Assumptions!

August Rodin
This sculpture came to mind when I began writing this blog post urging my readers to think carefully about nonprofit fundraising. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I am as guilty as anyone of assuming everyone knows about and understands what is involved in philanthropy and fundraising. But the truth is, most people are not well informed.

I wanted to share a few of my favorite assumptions – or infamous assumptions as the case may be – in the hope you will avoid them.

“It would be great for our nonprofit if you would agree to be paid a percentage of what you raise.”

Doing so is considered unethical by every professional nonprofit support organization and association today. It seems like a marvelous idea to some nonprofits not to pay their professional fundraiser(s) until the money comes in, despite the outlay of their time, experience, connections and personal finances. And if the fundraiser does not know the history of the organization and its prior challenges, they can be blind sighted when seeking charitable donations. In the drop-down menu of this blog (at the top), you will find a section of ethical resources that will help you steer clear of this unethical assumption. I also want to say to the uninitiated – those new to nonprofit fundraising – don’t feel bad. People ask me about percentage-based fundraising weekly, particularly those from the for-profit sector. Just do your research before you ask.

“We raised the money and we no longer need a fundraising professional on staff. Done!”

How sad I have been to invite some of my most cherished donors to support a project, to have raised substantial sums, and to be told the nonprofit no longer needs help at the end of the fund drive. The donors often feel adrift when this happens, and they question both the nonprofit for such short-sighted decisions, and sadly, the successful fundraiser. In other words, the very person responsible for your financial success is kicked out. Those who could not do the job remain on staff. The logic of this assumption is questionable. Some nonprofits are also unaware that after building tremendous energy and enthusiasm for a cause, they can frequently keep on going and raise even more. Missed opportunities abound in these cases.

“The economy is in terrible shape and we should stop fundraising!”

This is a tough decision to be sure, and it should be considered thoughtfully. I have seen more than one persistent nonprofit with calm and determined leadership attain their seven-figure fundraising goals during very difficult financial times. I have also seen donors one thought would be gun-shy of tanking stock markets, make extraordinary leadership donations. One of my favorite foundation executives, the late Valleau Wilkie Jr. of Fort Worth, Texas once said to me, “if you get out of line, there will be dozens of other nonprofits stepping in to take your place.” Keep going.

“We must read the news to find donors for our project.”

More than once, I have visited with nonprofit Board members convinced someone in the news not affiliated in any way with their nonprofit is a natural candidate for solicitation. But most are not. Research online is essential to gain as much background information as you can about prospective donors. But simply because someone appears in the news often (and they appear to be “rich”), this does not qualify them to be your donor. If you read my article on high tech research, you will understand how sophisticated research can be game-changing, if and when you need it. But also, take time to review your own donor records, mailing and email lists. I have found “hidden gems” in those lists often, people well worth cultivating who have been receiving information from your nonprofit over time, but who have never been cultivated for a larger gift. One organization I worked with turned a $25 annual membership into a $5 million donation, for instance. Dig deeper.

“We have tried and tried. These prospects will not give. Don’t bother.”

This is a favorite. I have visited with prospective donors prior to submitting a grant request, discovered an issue about which they are concerned, addressed that issue head-on (often it is simply an honest report about prior activities, and the resumption of regular communications), and I have secured a grant. Sometimes, I have expedited more than one grant from the same source within a single fiscal year. But other staff members were vehemently convinced I was wasting my time. Never say never.

I have a positive, can-do attitude when it comes to nonprofit fundraising. I have seen the worst and turned around several “impossible” campaigns (by hand). The advice I share comes from, “the trenches.” While my two college degrees helped me learn how to conduct research, develop a convincing argument and write coherently, real life experience provided these insights. For those new to the profession, I suggest you attach yourselves to a seasoned professional as I did at the start, to gain more in-depth knowledge along these lines.

And I urge you not to fear challenges. If you believe in a cause but there are problems, fix them and raise the money you need. Think smarter. Anything is possible.

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

Meeting of Three

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.

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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.

Nonprofit Fundraisers’ Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights
Click to reach ethical fundraising resources from the National Council of Nonprofits.

I have been a respectful adherent of the Donor Bill of Rights since entering the field of nonprofit fundraising back in the 1980s. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) notes:

“Philanthropy is based on voluntary action for the common good. It is a tradition of giving and sharing that is primary to the quality of life. To ensure that philanthropy merits the respect and trust of the general public, and that donors and prospective donors can have full confidence in the nonprofit organizations and causes they are asked to support, we declare that all donors have these rights.”

But after many years working in the trenches of nonprofit fundraising, I believe a Nonprofit Fundraisers’ Bill of Rights is also in order.

Nonprofit Fundraisers

Below, I have listed the Donor Bill of Rights along with commentary about the nonprofit fundraiser’s point of view and “rights.”

I. To be informed of the organization’s mission, of the way the organization intends to use donated resources, and of its capacity to use donations effectively for their intended purposes.

Nonprofit development staff are sometimes asked to solicit donations but over time, they may discover the funds they solicited are not being used as originally discussed. The nonprofit may be unable to effectively carry out the project as intended.

Development staff can be tremendous allies in this situation. They should be informed and given the opportunity to translate changes to the donors they solicited, thereby ensuring an honest relationship and retaining personal, professional and organizational integrity.

Sometimes nonprofit organizations fear a negative reaction from donors if a change of direction with an important project is necessary. But I have found if changes and challenges are aired in a forthright manner, donors appreciate the candor and often continue to give more.

II. To be informed of the identity of those serving on the organization’s governing board, and to expect the board to exercise prudent judgment in its stewardship responsibilities.

This is good protection for fundraising professionals as well. Development professionals need to be able to learn about, meet and interact with those serving on the Board in order to function properly in their jobs. But sometimes senior executives prevent interaction between development professionals and staff and Board members. This is a mistake.

Most Board members welcome the advice and support of development staff. If they do not interact, problems may ensue. Development professionals are donor advocates and allies. When allowed to do their job properly, the better the reputation of the nonprofit, its Board, and each and every donor with whom they work.

I once heard a foundation staff member arrogantly proclaim they would only be “friends” with donors, not “development officers,” as if being a development officer is a lowly office. Beware: oftentimes the development officer is one of the most knowledgeable staff members at the nonprofit organization, one who cares about the organization’s donors the most. They will fight for you if you allow them to do so.

III. To have access to the organization’s most recent financial statements.

Not only should nonprofit development staff have access to Form 990s – which today one can find readily on GuideStar – they should be encouraged to review those financial documents and to become knowledgeable about them. As donors and professional advisors become more savvy (and discerning), being armed with this knowledge is essential to functioning properly on the job.

I have a case study on GuideStar that addresses this very topic.

IV. To be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.

Similar to the first tenet discussed, development staff should be informed if a donation is not being used for its intended purpose. Sometimes, program staff and others in positions of leadership fail to share changes with the development department. Nonprofit fundraisers should be given the opportunity to discuss any changes in terms of the project(s) funded with the donor(s) they solicited originally.

V. To receive appropriate acknowledgement and recognition.

Once a grant or gift has been awarded, and if the donor does not require anonymity, then appropriate recognition should be given in project materials and organizational publications (online and hard copy). Verbal recognition and acknowledgement on social media can also be meaningful.

Those of us in the nonprofit sector know it is often the case that volunteers help open doors and solicit gifts from individuals, families, foundations, corporations and government agencies. They deserve recognition and thanks for their efforts. But sometimes it a fundraising professional on staff who has conducted the research necessary to identify donors, and they are the one who has made the all-important introduction, and secured the gift.

Hard work and successful staff achievements should be acknowledged and recognized by nonprofit administrators and members of the Board. Yes, volunteers need and deserve recognition, but don’t forget the development staff. Retention of quality development staff is one of our sector’s greatest challenges. Although reserved when it comes to religious opinions, I like this quote by Joel Osteen:

“Praise is powerful. Praise will break chains, turn problems around and defeat enemies. Praise will give you the victory.”

VI. To be assured that information about donations are handled with respect and with confidentiality to the extent provided by law.

Sometimes development staff are not kept in the “loop” when donations are announced by organizational representatives verbally, online or in print. Fundraising staff must guide the announcement process and help the nonprofit they represent maintain the wishes of each donor regarding confidentiality, proper name spelling, announcement timing and the like.

Sometimes, marketing and public information specialists chafe when partnering with development staff. I have noted one concern is they perceive their work to be “pure” – they seek to represent the institution factually to the public and to the media, and they do not wish to be “tainted” by discussing donors. But nonprofits survive by securing charitable donations, and these two staff functions must work together harmoniously.

VII. To expect that all relationships with individuals representing organizations of interest to the donor will be professional in nature.

This tenet is also true for nonprofit fundraisers. Development staff should not feel that in order to cultivate a donor relationship they must run personal errands for donors, become a personal driver or shopper, or conduct other business unrelated to the nonprofit organization and its mission.

Should a donor or prospect become verbally abusive or make improper advances, development staff should be encouraged to report such activity to their superiors, and they should expect to be protected. They should not fear being fired.

Nonprofits are hungry for charitable donations, but we as a sector must retain integrity. Nonprofit organizations should not allow improper behavior by donors or potential donors because they are desperate for funding. Of course, handling delicate situations diplomatically is essential.

VIII. To be fully informed regarding who is responsible for securing donations, whether they be volunteers, fellow employees of the organization or hired solicitors.

Nonprofit development staff may be assigned other tasks while volunteers and/or consultants assume the task of soliciting donations for special projects. A clear delineation of duties and assignments is essential. All must work together and avoid competing needlessly. Transparency across roles and teams is essential for the organization to succeed in its fundraising activities.

Yes, I have witnessed nonprofit staff attempting to sabotage the work of well meaning fundraising consultants. The reasons for this are many, from personal jealousy to sincerely believing the reason for hiring a consultant was wrong. The potential for harmful interference must be anticipated and monitored. Reduce anxiety by making sure everyone on the team understands what is going on, and why.

IX. To have the opportunity for their names to be deleted from mailing lists that an organization may intend to share.

Separate divisions of nonprofit organizations sometimes maintain their own mailing lists. To ensure compliance with donor wishes and confidentiality, development staff should also be encouraged to review the mailing lists of divisions other than their own and to request changes as necessary. This is what we call today, “breaking down silos.”

It is also true that the use of emailing platforms like Constant Contact, iContact, MailChimp, Emma and the like provide the opportunity for anyone on a mailing list to remove themselves immediately. This helps nonprofits comply with the federal CAN-SPAM Act. Knowledge of the Act should be standard for any nonprofit fundraiser.

X. To feel free to ask questions when making a donation and to receive prompt, truthful and forthright answers.

It goes without saying, to represent a nonprofit to the public and to respond to donor and potential donor inquiries, development staff must ask questions of fellow staff in order to fully understand the current status of activities that have been underwritten by donors. Nonprofit leaders should encourage those inquiries.

My experience is the public is not aware that development staff are often as knowledgeable about the inner workings of their nonprofits as the director, senior program officers, and members of the Board. Anyone who researches and writes grants knows a comprehensive knowledge of the nonprofit is required to achieve success. Development staff are not just hired to be “nice” to donors and to organize parties. Their work is essential to the survival of the nonprofit, and to do it well requires in-depth knowledge and commitment.

#Respect

This article was originally a blog post published in 2014. I decided to update and make it available from my main menu.