It makes sense that donors would conduct research on nonprofit organizations prior to making charitable donations. Those nonprofits with large operational budgets, those in existence a long time with numerous Form 990 tax returns and professional audits conducted, with well-known individuals serving on the Board logically inspire confidence and larger donations.
But do those factors actually mean the nonprofit is effective or efficient at meeting its mission? Sometimes.
I would argue smaller nonprofits – the majority of all nonprofits – are often more effective and worthy of meaningful charitable donations. Many of them operate almost entirely with “volunteer” staff. They achieve more through efficient volunteer management and incredible drive and initiative. They take their mission statements very seriously. They are also quite good at securing in-kind donations of equipment and discounts on goods and services.
“The majority of nonprofits (66.3%) have annual budgets of less than $1 million. From there, as organization size increases, the number of nonprofits decreases. For every 1 powerhouse (annual expenses more than $5 billion) nonprofit, there are thousands of grassroots organizations.”
Follow the link above to view an impressive statistical chart.
What this means, however, is when donors and professional advisors conduct objective reviews of GuideStar profiles and tax returns, those somewhat intangible “commitment” factors are not evident. Hard budgets and data tell one story, but daily life with the nonprofit may tell another.
Smaller nonprofits can even the score and overcome this budgetary approach to evaluation to some degree. They would be wise to encourage volunteers and clients to write testimonials about how effective and reputable they are, and share those on social media and on the nonprofit’s website. GreatNonprofits is one helpful source, especially as it is linked to GuideStar. But also, many preset website templates include testimonial functions, if you choose to add them.
Volunteer hours also matter. I find it sometimes hard to get nonprofits to track volunteer hours. They have come to believe everyone should give of their time and talents without expecting compensation or credit of any kind: modesty is expected. But the truth is, in this era of data collection and evaluation, nonprofits need to be more savvy and track and share those hours.
Independent Sector notes, “Volunteers in the United States hold up the foundation of civil society. They help their neighbors, serve their communities, and provide their expertise. No matter what kind of volunteer work they do, they are contributing in invaluable ways.” Nationally this year, the value of a volunteer hour is $28.54. In Texas, the value is $26.43. To download a report of volunteer activity and values across the United States, follow this link.
Hence, if you measure the hours worked by your volunteers, not only will you be able to reward stellar volunteers, you can share the value of the volunteer hours “worked” on your website, on social media, in annual reports and with prospective donors who may give more based upon those impressive figures. Once you multiply the number of hours worked times the value of a volunteer hour, the tally is often impressive and can help philanthropists and professional advisors gain a better sense of your effectiveness and merit.
I would question the frequent request by potential funders for professional annual audits as well. Would a formal opinion by a reputable accountant or accounting firm be as helpful? Professional audits are expensive and small nonprofits are often unable to afford them, in my experience. There are other ways to gauge the financial effectiveness of nonprofits. If they simply take the time to hire an outside, objective professional accountant or accounting firm, and submit annual tax returns, that says a lot about them.
To donors and professional advisors I would suggest, look more closely at the nonprofits seeking funding. Helping a smaller yet deeply committed nonprofit succeed can be more fulfilling than funding one where you are one of a cast of hundreds or thousands of other contributors. Smaller nonprofits and their volunteers often work harder, they are more resourceful and dedicated. They are often more entrepreneurial in spirit and achieve more with less.
I have worked from my home office since 2014. Austin has been for many years a fast growing metropolis. Its heavy road traffic made commuting to and from my nonprofit project’s office back then a lengthy and stressful burden. And because that project focused on K-12 sustainability education, the concept of working from home was appreciated and readily adopted.
It was then that I began working collaboratively in the “cloud,” researching prospective partners and writing grant proposals, uploading them to the cloud for review by our Executive Director. Fine tuning continued until the time was right to hit, “submit.” Social media writing, posting and management was easily and better done from a quiet, distraction-free workspace. One weekly meeting in person in our office was part of the regimen, but that is all.
Hence, with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 and “stay-at-home” restrictions, nothing has changed for me. I have continued to work smoothly and efficiently from home where it is relatively quiet, and my desk (kitchen countertop) is located not far from the coffee pot and refrigerator. For me, this is the perfect work environment.
The chagrin expressed by corporate and nonprofit leaders accustomed to working in traditional environments where office employees are housed in the same physical space falls on deaf ears here. I believe it is time to adapt and move to a remote working model for almost everyone, except of course those needing staff to greet and serve visitors in person, to conduct occasional group meetings, and to actually manufacture/produce specific items. But to get comfortable allowing more employees to work from home, society will have to let go of the basic human trait, “seeing is believing.” Our times require greater trust and faith to succeed in a remote working world.
One of the ideal activities I conduct while working from home is research online and grant writing. In April and May 2020, I spoke online to two organizations about research specifically. You can find more about my work on YouTube.
You may also have read my blog post from last March, “Habits of Mind in Challenging Times … And Remote Locations,” where I discuss my work in South Texas during the 2000s with the ranching community. In hindsight, much of what we accomplished seems quite glamorous. Certainly, the donors with whom I worked are still among the leading philanthropists of Texas. But the truth is, the majority of my work was done in a quiet office with few visitors, thinking, researching, organizing, writing and the like.
Major gift fundraising is often wrongly perceived by outsiders. Regardless of the quiet, methodical and hard work involved in successful major gift fundraising, people sometimes think of it as a field where one “hobnobs” with wealthy donors, attends luncheons and galas, and other superficial activities. This false impression can also give rise to jealousy. If they only knew how much “unglamorous” time is actually spent working tirelessly alone on a computer. I would say 95% of my job is actually done in this fashion.
If you are working from home now during COVID-19, this is an excellent time to fine-tune your research and writing skills. As I mentioned during my spring presentations, if you take the time to do this thoughtfully and well, it might turn your organization’s entire fundraising focus upside down, and in a very good and productive way.
I would also suggest that you take the time to learn new skills, including setting up and better managing your social media platforms. Our favorite platforms continue to evolve: learn how they may have changed (be sure to check, “the back end”). If you are already active on social media, now is also an excellent time to clean up (and clean out) old information. Request that your Facebook profile be formally verified by Facebook. Claim and update your GuideStar profile to the gold or platinum seal level. Ask volunteers, clients and board members for testimonials you can share online. Set up an online gift processing platform that provides a variety of options for making charitable donations. Make it easy to give!
Looking sharp online continues to be essential to inspiring trust and to engaging the interest of donors and potential donors in the good work of your nonprofit. And as always, make sure the messages you convey in those carefully-crafted grant proposals are mirrored on your website and on social media. In other words, this stay-at-home time is the perfect time to do some nonprofit “housecleaning.” Dare I say it: the nonprofit sector might actually become smarter and stronger if it deals successfully with the stay-at-home restrictions resulting from COVID-19.
Best wishes for your fundraising success!
For women working in the field of nonprofit development with family care giving responsibilities, I want to acknowledge working from home might be tougher for you. I fully support care giving incentives and entrepreneurial approaches as outlined by Melinda Gates in her article for The Washington Post, “How Rethinking Caregiving Could Play a Crucial Role in Restarting the Economy” (May 7, 2020). We can do this!
Having trouble trusting remote workers? Turns out, remote workers sometimes have trouble trusting their Executive Directors. You might enjoy reading Adam Hickman, Ph.D. and Tonya Fredstrom for Gallup, “How to Build Trust With Remote Employees” (February 7, 2018). “Gallup asked a random sample of more than 10,000 individuals, ‘What leader has the most positive influence in your daily life?’ With that leader in mind, Gallup had the respondents list three words that best describe what the leader they named contributes to their life. The responses sorted into four categories: trust, compassion, stability and hope.”
In 1999, I was recruited to South Texas by a headhunter. My task was to manage a multi-million dollar major gift campaign for three years. By myself.
While there are many affluent landowners and ranch visitors in South Texas, at the time there were relatively few people with major gift experience to work with them. Many of the office support available back then included well meaning but inexperienced staff when it comes to working with major gift donors.
I set up shop with the help of the local Walmart. A spacious rug, floor lamps and an artificial plant gave my office a quiet, comfortable and professional look. Culligan Water installed a hot-and-cold water dispenser. I brought homemade food to work for lunch and kept my office well stocked with coffee, tea and dry soup packets (and a candy jar for visitors). There were mostly fast food outlets in the area back then. However, I would like to put in a good word for the delicious potato-and-egg soft tacos with green salsa that I would sometimes pick up on my way in to the office at a local taco stand. Those were the best, and I still miss them.
With the Internet readily available, I was “good to go.” I came to call my office, “the air traffic control tower.”
The institute for which I was working was mostly privately funded by a foundation, and minimally funded by the local university. I kept wondering – given the stellar board and advisory board members involved with this little institute – why outside consultants said it had no chance of raising major gifts. The institute had paid upwards of $80,000 for a feasibility study and case statement by a consulting firm, all of which were tossed out as being unhelpful. I had my job cut out for me.
On my own for three years, I literally lived on the Internet. I searched online and read from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every work day. My findings yielded not only major gifts for capital and endowment purposes, but also for research projects. I developed habits of mind that involved disciplined, factual research online. Many new donors were brought to the aid of the institute’s work, and many detailed grant proposals were formulated.
I find outsiders to the field of nonprofit development mistakenly perceive people like me are focused on organizing luncheons and “schmoozing” with donors. But the fact is, organizing and managing meetings and events comprises perhaps 5% of my job. Most of my work involves thoughtful research, the development of inspiring case statements, writing and designing communications pieces, developing mailing and emailing lists, grant writing, stewardship and the like. This requires “quiet time” and a focused, detail-oriented mind. For those contemplating development as a career, this paragraph is one of the most important I have ever written for you.
The fine art of nonprofit development – honed in remote locations like South Texas – helped prepare me for other major gift projects involving little or no staffing, and for challenging “work at home” times like the COVID 19 pandemic we are currently experiencing. What I discovered is the Internet is an invaluable nonprofit development resource. I remain glued to it today. There is no such thing as being “bored” when you have the Internet at your fingertips.
Working mostly without additional staff support in prior positions means I have also experimented with technological solutions to accomplish more done with less. When told something is “impossible,” I always believe there is a solution. And I have always found one! I occasionally find traditional fundraisers who still shun technology and social media. But I have found them invaluable components of my major gift activities today.
Tech Clubs Can Help
For the past several years I have been one of the lead volunteers for NTEN & NetSquared Nonprofit Tech Club Austin. My involvement with NTEN began ten years ago when two nonprofit organizations asked me to help identify constituent management software to manage their donor databases. I admit, I was stumped. But I contacted NTEN and was directed to a donor management system review co-sponsored with Idealware. I was so elated by this helpful resource that I became an NTEN fan and volunteer.
A few years later when I relocated to Austin, I agreed to volunteer for #NPTechClubATX. Being involved with the club means today, I have the privilege of meeting similar problem solvers focused on social good, and learning about their innovative solutions. I am hooked.
The mission of Nonprofit Tech Club Austin is to help nonprofits find cost-effective tech solutions and techniques to make their work easier, more secure and efficient. That means for the past several years, we have offered educational programs that involve digital solutions to daunting challenges like being unable to hire extra staff (but needing to get the work done anyway), raising donations easily and creatively online, better managing board meetings, volunteers, accounting functions and more. We are #ready.
Locally, we thank startup hub Capital Factory for its support in this regard. But Zoom and similar video conferencing services can also help. You can learn more about nonprofit discounts at TechSoup.
Here’s wishing you good health, a trustworthy laptop, and a strong Internet connection!
Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog includes many stories about doing more with less and technological solutions for the “remote” worker. If you have questions at any time, please let me know.
Photographs illustrating this post are courtesy of Adobe Spark.
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.
Below, I have listed the Donor Bill of Rights along with commentary from the nonprofit fundraiser’s point of view. I would urge AFP and similar support organizations to develop their own formal statements about the rights of fundraising professionals. In my experience, fundraising is a two-way street, and the devaluation of fundraising professionals within the nonprofit sector – and their too short tenures on the job – is a critically important topic to be addressed.
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 listened to 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 member 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 Candid – they should be encouraged to review those financial documents and to become knowledgeable about them. As donors and professional advisors become savvier (and more discerning), being armed with this knowledge is essential to functioning properly on the job. To read more about the importance of Candid and GuideStar, follow the link to my post, “GuideStar: Invaluable Nonprofit Resource” (2021).
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 learn about and 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.
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 ones who have 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.