Fundraising Reflections From the Ski Slopes
I recently partook of some pre-spring skiing. As I was heading down the slopes, I was thinking about some parallels between skiing and fundraising. "It's all downhill from here" is a saying that means that the hard part is over, but for fundraisers, it can often seem we're moving from one "emergency" to the next instead of enjoying the smoother ride and keeping the exhilaration alive. But as is true with skiing, some simple steps can make the journey more enjoyable.
Go with what you get. The great part of spring skiing is that it's warmer and sunny. The not-so-great part is that there may or may not be much snow. This year, while the East Coast was buried by Ol' Man Winter, parts of the West were overlooked—including the ski resort we visited. In fundraising, we often have to settle for less than ideal conditions. The story for the newsletter lead isn't as exciting as we wanted, the only photos are low-resolution, the preferred venue for our event is already booked, the donor we hoped to visit to discuss funding a new venture is on an extended vacation … When there's really no other choice, determine to work with what you have. You may find some unexpected positives as a result.
Know your ability. On ski slopes, a color marking system tells you the difficulty level; it also helps that the names of the ski runs are often loud hints—for example, it's pretty clear to me, an intermediate skier, that I should avoid "Widowmaker" and "Last Stand." But in fundraising, we often don't get these clear signals. While it's tempting to want to "do it all" or at least try to outdo another nonprofit organization, taking on too much may result in a hard fall. Build on the solid fundraising that you know how to do, and phase in new strategies with careful planning and any necessary research or learning you need to do before you jump in.
Watch for hazards, marked or unmarked. This kind of covers if all, doesn't it? On the ski slopes and in fundraising, we can do everything right and still get blindsided by an unforeseen situation. As much as possible, have contingency plans for things like the speaker at your event coming down with the flu the day of, your mailing being delayed by an overworked printer or your website going offline. Hazards are real, but expecting them can help you prepare and flex when you have to.
Take time to help and encourage others. From time to time when you're skiing, you ride up the chairlift with a child learning to ski or help an adult up who has taken a fall. That's a great time to encourage someone and help that person see the joy you have in skiing. As fundraisers, we have opportunities to encourage others. Yes, it's often easier to just do the work ourselves, but taking time to help others learn is far more rewarding. As I look back, some of the best "successes" in my fundraising career have been the people I mentored or trained who have gone on to be exceptional fundraisers, marketers or nonprofit leaders.
From time to time, get a fresh perspective. Several years ago, my husband and I took a lesson to tweak our skiing. The instructor said, "I can tell you two have been skiing together for a long time because you both do the same things right … and the same things wrong!" That's an easy trap to fall in with fundraising, too. "Every March, we mail this …" "Our monthly e-news has to …" "This is our signature event; why change it?" But bringing in a fresh perspective can often help you see things that could be done better. One organization I know of had a great annual event but suspected it was waning. So it encouraged the volunteer committee to come up with a new plan, and the result was a bigger, better event that raised more money—and re-energized the volunteers. Another organization does an annual event that has become routine; guests and vendor sponsors are losing interest. Yet, that organization keeps doing the same thing every year, despite declining sponsorships and revenues. In fundraising, be the one to encourage a fresh perspective, even when it hurts a bit to hear that others don't think your pet project is perfect.
Maintain control. I saw a T-shirt at a local shop with a picture of a skier hanging over the edge of a cliff that seemingly dropped off into nothingness. The caption read, "Confidence: That feeling you have before you have fully assessed the situation." Creating a plan (your map), following a schedule and staying on budget can increase your confidence and actually result in getting more done. When everything is a last-minute sprint, fatigue eventually sets in (if not for you, for those working with you). Fundraisers who want to be successful for the long run plan, create schedules that allow for delays and have spending plans to make sure there is enough money and energy to keep doing great fundraising through the end of the year (fiscal and calendar).
Take time to enjoy it. Despite less-than-optimal snow, being in the mountains and surrounded by grandeur was renewing. This old dog knows fundraising is hard work and it doesn't always end up the way you planned. But take a few minutes once in a while to look around you and see the results of your work. Celebrate projects that stay on schedule and budget, raise more money than expected, build stronger donor relationships, or help make your mission possible.
Takeaways: In the next day or two, offer a sincere word of encouragement to a staff member or volunteer who looks to you as a role model. Before the month is over, plan your fundraising strategy for the all-too-critical fourth quarter of 2015 and create the schedules you need to be sure it all gets done. Lastly, after careful thought, can you include a new fundraising effort that will stretch you and provide additional funding for your organization?