10 Steps to Consider Before Changing Your Fundraising Strategy
Development professionals are often confronted with a series of questions when evaluating fundraising strategies. These include:
- Do we keep just doing what we have been doing since it has generated some success?
- Do we need to change or add new techniques and activities to our calendar?
- Have we become too single-focused or redundant?
- Are we keeping up with needs and demands of the institution or has fundraising stagnated?
- Bottom line: Do we have an office weighted toward maintainers or visionaries?
Often an easy answer to these questions could be:
- We are doing OK and don’t need to make changes for change's sake.
- Yes, we are doing all right.
- Maybe we could do better, but given all the constraints we are doing about as well as possible.
When we hear questions and responses such as these, we are reminded of the major point in Jim Collins’ classic management book, “Good to Great.” His treatise is that the greatest enemy of being great is the complacent satisfaction with being good.
These questions are very real and while they can be voiced in a variety of ways, they represent the recognition of an underlying question that should be in the minds of the leadership: Can we do better? This question abounds from trustees to staff to donors. When it is voiced, often the circular question and response pattern begins to surface and force more honest and proactive answers to these questions.
In many ways questions addressing how effective or ineffective a given office or staff can be answered through strategic planning and assessment strategies. We encourage every development staff to lead the entire office through strategic planning and rigorous assessment bi-annually or more often if giving is lagging.
We know how it feels to be caught by the desire to be safe by relying on past success versus attempting new strategies. We know that certain stumbling blocks can arise as you debate future directions for the staff and office.
Here are 10 steps be considered if you are trying to decide on whether to play it safe with past strategies and/or be creative by implementing new approaches. While we know that every step might not apply to all development offices, these steps can help to keep a staff from missing a vital part of successful fundraising.
1. Reaffirm Institution Mission
Make sure everyone actually understands the mission of the institution. We are amazed at how many employees don’t really know or fully understand what the institution is trying to accomplish. While this sounds rather elementary, testing your staff for mission awareness just may enlighten more than you realize.
2. Assess Strategic Plans
Assess institutional strategic plans over and against your office plans. Do they align with one another, or do some gaps appear? Checking to make sure that coherent planning is in place can avoid some future embarrassment. It can also help to mobilize everyone in the same direction.
3. Share Your Plans
Meet and share your plans with key institutional leaders, let them have input, and allow them to become stakeholders in your quest to raise money and increase institutional resources. A rule of thumb is that it is better to involve more than less because everyone is connected to various circles of influence. You want your efforts to be known by people who can make a difference.
4. Identify Action Steps
Identify action steps and assign responsibility for each step to staff. Accountability is key to action plans becoming effective results. Having a frequently assessed accountability plan in place can save time and raise more money from various fronts.
5. Assess Techniques
Assess what techniques for donor relations have worked and which ones have not. Don’t keep making the same series of mistakes, learn from situations that have not gone as well as one expected. Refine approaches and techniques to fit your unique situation.
6. Hold Staff Accountable
Make sure staff are accountable through periodic assessment reports. If someone is not accomplishing an action step, then action needs to be taken to make sure that action step can be accomplished. Remember time is money, and staff will not find new resources lying under their desks. Staff must be able to connect effectively with donors whether these be corporate, foundations or individuals.
7. Keep Donors Informed
Keep your donor base informed of recent successes. This means that staff and stakeholders alike must speak from the same narrative. Remember, people give to success, not to failure.
Celebration of success is highly encouraged. These occasions can create new momentum and open doors that may have been closed in the past.
9. Be Flexible
Be flexible when new opportunities and relationships present themselves. Don’t turn away a potential donor because their interest is not exactly in your strategic plan. Also, don’t accept gifts that can have additional expenses and consequences, which can be troublesome and far-reaching. Write your planning documents to accommodate the unforeseen opportunities that may present themselves. Take advantage of the unforeseen and use it to the institution’s advantage after a careful vetting process. Too many institutions have turned away key donors because it was not in their plan, hence decades may need to pass before hurt feelings are repaired. Most donors will understand if you have to decline a gift due to the additional expense and complications. We suggest you be flexible and vet carefully so as to bring a win-win situation to all concerned.
10. Say ‘Thank You’
Say “thank you” at every step of the process. Every relationship can lead to a new relationship that can bring resources to your institution. Thank the staff, thank the stakeholders and, most certainly, thank the donors in meaningful ways, which allows them to know how special they are in the life of the institution.
Finally, we are reminded of the words of one of our mentors, Dr. E. Bruce Heilman, who has been recognized as one of higher education’s foremost leaders in philanthropy. Often, he was asked, “How much time do you spend on raising money?” And he would respond, “I spend all my time raising money!” The point Dr. Heilman was making is, with every contact a development or advancement professional has, it becomes an opportunity to secure needed resources for the institution or the cause at hand. He believed in rigorous planning and assessment, but he was flexible, yet careful, when unexpected opportunities presented themselves. He was always about thanking others whether they gave or not. We have found his advice and example to serve us well as we have led multiple campaigns at our respective universities.
Dr. Michael V. Carter is an educator, author, and academic executive, recently retiring after 22 years as president of Campbellsville University where enrollment grew from 1,600 at the beginning of his presidency to 13,500 in 2020. Carter actively grew the resources available through two successful capital campaigns and touts the synchronicity of marketing to increase enrollment and the ability to attract major gifts. He now serves as an advisor to BrightDot.
Carter graduated from Marshall University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and went on to graduate studies at Andover-Newton Theological College. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Prior to his presidency at Campbellsville University, Carter taught at various colleges in Ohio, Illinois, and Florida, and served as vice president of academic affairs and professor of sociology at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee. Carter is the author of several book chapters and journal articles focusing upon higher education, religion, life in Appalachia and drug abuse among rural youth.