A while back, I conducted a feasibility study for an organization looking to raise capital dollars for much needed projects that had been long talked about. In one of my interviews, I met with a sophisticated donor who also headed a family foundation. When I asked her about her potential support for the project, she described the relationship in detail over the years and how, although she had made gifts and grants annually, she remarked how the staff had not ever asked to meet with her or update her on the project plans. She laughed and said, “I’ll be dead before this project happens, but if you would have asked me 10 years ago, I’d have given $1M. Now the foundation’s interests have expanded with my children’s involvement, so I don’t think we’d give more than $50,000. “ I was stunned. I said something like, “That’s too bad”, to which she replied, “No that’s the price of poor leadership and procrastination.” That message stuck with me.
We’ve all been there as fundraisers. We are charged with a mandate to increase major gifts or prepare for a capital campaign. So we want to get started cultivating potential donors and building relationships, but the organizational leadership wants more information, more numbers, more examples, more proof we are where we should be before launching a major fundraising initiative. In some organizations process rules, and the agenda slowly, if ever, gets away from the process of fact-finding, preparing plans, defining responsibilities, timelines, spreadsheets and more debate and discussion about the process.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am a serious advocate for planning, preparation and due diligence. But what happens when the process blocks progress? As fundraisers, we can prepare all the project budgets, rationale, case for supports, pretty brochures and compelling videos we want, but nothing translates into results like building relationships; talking to people about their passions, their interests, their reasons for caring about the cause.
Over the last 8 years of consulting, my mantra has been “Activity = Results”. If we as fundraisers are charged with raising more money, acquiring new members, converting special event attendees to individual donors, developing a major gifts program or launching a campaign, we have to generate activity, getting out of the office with the help of our leadership and their networks, and spend time building relationships.
Process that plans, prepares and propels is helpful. Process that procrastinates is not. So much like the work-life balance we always talk about achieving, the fundraising efforts must also achieve a balance. The balance that makes sure there is a plan, a case, a list, and a strategy, but also time to cultivate new prospects and steward the loyal donors.
So, how do we help reach that desirable balance, where we continue planning while making sure we are actively connected to our donors and constantly expanding our pool in order to engage new potential donors? It’s about generating activity. If every staff meeting, every phone conference, every board committee meeting doesn’t end in action items that include staff and board calling, meeting or inviting potential donors to something, then you know you are stuck in process. Along with the financial reports, the edits to agendas and materials, list reviews and a score of other ambiguous items that need to be followed up on, there has to be accountability and priority placed on people reaching out to tell the organization’s story and maintaining and building relationships.
Fundraisers are behind the saying, “Donor retention is the new acquisition”, and there’s a reason for that. Making time for active stewardship of donors is much easier than finding new donors. So, instead, try to schedule quarterly cultivation/stewardship events. Get board members involved in hosting, so they participate and experience the positive results. Most board members are shy about the “ask,” but they can always introduce, invite and open doors.
If achieved, the new balance of internal and external activity will finally produce more progress than process.