No One Is 'Off the Hook' From Fundraising
Hi, Marc …
As the executive director of my nonprofit, I know I’m supposed to do fundraising. I recently heard I should spend as much as 50 percent of my time fundraising! How in the world can I do that much? My schedule is totally packed with operational fires I need to put out.
— Sincerely, Challenged Calendar
Dear Challenged Calendar,
This is a great question! Executive directors and CEOs have an incredibly challenging job. In my ongoing research with nonprofit executives, they often tell me that boards hire the nonprofit leader to be a fundraiser, but they don’t allow the leader to staff the nonprofit in a way that frees her up to fundraise. As a result, many nonprofit executives find that constantly “putting out fires” crowds out strategic activities like donor involvement.
The problem compounds. When strategic things like donor relationships are neglected, even more fires crop up! This is why donor retention is an appalling 73 percent. Nonprofits in general aren’t building relationships with donors. Executive leaders bear some of the blame for this.
Here are some thoughts to help:
Hiring a fundraiser doesn’t let you ‘off the hook’
I love the way you asked the question because I can see you’re not trying to get out of fundraising. But many nonprofit founders or executives think that they’ll be off the hook if they could just hire a development director. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Donors always want to hear from the head of the organization. And many deserve to.
Fundraising is more like building a relationship than buying a T-shirt. The development director should help you make the best use of your donor time. Ask her for the list of top donors and top prospects. You want to use whatever time you’re able to invest in a mix of both establishing relationships with new donors and growing relationships with old donors.
Be prepared, some of these relationships may go nowhere. That doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the development team is doing a bad job. But you’ll find that these relationships can become some of the most rewarding parts of your work.
Fundraising isn’t just asking for money
Many CEOs I work with seem to think that 100 percent of the time they devote to fundraising should be spent asking for money. Or they feel this pressure from the board. That is a surefire way to exhaust your donors. And yourself.
I find it particularly hard for executive leaders to justify thank-you notes and calls with donors. So many seem to think their time is worth more than just saying “thank you.” Again, nothing could be further from the truth. For-profit companies know that it’s far less expensive to keep an existing customer than to acquire a brand-new one. The same is true in fundraising. So thanking donors for their ongoing support is definitely worth an executive’s time. You’re both helping save your nonprofit money and raise money. Adrian Sargeant, the first Robert F. Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, says studies show that even improving donor retention by just 10 percent can result in 175 percent to 200 percent more revenue.
One reason some executives feel uncomfortable simply saying “thank you” is that they feel like there should be a further agenda. If you feel this way, try thanking donors by reporting back on what their generosity has accomplished. As the chief executive, you should be able to ask your development team to prepare a report on what a person’s donation has helped your nonprofit accomplish.
These are more effective if you know what the donor values. You’ll soon grow to enjoy showing your donor how her giving connects directly with something she is passionate about!
Remember your board members
As Jay Love, co-founder and CEO of Bloomerang, reminds us in a recent blog post, the vast majority of the board’s interactions are with you. Since board members are both volunteers and donors, you should include them on the list of fundraising relationships you’re going to grow. Being this intentional with board members is a discipline. Often CEOs get used to interacting with board members in other areas of governance or advising. But it’s important to bring fundraising into the picture. It may be as simple as pointing out to them that whatever you’re talking about is possible, in part, because they made gifts this year. Or it could be writing them handwritten thank-you notes when you see their names on a donor list. Small things really do add up.
As board members get used to being asked for money by you and thanked in ways that show their impact, they’ll learn about fundraising for your nonprofit. As they get more comfortable with this, you can ask them to introduce you to people they know who could make significant investments in your cause.
As CompassPoint’s recent “UnderDeveloped” study shows, being the leader of a nonprofit is challenging. I’m not entirely sure whether or not you should spend 50 percent of your time on fundraising. But you should look at your revenue streams. If fundraising is more than 50 percent of your revenue, allocating that much time might be appropriate.
Start small. Maybe an hour a day. Or even an hour a week. As I remind my Fundraising Kick members, an hour a day blocked off for fundraising results in an extra month of fundraising in a year! Even an hour a week over the course of a year results in more than one additional week of fundraising.
I always think the head of a nonprofit should be 100 percent focused on fundraising. Virtually everyone you come in contact with — staff, board, community members, elected officials — is a donor or a prospect. This might help you look for ways to combine activities. Perhaps in your next weekly meeting with your direct reports, you could show them a short list of donors and prospects you’ll be working with. You could ask them if they know anyone on the list. Often they won’t, but some will have helpful information. Even those that don’t will see that you value fundraising.
If you’re going on a donor visit, why not consider bringing a board member along? The donor gets the honor of speaking to one of the people charged with overseeing the nonprofit. The board member gets to see donor relations, or solicitations, in action. Seeing the process happen firsthand helps take the fear out of it. Before long, some of your board members will be asking to be involved!
I’m glad you’re leading your nonprofit. Please let me know which of these changes helps you the most! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
— To your fundraising success, Marc
Marc Pitman is the author of “Ask Without Fear!” and founder of FundraisingCoach.com and the weekly e-mail service “Fundraising Kick.” He is also a member of the FundRaising Success Editorial Advisory Board. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @marcapitman