Moving Process to Progress

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.



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Cat and Mouse Relations

There’s no question that fundraisers need to be able to adjust and adapt quickly as the situation requires. One memorable event that reinforces this point comes to mind.

Moving an entire nonprofit organization is no easy task. And moving into an old building requiring extensive renovation comes with its challenges. One late afternoon, I was meeting with our government affairs director in her office behind closed doors as we whispered to each other across her desk about an ongoing personnel problem. Our faces were only inches apart as we both leaned in to ensure confidentiality.

Then mid-sentence, my eyes glanced down as I saw a critter scamper across the desk between us and down to the floor. Our screams in unison were heard all the way down the hall as we jumped from our seats and ran out of her office. We were horrified by the invasion of a mouse in our area where many women worked and visitors frequented.

Our facilities department was called to help solve this problem. Our facilities director responded immediately and hatched a sure-fire plan. He quickly came into our office area and put the stray cat that had been circling our building into the office where the mouse was seen. We left for the evening, thinking the crew would remove the cat and mouse and the next day we would be mouse-free. However, when we arrived in the morning, we were surprised to find the now angry cat was still locked in my co-worker’s office…without food, water or a litter box. Needless to say, the expected clean-up of one single mouse had now multiplied in odor and mess, requiring a significant carpet and desk cleaning.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of our mouse relations. Our CEO had a top public official in for a meeting, where this same director was present. Our executive, with a sweet tooth, always had a candy dish on his table. As the group discussed our project, my co-worker couldn’t help but notice the candy dish had been invaded as well, and this time the candy dish was left with remnants from the mouse’s visit. As conversation continued, and before our government representative reached in for a treat, our government affairs director made a reasonable excuse, quickly removing the bowl and saving our government guest from seeing or ingesting mouse droppings – regardless of his political party.

And there marks the difference between being able to think quickly on your feet with a successful response versus just thinking quickly, and not thinking through your response to the situation. Disaster averted is always my preference.

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Let’s Give Thanks

As fundraisers continue to review prospect lists and plot strategy with the year-end giving season approaching, let’s remember to give thanks by taking the time to say thank you to our donors.

Some of the most successful donor encounters I have experienced came from a phone call or appointment that was made just to say thank you.

Early in my career, serving as a new director of development for a small arts organization, I decided to make thank-you calls after the annual fund drive to some past donors who were identified as having more capacity than their recent gifts would indicate.

I called one former board member, famous for her critical commentary and high standards. She was considered to be one of the most important donors in the arts community.

I was actually surprised when she answered her own phone.

I nervously introduced myself, thanked her for her past support, and a longer conversation ensued.

Her questions about the organization were direct, and as I did my best to satisfy her with my answers, the conversation eventually became friendly and her voice softened.

The next week she made a surprise visit to the organization. And within a month, I was informed she was coming back on the board and going to head a strategic planning effort. The whole board was energized by the woman’s expertise, enthusiasm and direct line of communication. Her renewed engagement created a series of healthy changes in the organization that had long-lasting effects.

A couple months later, another gift from the now active donor arrived. This time it was 10 times the last gift amount. And, again, I called to say thank you.





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