How to Succeed in the Fundraising Business
After more than 35 years of working for nonprofit organizations and in fundraising, I've learned plenty. Some have been deliberate learnings when I took on a task with the knowledge that I would have to expand my knowledge to complete it. Others have been serendipitous learnings as a result of watching someone else either stumble or succeed. And still others have been challenging learnings gained from pursuing formal education.
In all that time, one of the lessons I've learned (sadly, by watching others' mistakes) is that when nonprofit organizations and employees don't think like businesspeople, they can end up "out of business," either corporately or personally. But there is a better way …
Value your fundraising team. Years ago, the "mushroom theory of management" was making its satirical way around business schools: Keep your employees in the dark, dump manure on them and can them when they're mature. That's amusing, but not as much when you consider how often it's true.
A fundraising leader (or frankly, any leader who strives for excellence) knows that employees are not like interchangeable parts. You've maybe worked for or with someone who seemed to think, "Employee A can walk and breathe simultaneously, and Candidate B can walk and breathe simultaneously. So, one's as good as the other." But let's face it: We all prefer to work for the person who values our skills, shares information necessary to do the job, gives credit when it's due, allows us to grow—and yes, takes necessary action when someone isn't performing at the expected level.
I recently heard someone describe an organization as "one of those places that regularly lays off anyone with experience and then hires entry-level staff to try and get the job done." That kind of reputation—of a company or a manager—becomes known, and over time it can do lasting damage.
Focus on what's measurable and meaningful. "Likes" on Facebook are great, but financial contributions make your programs possible. Smart managers set plans and budgets and monitor performance based on achievements that lead to accomplished goals and successful fundraising income.
Don't misinterpret here — I am a strong proponent of an updated Facebook presence, as well as the use of other social networks when time and staffing permit. I love to hear that records are broken in terms of attendance at events. I celebrate when someone I know earns an award for a really cool direct mail package.
But all those things are simply window dressing if they don't result in more net dollars for mission accomplishment. As Winston Churchill said, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."
Change … but do it carefully. Some of us can't get enough of change; others of us want to slow down change. Regardless of which camp you are in (or if you are somewhere in the middle), change is simply a fact of life. It's going to happen. If you've been in fundraising more than a few years, you can probably point to some significant changes that spun your fundraising strategies around. I still laugh when I recall, early in my career, when the big fear was how to get the younger generation—baby boomers—to give since it looked like boomers would never be as generous as their parents. That's laughable today …
We may chuckle when a major company stumbles with a product change or even boycott that product like many of us did in 1985 at the introduction of New Coke. Yet, too often as fundraisers, we make major changes with the attitude that, "This is right and those donors just need to get on board." Sure, we don't say that, but it's the unspoken attitude when we decide to move everything online, cancel a longstanding event, cut back on sending receipts or anything else that may make perfect sense to us—but leaves some donors shaking their heads and wondering where their formerly favorite nonprofit went.
Remember the old saying, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face"? Wise fundraisers avoid doing that and instead make sure that changes happen in a way that allows donors to change with us instead of being left behind.
This certainly is not an exhaustive list, but these three things have all gotten on this old dog's radar lately as I've heard war stories about nonprofits that suffered an income loss that may have been prevented. Employees matter. Net income matters. Donors matter.
Do you want to succeed in fundraising? Then focus on what matters.