Don’t Take Shortcuts: Stretch to Build Capacity and a Genuine Culture of Philanthropy
You may have heard my rant. In the United States, giving has been stuck for decades at around 2.1% as a percentage of GDP. America has a rich history of philanthropy, dating back to before its founding. However, while some major donors are helping to boost overall giving in terms of dollars, the number of donors is shrinking. And for many organizations — and for nonprofits overall — donor retention is abysmal.
So, with this and many other nonprofit challenges, there are still nonprofit leaders who understand fundraising best practices, are grounded in research/strategy and uphold the highest professional standards.
Then, there are nonprofit leaders who take shortcuts and are not willing to put forth the effort needed for excellence. Some shortcuts include not building capacity — the fuel to fund their mission and the people to whom they serve.
Personal truth: I have to get in shape.
Confession: This isn’t a New Year’s resolution, but it is a real wakeup call following my heart surgery.
I have two methods under consideration:
- Holding myself to a regular exercise routine and enlisting experts, like physical therapists, nutritionists and personal trainers. For many reasons, I don’t plan to be in physical therapy forever. After I’ve learned and achieved success, I’ll be able to do exercises myself until needing further expertise and support.
- Paying someone to work out for me. No heavy lifting, far less sweating.
Now, let me relate my exercise challenge to nonprofits and capacity-building.
According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “Capacity building is an investment in the effectiveness and future sustainability of a nonprofit. ... When capacity building is successful, it strengthens a nonprofit's ability to fulfill its mission over time, thereby enhancing the nonprofit's ability to have a positive impact on lives and communities.”
I believe that philanthropy is transformational and that changing lives — sometimes even saving lives — is a noble and worthy endeavor. Philanthropy allows us to demonstrate our values and often our faith, through gifts of time, treasures and talents.
It is incumbent on any nonprofit fundraising professional and nonprofit leader to leave an organization, its programs, its board, its fundraising — all better than when they found it.
We know the importance of honoring and respecting each and every donor. On behalf of our organizations, we understand the importance of getting to know our supporters to build deep and lasting relationships.
Yet, some are willing to take a shortcut, aka the hired gun approach.
Merriam-Webster defines hired gun as “an expert hired to do a specific and often ethically dubious job.”
If staff and boards are not willing to do the hard work to engage in transformational philanthropy, then, I believe, they are taking a shortcut.
They bring in a hired gun who is not invested in the long game. Without fully researching a strategy, crafting a plan, coaching the staff and volunteers and directing the plan’s implementation, they fail to build long-term capacity for the organization. They fail to generate the momentum needed for a lasting future.
The shortcut to hire someone who will make the ask — be it alone or with a staff or volunteers — works in sales or economic development where there is a quid pro quo. Companies are investing in their community’s development, so that, in return, the pie is larger with more potential benefits.
But philanthropy, a practice that nearly all accept, is based on shared values and long-term relationships. There is no stranger in the process.
I’ve been solicited twice in this fashion. In both instances, I not only declined to contribute, but I also made the decision to no longer support the organization. In one case, a complete stranger, who was aloof and a very slick talker, asked me for a gift. As a donor with decades-long relationships with both organizations, I found the whole situation intrusive, disrespectful and offensive.
The value of unbiased third party research is critical. If research is conducted by other methods, it can be seen as invalid, tainted and spoiled, even subject to manipulation.
When you insert a biased third party into very, very personal and ideally, long-term relationships, the high calling of philanthropy is left unsupported and possibly lessened.
Build those long-term relationships. Hone your communications. Engage prospective donors at all levels. Show respect and make your engagement as personal as possible.
Be willing to challenge yourself, your board and your staff to grow and to learn. Empower them to be successful in cultivating and asking for a gift. And, frankly, if you and your team have done their jobs at cultivation, prequalification and testing, the ask is pretty darn easy. The donor is ready and ideally will ask, “How can I help?” or “What do you need from me?”
Come on, let’s quit the shortcuts and do the work. Our missions and those we serve deserve it. May our organizations — and the lifesaving and live-changing practice of philanthropy — become far better than they were when we started. This generation, and those of the future, are depending on us.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.