Author Archives: Carolyn M. Appleton

Rethinking Major Gift Fundraising

In reviewing thirty years of work in the nonprofit sector, I look back and say to myself, “well, everyone knows those things.” But in truth, no one has walked in my shoes – nor in yours – and no one else has experienced the world in the exact same way as you or I have.

From my mindset of, “just tell me I can’t do it, and I will,” I wanted to point out articles and posts on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog designed to help with your major gift fundraising, and in some cases, to challenge standard assumptions.

“Are You Ready for a Capital Campaign” quotes another experienced fundraising professional in our field, and alongside his suggestions I comment based upon my own experiences. In tandem, some of my most important fundraising experiences are discussed in, “Are You Ready | Is It Feasible?” Feasibility studies have long been the bread-and-butter of the nonprofit consulting business, but I have a different take on their usefulness.

“Taking a Step Back Will Lead You Forward” is an article on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog that I fine-tuned and gave as a webinar for ADRP: Association of Donor Relations Professionals. Yes, there are things nonprofits can do to instill donor confidence as they chart a course forward for major giving. A consultant does not need to be hired and paid handily to tell you to do these things. #JustDoIt

“Nonprofits and Startups | Birds of a Feather” notes how similar major gift campaign preparation is with launching a for-profit business startup. In fact, I suggest 3 Day Startup, which I reference in the article, create a new course with nonprofit social good enterprises in mind. Times are changing and I welcome those changes. I find more often today that nonprofits want to move away from the arrogance they perceive as being inherent in traditional major gift fundraising, toward a more egalitarian “crowdfunding” approach. For help with crowdfunding, see the resource page on this blog.

Crowdfunding

As I mention in my nonprofit prediction posts and elsewhere on this blog, many of the same principles apply to major gift fundraising as those to launching a startup or crowdfunding. But to think the latter two efforts are easier than traditional major gift fundraising would be incorrect. The same attention to planning, research, communication and the like apply to all. They are just different ways of reaching the same result: securing major gifts. Keep in mind, each nonprofit is unique. A traditional major gift campaign may not be the best option for your organization today.

Something I would like to see – having pulled major gift fundraising campaigns out of the gutter on more than one occasion – is a reduction in the condescending attitude of many in the “big box” consulting community. “You couldn’t possibly know how to work with major gift donors! We’ll do that for you.” Even the most well-meaning among them can bill you heavily, and sometimes they will walk off with your nonprofit’s contacts. I believe it is time to demystify major gift fundraising.

From the other side of the table, I have also found some donors and prospective donors enjoy the hooplah they perceive as being involved in major gift fundraising. The hiring of expensive “consultants” is part of what they believe to be essential. #Resist

Real major gift donors do not need expensive consultants to help the nonprofit organizations they care about. Be careful.

If you have questions at any time, use the secure contact form on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog to reach me. As always, best wishes for your fundraising success!

During Good Times, Don’t Forget to Prepare for Rainy Days

“A recession is a significant decline in economic activity that goes on for more than a few months. It is visible in industrial production, employment, real income and wholesale-retail trade. The technical indicator of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth as measured by a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), although the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) does not necessarily need to see this occur to call a recession.”

– Investopedia

This post on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog was written in fall 2018. Needless to say, in 2020 with the onset of COVID-19, stay-at-home restrictions and global uncertainly about the dramatic changes witnessed in all aspects of our lives, having a reserve fund has made sense. Now that it appears we are pulling out of the economic contraction, smart nonprofits will continue to add to their reserve funds while diversifying their fundraising techniques and conducting ever more in-depth research to identify more prospective donors. Not everyone is negatively impacted by a recession, so let cool heads and smart thinking prevail during challenging times.

See the links at the conclusion for more information.


The past few years, I have read articles and watched videos featuring leading financial experts discussing the possibility of a recession. White opinion remains divided, the thought that several predict rough waters ahead causes me to revisit the idea of nonprofit organizations establishing “rainy day,” or reserve funds.

From USLegal, “A reserve fund is a fund of money created to take care of maintenance, repairs or unexpected expenses of a business.” 

Having watched nonprofits suffer intensely during the last recession of a decade ago – an experience we all hope will never be repeated – my advice for nonprofits during every year-end fundraising season is to be prepared.

Take some of your charitable donations and sock them away into a savings account or other fund where you can get to them easily if and when needed. You might even consider a specific major gift campaign to establish a reserve fund. Regardless, having such a fund in place can help with myriad situations, from recession and lagging donations, to helping your nonprofit launch an entirely new project or fund a new staff position. #JustDoIt

Rainy day funds are important.

Noteworthy Media Coverage (Most Recent First)

National Council for Nonprofits, “Operating Reserves for Nonprofits” (timeless advice, helpful resources)

  • Independent Sector video discussion on YouTube about nonprofits and the economy (September 17, 2020) – be sure to check back on YouTube for updates over time in the series, “This Week in Washington.”

  • Daniela Cambone for TheStreet, “The ‘Greatest Depression’ Is Coming; This Is How to Prepare” (November 1, 2019). “Celente added that the Fed’s latest rate cut can be likened to ‘monetary methadone,’ where liquidity is pumped into a credit system that is already over-levered. ‘It’s just shooting in more money to keep the addicted bull running. It’s not boosting economies around the world, we’re looking at a global slowdown, and the numbers are there, and even people like the IMF, the World Bank, one after the other, they’re warning of a recession,’ Celente said.”

I have an article on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog called, “Economy and Philanthropy” you might also enjoy. It dates back to when I launched my blog during the economic downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Looking back to those days, I would also say, not every business nor philanthropist suffers during a recession. Adjust your fundraising accordingly and do your research.

Trust Your Instincts | Early Career Lessons

After visiting with a friend about an uncomfortable experience with an older male supervisor early in my career, I decided to share it with others.

I launched Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog in 2011. In all this time, I have struggled with how to broach the topic of this post, and how to share information that would be helpful to my readers, especially those new to the field of nonprofit development.

Happily, recent online research reveals there is more helpful, quality information about managing workplace relationships – both for women and their male supervisors – than ever before. This is encouraging and it makes me believe there is hope for change in the workplace, and greater understanding from all points of view.

The lessons learned from the story I am about to tell are several. First, trust your instincts. If you feel something is wrong even though you cannot “see” it, there is probably something wrong. Second, tell other colleagues you trust about your feelings and what you think is wrong. Witnesses can be essential, and for the long term. Third, remove yourself from uncomfortable work situations, and as diplomatically as possible. Often you will advance in your career if you do so.

“… Anyone, man or woman, who’s assumed to be a lightweight has a harder time getting ahead,” she says. “Of course that kind of struggle affects confidence level. Qualified women really aren’t taken as seriously as their male colleagues—many studies bear that out—so they’re more likely to have to deal with the emotional fallout of being held back, including a realistic reduction in their confidence about whether they’ll be able to fulfill their ambitions.” Adams should know about the research; she’s the former Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Maine Farmington.

– Elizabeth Harrin for A Girl’s Guide To Project Management, “6 Ways To Get Taken Seriously At Work” (2018)

Just over twenty five years ago, I worked at a university in the same college where I had secured a Master’s Degree a few years before. I was honored to have been hired, and I held a relatively new and low level position managing development activities for the college, which included several divisions. Three different deans occupied leadership roles at the college while I was there. And as Elizabeth Harrin remarks above, I was definitely considered a “lightweight.”

My work involved organizing and hosting monthly events that included advisory council meetings with alumni who were among the leading philanthropists of Texas, and broader “university” activities that were held in the college’s facilities. The university had a huge legacy of endowments that funded its faculty and programs, some 300 when I was on staff back then. One of my jobs was to thank endowment donors and to update them about activities funded with their endowments, annually. I took this responsibility seriously, and I was encouraged in my efforts by the university’s central development office.

While devoted to my tasks with a laser-like precision and eager to impress, I was admittedly young and still new to the field of nonprofit development. By the time the third dean had arrived to oversee the college, I had uncovered some concerns. One of those was being unable to find out what had transpired with the funding provided by certain endowed funds.

I always hoped to make my annual donor letters interesting and timely. But for some of them, I could not find any information. I wanted to share with each donor how that year’s investment income had been spent on such things as faculty research, new publications, programs, travel and the like, or if the endowments were unassigned, what was happening with searches to fill those positions and related efforts. But I hit a wall with some of them. I asked the endowment accountant for help repeatedly. No information was forthcoming. In fact, at one point during my questioning, the accountant grew very uncomfortable and asked me to, “please stop asking.”

Trust

I scheduled a time to meet with the dean. He had indicated he was quite disinterested in me and my work. My intuition was that he wanted to clear out the current staff of the college and hire “his own.” But finally, I gained my audience. I told him something was wrong with my thank you note process: I could not get the information I needed. In fact, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up on end, when I asked the endowment accountant about certain funds. The dean simply said with disdain, “you just aren’t doing your job.”

“Not surprisingly, a large share of women feel invisible at work, compared with male colleagues. From ordinary meetings to executive offices and boardrooms, many more women than men feel that they don’t get credit for their ideas, or that their contributions aren’t recognized—slights felt even more acutely by women of color.”

– Nikki Waller, The Wall Street Journal, “How Men & Women See the Workplace Differently” (2016)

During this time, however, I kept moving forward. I found allies in the central development office on campus. I suggested the college develop a digital system whereby each staff member in the college involved in endowment tracking – from the accountant to the department chairmen and individual faculty, to development officer – would work off one centralized computer-based system. Information about the endowed funds would be input into the system by each person, and checked and referenced by everyone else. We would all be able to see one another’s work, and would be held accountable for it. My development colleagues thought the idea was a very good one. In fact, I had already informed them something seemed awry and that I was worried. The new system would help with transparency and the flow of information.

Still, at the college level no one was listening. The feedback from the new dean and his associate dean suggested I was not very smart, and I did not know what I was doing. I actually developed a mild stutter at this time. I had wanted the job in the college so much, but I had become afraid, and I felt (rightly) that I was being looked down upon by the new dean and his entourage.

I also knew in my heart that if I stayed much longer, the problems I was uncovering might entrap me, and ruin my future development career. I decided to look for a new job. And I was surprised to receive three job offers. I flew out of the college like a lightening bolt.

Two years later, I landed in Dallas. My career was thriving. I had access to the elite philanthropic community, and my work was going exceptionally well. One evening, I received a call from a colleague still working at my former college. The endowment accountant was discovered to have been embezzling endowment funds over several years. I had been right. I received additional calls from those in the central development office confirming the news.

Now, I had retained a lingering sense of failure about that job. But those telephone calls released those feelings instantaneously. I was relieved beyond measure. I had been correct, although I was sad about the crime committed.

“Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet (1803-1882)

Since that early experience, I continue to find older males occasionally fail to take me and my work seriously. But I have also found several who became (and who are) enthusiastic and supportive mentors! Which is all to say, do not assume just because you are young that you will not find strong male advocates. The plethora of stories in the media today about negative male-female experiences sometimes overshadow the good ones.

Build on your own internal strengths and be confident in your own abilities and instincts. Yes, you have much to learn. But you already know a lot. Don’t ever forget that.


About that endowment management system I suggested years ago: I understand someone (a male) at the university did eventually make it a reality. Great news! I wonder if anyone has any idea how it was conceived. Water under the bridge ….

BrainyQuote

Additional Resources

Summer is “Development” Time

I sometimes hear nonprofits lament that summertime is so “slow.” Nothing is happening. Most donors and prospective donors are out of town on vacation, they tell me. But in my experience, summertime is a busy time for development.

I have discovered quite a few grant deadlines occur during the summer and that requires attention. I have also found some donors actually have a bit more time to spend on their favorite nonprofit projects during the summer. Brainstorming meetings, planning for the fall, “asking” for support, database house cleaning and expansion, research, case statement drafting and year-end fundraising campaign development are all things I have done during the summer months. Don’t forget, many corporations budget late summer for social good projects they will underwrite next year. Summer is a great time to visit with your favorite corporate sponsors.

Coffee Waves in Port Aransas.

Earlier this year, I was asked to help the Port Aransas Art Center part-time. As you may know, Hurricane Harvey battered Port Aransas last year, but as the Instagram photo above from Coffee Waves suggests, the community is back on track and working hard to recover. It is well on its way.

As for me, I am helping to establish a new development program, I have been modernizing the website, enhancing social media, creating new e-newsletters so that we have regular monthly e-communication with constituents, securing a GuideStar gold seal and more. It has taken a lot of time, but when you work with a dedicated group of volunteers and staff, your work is enjoyable and inspiring.

I added a new section in the margin of Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog for “Quick Updates” with handy links. Please peruse my article on social media stewardship for the Association of Donor Relations Professionals’ monthly newsletter, The Hub. You might also enjoy reviewing the slide decks for my webinar and public presentations this year.

I have always been a “hands-on” learner and I readily adopt new technologies that enable me to become even more self-sufficient. Still today, I do most all work myself. This, plus years of experience in major gift fundraising make me a good teacher for those new to the fundraising profession, for startups with big ambitions, and for nonprofits that are perhaps a bit, “overweight” that need to streamline.

Wednesday 006

Another new section of my Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog is called, “A Brief Account: Short Stories.” There I share personal experiences with leading philanthropists. Some of my stories are humorous, some heart warming, but always, I try to be insightful and to share what it takes to work successfully in the field of nonprofit fundraising. Fundraising – especially major gifts – scares some nonprofit professionals. I came to the field via volunteering and a Master’s Degree in Art History. Ultimately, I hope by sharing my stories that fear will be lessened, and more interested professionals will enter our field.

Have a good summer. And now for me it is time to get, “back to work.”

Digital Inclusion: As We Race Ahead, Let’s Be Sure No One is Left Behind

It is hard to imagine, but across the United States there are still many who have no idea how to use a computer. And while most people own mobile phones, access to wireless remains a constant challenge.

Google Fiber has been a strong advocate for digital inclusion in Austin and across the nation. Shown is a panel discussion at Google Fiber Space a few years ago (my Instagram).

I don’t know about you, but I am highly cognizant of how most job applications are only available online today. Not knowing how to use email, Microsoft Word and the Internet (or simply not to have ready access to a wireless “hot spot”), prevents some from applying for jobs, pays bills, submitting inquiries for essential information, completing medical forms and the like. Even if “computer skills” are not part of the job description, to apply for them one must normally have access to a computer of some type. Time sheets, product inventories and cash registers are all connected to complex corporate networks, and they require employees to be competent – at least in a basic fashion – with using technology.

Austin Free-Net is a nonprofit organization with which I worked briefly a few years ago. This organization and others in Austin – including the City of Austin – are working to address these now-essential technology training needs. Executive Director Juanita Budd noted:

“When citizens cannot find work and families cannot support themselves, the repercussions echo throughout the community. Less people working means less tax revenue, while simultaneously there is an increased pressure on social services providers. A family might need an older child to quit school and go to work, which means the cycle of low-paying jobs continues for another generation. Improving the education and technical acumen of our residents will draw more businesses to Austin, increasing tax revenue and reducing unemployment. In short, a computer literate population makes a city stronger economically and makes us more attractive to new industry.”

Roca
Sotun Krouch of Roca spoke about his nonprofit’s use of data during the Social Solutions 2017 Impact Summit in Austin.

I was also pleased to attend a Social Solutions Impact Summit in Austin. During the event, Robert F. Smith of Vista Equity Partners spoke with Kristin Nimsger, CEO of Social Solutions. Part of the discussion is found below in my Facebook Live video (3 minutes). Robert discusses the need for effective use of data, the increasing digitization of business globally, and how everyone is struggling to keep up! This is certainly true for those who find themselves in low income and under served communities.

U.S. News & World Report features an interview with filmmaker Rory Kennedy, “New Documentary Explores the Digital Divide” (September 19, 2017):

“In making this film I really began to understand the depths of the issue and the fact that there are over a million classrooms in this country that don’t have adequate broadband, a huge number of kids who don’t have access to computers, and the reality that 77 percent of jobs are going to require technology education and background by the year 2020.”

Mozilla observes in, “Digital Inclusion Means Promoting Diversity” (2017):

“As inclusive as the Web can seem, it’s not yet an equal playing field. More than half the world is still without it; emerging economies and marginalized communities are often the last to gain access. Far fewer women are using the Internet than men. And without diversity among its creators, the Web itself will reflect unconscious biases, while personalizing algorithms can reinforce our own.”

I urge you to find the organizations in your community working to alleviate the “digital divide” and support them today. People of every generation and nation need to be included, and the time to start is now!


A few nonprofits tackling digital inclusion in Central Texas:

Hurricane Inspiration on the Gulf Coast

When Hurricane Harvey began to threaten the Texas Coast, one of my foremost concerns was its potential impact on Texas Sealife Center. I met founder Dr. Tim Tristan before I moved from Corpus Christi about seven years ago. He shared his vision of a veterinarian-driven wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center to aid shorebirds, raptors and sea turtles with me back then, and I have never forgotten.

Sea Turtle Surgery
Thanks to the Baltimore Sun for covering Texas Sealife Center in Corpus Christi, Texas (February 14, 2017).

In 2011, Texas Sealife Center was established, and it has not looked back since. The Center is all-volunteer and it has been highly successful in helping animals caught in and injured by fishing lines, those that have ingested fishing lures, metal and plastic objects of all varieties, as well as those that have sustained physical injuries and contracted troublesome diseases.

Tim and I have kept up remotely on Facebook. This summer, I agreed to help with some grant research and writing. The Center’s goal is to secure new equipment to support its medical and rehabilitation activities, with an emphasis on sea turtles. Sadly, the number of stranded and injured animals in the Coastal Bend of South Texas continues to increase. And, more sea turtles require help than ever before.

Brown Pelican, Hurrcane Harvey
Click to reach Texas Sealife Center’s Facebook page and more photos illustrating its work during Hurricane Harvey and more.

As the volunteers have done time and again, they made themselves available 24-7 to aid wildlife caught in Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. One of the Center’s primary partners is the ARK, or the Animal Rehabilitation Keep of the Marine Science Institute of The University of Texas at Austin, located further north on the Texas Coast. The ARK was heavily damaged during Hurricane Harvey, and Texas Sealife Center gladly took-in injured wildlife that could not be successfully released there. They continue to provide critical medical care and a safe haven until the animals can heal and be released into their natural habitats. Facebook became a powerful platform for conveying the work of Texas Sealife Center during this challenging time.

Aside from researching and submitting proposals for the Center’s urgent equipment needs, one of the most important things I did for this relatively young nonprofit was to create a meaningful GuideStar profile and to obtain the gold seal for transparency. Quite a few nonprofits with which I have worked fear they must have raised a lot of money and have well-known Board members, for instance, before establishing a full profile on GuideStar.

But what GuideStar is about is not money as much as it is how transparent nonprofits are about their operations and programs, their tax statements, future plans and more. GuideStar is about trust and honesty. And hopefully, by taking the worthwhile step to secure the gold seal will inspire even greater confidence by prospective donors in the Center and its management, with the current capital campaign in mind.

I have worked with nonprofit organizations large and small. Many of the larger ones have accomplished less than the smaller ones! Donors must be wary that a well-known “name” and a list of prominent Board members does not guarantee professional operations, efficiency, and genuine dedication by the leadership and staff.

I have found small nonprofits and startups work exceedingly hard, and their volunteers are often more dedicated than those supporting organizations with ample budgets and long tenures. After a long career in major gift fundraising, some of my most fulfilling projects have involved helping small groups build the credibility necessary to inspire significant donations. With this in mind, I urge you to support Texas Sealife Center, and please follow its progress on Facebook. Thank you!

You might enjoy reading my LinkedIn blog post from 2014, #2030NOW, which addresses startups and innovative young nonprofit concepts, and my hope more “Boomers” will fund them.

Did you know? You can donate to Texas Sealife Center directly from its GuideStar profile

Being a Bridge

Pennybacker Bridge, Austin, Texas

Bridges make connections possible. Bridges facilitate the crossing of people, “from one side to the other.” Shown is the breathtaking Pennybacker Bridge, a “through-arch bridge” located on the west side of Austin in the scenic hill country. Click on the photograph to learn more about it.

I have always thought of nonprofit fundraisers as “bridges” between their organizations and donors. Development professionals must constantly make connections and translate their nonprofit’s mission and needs to individuals, families, foundations, corporations and governments in such a way that funding is provided.

Nonprofit programmatic staff and some board members sometimes lack the skills (or the inclination) to speak with potential donors, and often they do not enjoy asking for financial support. This is where development staff shine, of course.

When I lived in Dallas in the 1990s, I worked on a variety of nonprofit fundraising campaigns, some in their entirety (from start to finish), others for more limited engagements (only for grant research, writing, solicitation, publications and the like). Once, I came across a nonprofit board chairman who was highly regarded in the community, but he had an abiding fear of asking anyone for a donation. A fundraising consulting firm his nonprofit had hired felt the board, including this noteworthy volunteer, were generally useless. Everyone involved had become frustrated. But, I knew there was a way to turn this situation around.

I assured the volunteer that during our forthcoming meeting – which happened to be with one of the leading bank trust departments in Dallas – that he only needed to speak about his passion for the nonprofit and the good it was accomplishing in the community. I promised to pick up the conversation once he was finished, to handle the request for funding and how best to follow-up. Luckily he trusted me and our meeting went very well. Together, we lined the nonprofit up for a six figure donation, which was ultimately received.

In this way, I acted as a bridge between the nonprofit and the prospective donor, but also between my distinguished volunteer and the trust department staff. I understood intuitively that in order to get this critical job done, we had to build a few bridges before arriving at the desired destination.

There is another factor I have discovered in working with major gift donors and nonprofit organizations seeking support, one that reminds me of being a “bridge.” This concerns the donors themselves.

Nonprofit staff (and the general public) sometimes assume that sophisticated, affluent donors are experts in every topic under the sun. But the truth is, they are experts in the fields where they have excelled and thrived. This may or may not include understanding how your nonprofit works and what it is accomplishing (or what it hopes to accomplish).

Nonprofit development staff can be of invaluable help by translating organizational information to donors and prospective donors in an easy-to-understand fashion, and vice versa. Yes, sometimes translating the donor’s needs and perceptions to fellow staff is required. This enables you to continue forward with a successful partnership negotiation, for example.

Development professionals are indispensable links between their organizations and funding partners. This often takes both verbal and written forms, as the case may be. Development staff must be able to translate in an understandable fashion critical information, and in both directions: internally and externally. This is truly an essential role that should not be taken for granted!

Understanding Prospective Donors

  • Lila MacLellen wrote for Quartz, “Science Confirms Rich People Don’t Really Notice You – Or Your Problems” (October 23, 2016). “No one can pay attention to everything they encounter. We simply do not have enough time or mental capacity for it. Most of us, though, do make an effort to acknowledge our fellow humans. Wealth, it seems, might change that.”
  • For me, Taylor Shea’s article for Reader’s Digest nails my experiences with affluent donors, “How Rich People Think: 25+ Things They Won’t Tell You” (N.D.). “Anytime the newspaper lists my name among the 100 top-paid executives in the area, I get a ton of requests from people asking for money. It happened so much that I had to come up with a strategy to deal with it. Now I say, ‘I’m happy to give. I’ll match however much you raise yourself.’”
  • From The Wealthy Accountant, “5 Things Rich People Do That You Don’t” (August 3, 2016). “Wealthy people have vision. They know where they are, where they are going, and how they will get there.”

Some of you might also enjoy my article, “Ph.D.s and Fundraising.” There I discuss the pitfalls of working with very bright programmatic staff who are hopeless when it comes to explaining what they are accomplishing to the public and/or to donors. I’ve been a “bridge” for many years; I find Ph.D.s to be among the most difficult to work with in a development context (although I find their research and discoveries fascinating).

You and the Donor

I have wanted to discuss this topic for a long time, but I have struggled with how best to go about it. I have not known a nonprofit support organization to tackle this topic in a realistic way, yet it is especially important for new staff, especially those in development. I do think some acknowledgement by leaders in our sector would be helpful, as would developing some “mindset” training into our industry’s regular regimen of educational conferences.

When I obtained my first nonprofit position, I bonded with the organization, its image and mission totally. To my mind, we were inseparably linked. The two did not exist apart from one another! I was young, learning at a fast pace, and I absolutely loved the organization. It felt like a perfect fit.

You and the donor.

Four years later, two supervisory changes and a decline in our local economic climate meant I had become frustrated. I started looking for a new position. Eventually I moved on (and up) with my career. But mentally, this was a tough change. My entire self worth was bonded to the nonprofit; once I departed, I felt adrift. I had also gotten to know many of the leading donors and volunteers as well. They felt like family. But I had to learn how to separate myself from that environment and those closely associated with it, and to “let go.”

Now, it is true that some of those same philanthropists are friends and professional colleagues today, more than twenty five years later. But the pain of leaving my first nonprofit family and friends was hard. But something important happened. I underwent a crucial mental change.

  • I acknowledged I had to move on for my own reasons;
  • I realized those donors still loved the nonprofit I was leaving (even though I no longer did);
  • I acknowledged that I should respect that loyalty (how could they get along without me?); and
  • I looked ahead, recognizing that it was entirely possible I would interact with my former nonprofit donors in future jobs.

Those realizations marked a significant change in attitude and helped me succeed in my future positions. The moment this shift occurred, it became possible for me to be friends with many of the philanthropists with whom I worked over the years in the sense we became comfortable talking about philanthropy more broadly, we shared general advice and personal life experiences. Mutual respect had been established. “Letting go” was a mature step forward that I needed to take.

Which is to say, nonprofit development professionals are not the sole spokespersons for the organizations with which they work. Directors, program officers, curators and even groundskeepers have their own relationships. Regrettably, I have experienced intense jealousy by other staff members when they see how comfortable I am with donors. Some have attempted to get rid of me entirely, feeling there is too much competition! But in truth, I have mentally separated myself in such a way that I fully understand the nonprofit with which I am currently working will go on long after I am gone. If I can make appropriate connections to benefit the project at hand, I definitely will. But I do not “own” any donor. The decision to become involved and to donate is entirely theirs.

Some staff can see you as a threat to their own (self) appointed position as, “the best friend of the donor.” I have discovered this with executive directors and department heads, for example. But I urge you, regardless and for your own well being, separate yourself from the organization mentally. You have your own life and are a person of value without or without the nonprofit.

Represent your organization in an absolutely first class fashion 24-7, even when you are not working. But also, step out of the picture if you become uncomfortable. I have discovered donors and volunteers (and the nonprofit organization) will appreciate you more if you follow this advice, and you will earn their trust for a lifetime.

Notes and Thoughts

  • Nonprofit work can inspire a stronger emotional attachment psychologically than corporate work, at least in my experience. This is especially true with those new to the nonprofit sector and in my case, with younger, inexperienced staff members. The organization’s leadership should be mindful of this dimension of their work and be sensitive to it. Today, employees change jobs fairly frequently and if you can part ways in a civil fashion, giving the less experienced staff a positive boost as they march out the door, everyone will be better off. That can be a tough assignment, but I believe it is a worthy one.
  • The Donor Relations Guru has posted a thoughtful article I enjoyed, “Team Player or Individual Contributor?” (April, 2017). I admit, I like the point of view conveyed. “They say in fundraising there’s an 80/20 rule, that 80% of the money comes from 20% of the donors. I have my own 80/20 rule for working and implementation and its one that may strike home for you too. 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the employees.” I have been hired a few times to do work the staff either tried to do and failed, or refused to do at all. I have also been hired to achieve “the impossible,” only to have other staff take my laurels when I am done with my work. I sometimes say in my mind, “if you could have done the job without me, why didn’t you?” I often wonder why these kinds of employees retain their jobs, but they always seem to.
  • Founder’s Syndrome is something I have encountered occasionally in my work over the years. Here is an article by Jeff Jowdy for NonProfitPRO (2013), “9 Ways for Nonprofits to Overcome ‘Founder’s Syndrome’.” Founder’s Syndrome is a bit more dangerous phenomenon than youthful attachment to an organization. “Founder’s Syndrome can be particularly devastating to fundraising. If a founder is not open to increased accountability as an organization grows, donors will become increasingly suspicious and may eventually flee.” This is where my personal “rub” has occurred in the past, when an Executive Director becomes threatened and unnecessarily jealous of my contacts and fundraising success. I have learned to step back, and if a resolution cannot be reached – despite my being the primary tie to the donors – I have removed myself from the situation. And a few times, the donors have gotten upset with me. But truly, I had no choice.
  • You might enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian, “Beware the Gravitational Pull of Mediocrity” (2015). Sometimes when people strive for excellence, organizational strife can result. Innovators can be viewed as dangerous! And sometimes, the one achieving excellence can be seen as a threat, and they may ultimately be pushed out. I have also seen mediocre employees remain on staff at nonprofit organizations, and for decades. They are neither terrible at their jobs, nor excellent. Go figure. Personally, I think mediocrity is an underappreciated survival skill.
  • Jennifer Verdolin Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today, “Is It Only Natural for Us to Be Jealous?” (2014). “We humans not only have the tendency to become jealous over imagined threats, we also don’t often seem to take into account the ‘cost’ of certain behaviors.” I think educational programming for development professionals on dealing with jealousy would be an excellent idea.

Giving Thanks for Diversity

“God did not burden the United States with a diversity of backgrounds, ideas and religions, He blessed America with them.”

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (b. 1944)

This post was written at Thanksgiving 2016. I have continued to update it as new information becomes available. I find the message to be timeless and increasingly important to America and the world.

My hope is that all citizens of the United States will see diversity as a blessing. Recent years have been tumultuous for ethnic groups across America and the world. Tolerance seems to have taken a backseat to misunderstanding, irrational fear, emotional outbursts and occasional violence.

Among the many nonprofit organizations for which I have worked, those focusing on the environment have taught me that human beings are no different from other animals in the sense that they have developed physically in unique and interesting ways over tens of thousands of years.

Yet oddly enough, while we are endlessly fascinated by the physical diversity found in birds, mammals, fish and the like, when it comes to our own human species some of us are intolerant of those who look and behave differently from our own group. We sometimes fear those who hold religious beliefs dissimilar from our own, and those who maintain cultural traditions we do not understand.

“If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”

Ronald Reagan, American president (1911-2004)

During SXSW a few years ago, I attended a series of sessions on Tech Inclusion. Hosted by Galvanize and the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings Initiative, panel discussions began early on a Sunday morning in downtown Austin at the then-new offices of Atlassian, and continued all day long. I learned about the challenges LGBTQIA citizens have securing and holding “regular” corporate jobs, about common issues military veterans re-entering the workforce face, how underrepresented minorities struggle in the workplace with the simplest accommodations and general perceptions, as do older generations and women in the workplace.

After listening for several hours of well-considered discussion and dialogue, I felt these Tech Inclusion presentations should be televised and made available to a much broader audience. Not only the tech industry but every industry – and the general populace – would benefit.

I was raised to be tolerant. Figuratively speaking, we were urged as children to, “step into the shoes” of others and try to see the world from their point of view before speaking and acting on often misleading initial impressions. That was a powerful learning experience and one more people need to experience at an early age. From Psychology Today, “It is often easier to have empathy for someone who is like us but it is possible to learn empathy for those who are different from us. This kind of understanding, according to Reiss, can cross bridges and promote positive social behavior. Maybe we could use a little more empathy in our world.”

“We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community – and this nation.”

Cesar Chavez, American activist (1927-1993)

Media and Nonprofits | A Worthwhile Partnership

For years, I immersed myself in nonprofit fundraising, paying relatively little attention to attracting the media to my projects. There never seemed to be enough time to do anything other than organize my campaigns, identify and solicit donors.

But as time moves forward, I have come to appreciate how media can help nonprofit organizations attract public attention to their good work, and lend credibility to their causes. Media coverage is something nonprofits can brag about. But one must consider how best to go about obtaining it.

When I moved to San Antonio in 2010, I became a regular attendee of Social Media Breakfast. There I met people from all walks of life attempting innovative approaches to advertising and to gaining media attention using social media. Everyone involved believed heartily that media attention was integral to the success of their ventures. And I learned a great deal (thank you, Jennifer Navarrete).

Karen Addis, APR wrote for GuideStar, “Breaking Through the Noise: How to Get Media Attention for Your Nonprofit” (July 8, 2013). She states the quandary well:

When it comes to pitching your organization to the media you are at a distinct advantage because everyone, including the media, loves a good story. That’s where nonprofits shine; they are never at a loss for powerful stories. The challenge, however, comes in getting a reporter’s attention for a story that often is not breaking news. In today’s competitive media market with fewer reporters to target that is becoming increasingly difficult.

In an article, “Three Steps to Better Media Coverage” Nancy E. Schwartz once noted that one can outsource media work, but the best is done “in house.”

Although media responsibilities are frequently outsourced to an agency or consultant(s), that’s not a must. …If possible, it’s best for a staff person to develop relationships with key media contacts. You and your colleagues are the subject experts and must be prepared to work directly with the press to ensure powerful, accurate coverage.

Nancy also provides helpful information you will want to read about crafting press releases.

Kathryn Hall discusses a contemporary approach to gaining media attention for npENGAGE in, “Five Way to Ensure Your Event Makes Headline News” (August 23, 2013).

The traditional press release has been eclipsed in the modern news cycle. Instead, we want to make it as easy as possible for journalists to see the news potential of your piece, and give a head start on writing the story you hope they will write. Include the following key items to make it easier for a reporter or blogger to develop your story into a feature, and increase the likelihood of it getting picked up.

Those items include direct quotes from “in the know” sources, original quotes that make your story read like news, and photos. “Great photos can help ensure your story gets picked up.”

Here in Austin, I have enjoyed attending a few gatherings of PR Over Coffee, a Meetup that focuses on how to gain the attention of media in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. Guest speakers include veterans of the media who disclose how they work (and they are not all alike, mind you), what they prefer in terms of communication, and other helpful tips for gaining attention.

A sometimes troublesome issue for nonprofits is the increasingly visual nature of communications combined with the failure of the email servers of the media outlets (barraged with email), to accept large image files as email attachments. One of the best ideas I have heard comes from Jan Buchholz of the Austin Business Journal: upload your images to a cloud storage platform, and provide a link to the image files in your email inquiry. Yes, reporters respond to visual imagery. Many of them are also confounded about how to develop meaningful stories without strong visual imagery.

iPhone photo by Carolyn.

Help A Reporter Out is a free online database that pairs media representatives with people who have information to share. I urge nonprofits to sign-up to become “subject matter experts.”

Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is the most popular sourcing service in the English-speaking world, connecting journalists with relevant expert sources to meet journalists’ demanding deadlines and enable brands to tell their stories. HARO distributes more than 50,000 journalist queries from highly respected media outlets each year.

I am on the HARO list and I have shared requests for information with my nonprofit colleagues, when I spot a reporter in need of an expertise the nonprofit can provide. I do hope the nonprofit sector as a whole will become more engaged with the media via the impressive HARO platform.

Kerri Karvetski wrote for Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog a humorous but genuinely insightful way to gain attention for your nonprofit cause through “newsjacking,” “Nonprofits @ the Oscars: How to Photobomb, Newsjack and Steal the Spotlight at the Academy Awards” (February 11, 2016).

Think you can’t connect with the Oscars? Let’s look at the issues explored in this year’s nominees: The Big Short -Financial reform; Bridge of Spies – Right to fair trial; Brooklyn – Immigration; Mad Max: Fury Road – Women’s rights (click to read for more ideas)

Yes, I have been known to “newsjack” for a good cause. You might consider polite “newsjacking” for other highly visible events with a strong online presence.

Before closing, here are a few thoughts about what I call “media stewardship.”

When you secure media coverage, do you thank the reporter by contacting them directly, and by following them on social media? Why not create a separate media coverage page on your website where you can thank the media for its attention to your good work, and list links to their individual stories – whether they be video interviews or write-ups – so your nonprofit website is linked to theirs, and they are recognized for their coverage. To create your media page and manage it over time, consider creating your own Google news alert. You will sometimes discover news stories have appeared, but the staff of your nonprofit may be unaware of them. The regular alerts help you keep track, so you never miss another one!

Additional Resources

This post was written in 2016. As I find more recent information that could be helpful, I will continue to share it here. Most recent articles are posted first.

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