delay. Therefore, when the symptom returns they incorrectly assume that the solution is to implement more of the quick fix. They think, ‘It worked the first time; we just didn’t do enough of it.’”
Neglecting to plan and implement fundraising strategically leads to revenue shortfalls, which incents nonprofits to create quick fundraising fixes, which can hamper long-term strategic fund development, which creates another cash shortfall and the need for another quick fix.
Let’s go back to the example of hosting a special event and trying to sell as many tickets and sponsorships as possible to bring in immediate money. Your organization may net revenue that will help you make payroll next month, but the shortsightedness of attempting to get as many people into the event as possible may run contrary to the carefully planned out relationship steps and milestones of an individual giving or major gifts program. There may be a supporter that would be able and willing to make a $1,000 gift to the organization if they were appropriately cultivated and asked, but now they’ve been asked to buy a $100 event ticket instead. You’ve essentially short-circuited the process of cultivating a significant gift with that donor.
The ideal solution, of course, would be to implement strategic fundraising at the start, so that revenue shortfall situations do not arise.
According to Stroh, “People may recognize that a more fundamental solution is desirable, but then wonder why it is so difficult to implement. One of the key reasons is that addressing the root cause of the problem takes longer, is more expensive and can entail more risk and uncertainty.”
It is absolutely necessary for nonprofit boards and executives to commit to a strategic, long-term fundraising model. If an organization is going to hire its first development director, appropriate expectations must be set… and stuck to. Organizations must dedicate the resources necessary to implement an effective fundraising program; it takes money to raise money.
Be Strategic From Top to Bottom
Just as every organization should have a working strategic plan that includes the measurable goals and objectives necessary for successful mission delivery and visionary action, they should also have a strategic development plan that outlines the steps required to raise the funds for the organization to operate at its optimal level. The development plan includes the amount of money that needs to be raised, what actions the organization will take to raise the funds, associated timeframes and corresponding responsible parties.
Any good strategy has short-term measurements on the way to achieving long-term goals. Being strategic doesn’t mean you can’t be nimble. It just means that if you make adjustments, that they are carefully considered as part of the overall picture.
As board members and staff, understanding that fundraising is a profession that has industry standards and proven best practices will help as our organizations commit to the time, effort, planning and execution necessary for long-term success in fundraising. We must dedicate ourselves to the long game — to understanding that if a fundraising road map is producing positive results, we must stick with our decision to invest in fund development and not reallocate those resources to other areas in the organization.
Most of all, we must understand that fundraising is not transactional and does not involve short turnaround times. Fundraising is relationship-focused; its core purpose is to connect people who have the ability to give and want to help with the missions that resonate with them. Then we must show those donors the good that came from their gifts, steward the relationship and begin the cultivation process all over again.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.