Larry C. Johnson: The 8 Principles of Sustainable Fundraising
No matter the size of the organization, fundraisers can succeed in the short and long term if they work hard, understand their missions and their donors, and follow a few fundamental principles.
- Donors are the drivers.
- Begin at the beginning.
- Leadership leads.
- Learn and plan.
- Work from the inside out.
- Divide and grow.
- Renew and refresh.
- Invest, integrate and evaluate.
Here, FundRaising Success speaks with Johnson about his book and the fundraising sector as a whole.
FundRaising Success: Why did you write the book?
Larry Johnson: I wrote it for a couple of reasons. If you look out in professional literature, there's really very little that's written for the volunteer, the non-professional. So I really started with that in mind. However, what came out of it was that these principles, if you follow them, show you that sustainable philanthropic revenue is possible for all nonprofits. You don't just have to be one of the big guys. Anyone can do this. It doesn't take a lot of money, per se. And then the other thing that I wanted to address is that fundraising is an opportunity, but it's an opportunity both for the donor and the fundraisers. That will help relieve some of the anxiety and help fundraisers be more confident. I wrote it to show that sustainable fundraising is possible for both large and small nonprofits and also help relieve some of that anxiety that even the professionals feel.
FS: How's it being received by fundraisers?
LJ: I've been very pleased. The early reviews are coming in very positive, and there seems to be a certain consistency about them — that it is accessible and readable, which is what I wanted, but yet, one reviewer said, it has the weight and depth of information of a book four times its length. I wanted it available and accessible because businesspeople, volunteers, they're not going to sit down and read something that's 300 pages long about fundraising with chart after chart. This is something they can read in a couple of hours and come away with something that gives them a big picture. It's been a pretty good reception.
FS: What hurdles and challenges do you see fundraisers faces these days, and how can they overcome some of those?
LJ: Probably the most significant one, the broadest one is donors are getting a lot more particular — not that they necessarily want to have more involvement, although some do, but especially with the younger generation, the Gen Y people, they want to see accountability and they're looking more for effectiveness than efficiency. That's hard for fundraisers often because they're so used to going out and just bringing the money back. One of the key problems with nonprofit organizations is their ability or their lack of attention to stewardship, and that's one of the big hurdles that I see.
Channels of communication are changing. There's so much out there in terms of social media. Sometimes those things are addressed as that's going to change the way people give. Well yes and no. It's really like learning a whole new way to communicate. It's still the issue of communication. That's where the focus should be.
The economy, not so much. I have not seen that. Most of the real issues that often confound fundraisers are going on inside of the organization rather than the outside.
FS: So then, is hedging your bets, so to speak, in this economy a mistake?
LJ: Absolutely. Fundraising is the antithesis of begging. I really stress this to my clients. Fundraising is giving donors an opportunity to invest in a vision, a mission. And people will do that when they'll do nothing else. People want to be a part of something larger than themselves if you've identified the right people, the people who have a shared value base with yourself. I've been in this business 25 years, and I've seen recessions come and go. The economy is a convenient reason, or a convenient excuse, for not addressing some of the issues that may be a little more prominent.
FS: What are some key takeaways from the book?
LJ: The key takeaway, the absolute No. 1 is that in order to be successful in fundraising, you must discern first what the operating principles are — what's really going on with the situation here that I'm looking at. Then adopt the right mental framework, a framework of investing, a framework of win-win, not taking, and then, and only then, think about the process. So much of what we see in the fundraising world, the focus is immediately on the process: solicit this way, communicate this way, do this, use these words. That's all well and good, but without the other steps before that, you're just sort of shooting in the dark.
Then you always offer to a donor more than you ask for. That's a mental perception when you go to a donor. They really want to make a gift if you give them an opportunity. And then fundraising really isn't about money. Yes, money's involved. Don't get me wrong. But it's really about relationships and fulfilled values and dreams. Those are the takeaways I'd like people to have.
FS: What role does leadership play in fundraising?
LJ: Leadership is critical. You're not going to go very far without it because fundraising is an inside-out proposition. It builds out from inside. And people take their cue from leadership, wherever they're going. Most of the resistance in fundraising comes from an anxiety about asking, and that often comes from a sense of not feeling capable or made feeling competent. A lot of nonprofits could help the situation by helping to remove that anxiety by reframing the proposition, by providing some tools — if you look at the Cygnus Research surveys that come out consistently board members don't feel like they're getting the kind of training that they need. Then also, provide them an opportunity to be successful. Nothing is more reassuring and confidence-building than success. And of course the last one is, depending on the makeup of your board and the social contract under which they were enlisted, it may be necessary to change some members. That's the Jim Collins "change the people on the bus" proposition.
FS: What organizations stand out to you for their fundraising prowess?
LJ: There are two very well-known organizations that I think have done a very good job of this and exhibit a lot of what I call the eight principles. The first one is Teach for America. When Wendy Cobb started this proposition it was simply a dream for her and nothing more. She built it from the inside-out and used many of the same principles we're talking about, and it's become quite a fundraising powerhouse. And Habitat for Humanity. There again you have a strong vision, a strong mission inside-out that has gradually morphed into an international organization.
FS: What other issues are concerning fundraisers right now?
LJ: There are two things. One thing we already mentioned, and that is boards that are anchors and not boats. The other thing is, how do you put this all together to make it work? Every year we see after the new year there are lots of people who make resolutions to go to the gym and get fit. About six weeks later, the crowd level is down to what it was before Christmas. That's another way of saying that a lot of people want the result without enduring the process. There's such a sense that I want to go out and raise money. That's wonderful, but there's a time, there's investment, there's a coordination piece. That's something I see often. More people are getting it. More people are understanding it. It's the need to move toward a system that moves donors naturally through the process.
FS: Anything you'd like to add?
LJ: Outside of what's in this book, the fundraisers that I know, be they professionals or volunteers, they need to have a healthy relationship with money, a healthy understanding of that, especially in what we've seen over the last year in the popular media. There's a lot of prejudice over people who have versus have not, and there are a lot of assumptions being made. Money is often a taboo subject precisely because it's so personal. We as the ones going out to ask to invite others in to participate need to get beyond this. We need to question ourselves pretty closely when we go in to see a donor — do we have some of these preconceived notions or assumptions that we need to dispense with and just listen to see what's coming back to us? Realize that most of the anxiety that's associated with asking for money is really due to our own insecurities regarding money. We haven't worked through some of those issues ourselves. Once we move beyond these, we can ask freely. Money is not the object of fundraising. Fulfillment of the donor is. But money that's well-invested is the result of that.
I really enjoyed writing the book very much. Donors are some of the most wonderful people I've ever met, and I love working with them. If you're going to be successful, you have to really like the donors. You have to have a passion for what you're doing, obviously, and if you don't you're just simply a mechanic, but you've got to like you donors. I've seen fundraisers who don't like their donors, which is not a good situation to be in.