7 Deadly Sins of Fundraising
"The outcomes would not have been different had we followed best practices," the college president insisted.
I bit my lip to keep from overreacting, and I let it ride during that conversation. But on the next call with this (now former) client, I explained that the program had been significantly damaged by not following best practices, and I outlined specifically how.
Unfortunately, it followed a pattern that had developed. Both the president and the board chair were more interested in show and appearance than in following counsel.
While this was to be a very focused, strategic and time-sensitive campaign to encourage board giving, too many foundational principles had been violated for it to be salvaged. Here are the seven deadly sins of fundraising the client committed:
- Not setting very specific goals. The client jumped out with a vague overall dollar figure (for a comprehensive campaign) but did not think about the individual campaign components that needed to be impacted — annual, current giving scholarship endowment, planned giving and capital — to ensure success and to fulfill an "early win" strategy. We had pushed for very specific goals — and then stretch goals — in each category, backed by specific target requests for each board member.
- Not making your own gifts first. The board chair and president made nearly 30 visits and over a three-month period failed to make their own commitments until the day before the board meeting — even admitting this lapse on a development committee call. It would have been so powerful had they shared their commitments, as appropriate. As it turns out, and as you by now probably guessed, neither was inspiring.
- Making visits randomly, not sequentially. Three months had elapsed, and they had yet to close several gifts with board members who should have been visited first. The opportunity for benchmarking and challenge gifts was lost.
- Ignoring the spouse or significant other in visits. All of the visits were made with just the board members. Ouch! When this lapse was pointed out, the client's first response was a video message from the board chair and president to the spouses. Thankfully, they did follow our counsel to make this into a Christmas message and dropped the campaign appeal that had been taped.
- Not defining the next step after every visit. They left behind the letter of intent at each visit but had no follow-up plan, and no signed commitments were obtained during visits. Each campaign visit should conclude with an agreed upon next step — including timing. Letters of intent and pledge cards left behind most often fall into a vacuum — a time warp.
- Not discussing strategy before every visit. The script we developed for each call was never shared with the board chair — because he is reluctant to follow counsel — and each visit was an on-the-fly situation. Board members were confused, and several felt that the board had been given a challenge gift by the college's largest benefactor. (This was not the case, and word of such could have killed the relationship.)
- Distancing yourself from your best friends. The college's top benefactor shared in a conversation that neither the president nor anyone from the college had visited him in more than a year, and then when he asked the president about future plans for the project he funded, the president did not have a clear answer. No surprise that the client did not have a sufficient pipeline of major-gift donor prospects.
Instead of following a carefully developed strategy and celebrating success at the next quarterly board meeting, they entered the meeting with commitments from fewer than half the board and many visits remaining.
On a development committee call the week of the board meeting (chaired, incidentally, by the board chair — violating another best practice), the president opened discussion on how they should follow up with the board in the two days before the board meeting. This was, again, in lieu of following a very specific plan for follow-up that had been outlined. So for 20 minutes the committee discussed how to follow up — by email, phone calls — as the chair/committee chair then admitted to the entire committee that he was among those who had not made their commitments. Credibility gone.
After the board meeting, it became very clear that this is one of those clients whom you just can't work with and maintain high standards. In the campaign planning and feasibility study, we even added two days of interviews pro bono to compensate for the president not making follow-up calls to secure participation in a timely manner. We believed in the organization's mission that much.
This now former client has such potential. A great mission and niche. We crafted a unique strategy following the feasibility study where — no surprise — it became apparent that board giving was going to be far less than hoped for and that there was not a sufficient major-gifts pipeline to achieve the intended goals.
Our unique approach was built on using best practices to maximize board giving and create momentum. It was to press the board to stretch. One thing is for sure in fundraising: Violate best practices, and you will fall short of your potential. Violate a handful of best practices, and you will fall far short.
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.