Research and Writing | Ideal Tasks While Working from Home

Read a Little Every Day!
This image was used in my PowerPoint for Qgiv on prospect research. See the YouTube recording below.

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 work space. 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 “germ-free,” quiet, and my “desk” is located not far from the coffee pot and refrigerator. For me, this is the perfect work environment. Don’t tell: I get more work done, I work longer hours than required, and I am healthier and happier overall. 

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.

Carolyn's Prospect Research Talks
See the links in this post to watch and learn more.

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, and you might enjoy watching the recordings. The first was for Qgiv (below).

The second talk had more of a Texas slant and was designed for NTEN & NetSquared Nonprofit Tech Club Austin. It can be found by following this link. The recording and the slide deck are both downloadable from that page.

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.

Rolls Royce
Rolls Royce is known as one of the finest automobile brands in the world. The high standards for which it is known remind me of those also expected of major gift fundraising professionals.

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!

Notes

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.”

 

Best of the Old and New

Click to read about the Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival.
Click to read about the Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival.

Attending the 24th Annual Austin Powwow in November, 2015 was an amazing experience. I was excited to learn about the organization, Great Promise for American Indians.

The mission of Great Promise for American Indians is to preserve the traditions, heritage and culture of American Indians, and to support the health and education needs of their youth and families. We do this to honor the past, and to ensure the future.

I urge you to review the website and consider supporting Great Promise! Follow this link to see Carolyn’s Tumblr and my photo essay about the Powwow (which also includes a few Instagram video links).

The mission statement above brings to mind a concept I hold true in my own profession: nonprofit fundraising professionals should both honor the past – traditional, proven methods of educating, cultivating, soliciting and stewarding relationships with donors – while also adopting new methods. In this way, we will ensure a sustainable future for the nonprofit organizations we support.

The iPhone photograph above features a striking Indian in colorful formal dress using a mobile phone to photograph the traditional dances taking place on the floor below. He summarizes well the theme of this post!

npENGAGE noted in, “5 Ways Technology Will Shape the Nonprofit Sector” back in 2014 (and still true today), “Think back even five years ago, ten years ago – how different is the nonprofit landscape now compared to then? It’s pretty dramatic.” Follow the link to read about the five trends: mobile, analytics, software, cloud and social media.

In, “Enhacing Your Major Gift Fundraising Strategy with Analytics” by Carol Belair (August, 2015), she wisely notes,

“Growing a relationship over time with newly identified prospects is key to developing or enhancing major gifts programs or initiatives. Keep in mind that even though an analytics project may identify a new crop of prospects able and willing to give more significant gifts to your organization, the scores themselves don’t guarantee that you will raise a particular amount of money or that individuals will give you a more significant donation.”

One of my earliest posts focuses on using “high tech” research methods to identify major gift prospects. I consider those methods to be invaluable. I have seen firsthand how major gift campaigns that at first appeared to lack an adequate number of prospective donors, suddenly have a dearth of them once proper research was conducted.

The best of both worlds when it comes to major gift fundraising includes detailed research and analysis using the latest technologies, combined with traditional methods of education, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, all with genuine caring and thoughtfulness on the part of the development professionals involved.

But the nonprofit sector still has work to do when it comes to marrying traditional and modern approaches to fundraising and communication. Nonprofits generally fail to engage current and potential donors using social media, for instance.

The New Hampshire Business Review notes in, “Charities Don’t Make the Grade on Social Media Scorecard” (October, 2015):

“’While the overwhelming majority of organizations are on social media and do a good job of posting regularly, very few use these channels to genuinely engage with their constituents,’ said Rick Dunham, president and CEO of Dunham+Company, a consulting firm specializing in nonprofit fundraising and marketing. ‘Charities generally use social media channels to advertise events or as a ‘billboard,’ but rarely do they use them as a way to engage donors in conversation. This will be important to remember as we approach the holiday giving season.'”

One of the prevailing themes of Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog is that high net worth households own more digital devices than the general population, and they are highly active on social media. They conduct business and spend their leisure time using a variety of convenient mobile devices. It makes sense for nonprofits to use these tools to communicate with and engage those capable of making significant charitable donations.

Pew Research Center notes in, “U.S. Technology Device Ownership: 2015” (October, 2015):

“… Device usage has notable social and cultural implications, and there are sometimes important political and macroeconomic consequences to the way people use their gadgets. For instance, every major media industry – those built around video, audio and text – has been disrupted by these devices.”

Some fundraising professionals remain focused entirely on less modern methods in major gift fundraising. And, I have taken the “heat” for my blended approach on more than one occasion.

But the fundraising profession is changing. My discovery is simply this: one person can accomplish a great deal when armed with the proper technology, software, and positive mental attitude. Sometimes one person can accomplish as much or more than several major gift professionals and/or consultants. This is a trend worth watching, and a situation of not only adapting to change, but embracing it for a more sustainable, efficient and effective future.

GuideStar: Invaluable Nonprofit Resource

Click to reach GuideStar.
Advanced research can help prevent mistakes when approaching a foundation. It is also true that many donors (and their professional advisors) use GuideStar to review nonprofits for potential funding. Click to reach GuideStar.

“If you care about nonprofits and the work they do, then you’re affected by what GuideStar does. Here at GuideStar we gather and disseminate information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization. We provide as much information as we can about each nonprofit’s mission, legitimacy, impact, reputation, finances, programs, transparency, governance, and so much more. We do that so you can take the information and make the best decisions possible.”

In 2013, I was asked by GuideStar to share my experiences using its database. Here are links to two case studies:

Today, the first resource I consult when researching a potential donor is GuideStar. Surprised?

Not only does GuideStar provide information about nonprofit organizations in the traditional sense, but you can also find information about donors like private foundations that are themselves nonprofit.

There is an ocean of data about nonprofit donors on GuideStar!
There is an ocean of data about nonprofit donors on GuideStar!

Among my favorite resources are the tax returns. Sometimes even the best online and printed foundation directories do not reveal the current state of a foundation. By reviewing their tax returns in GuideStar, you can discover who is currently serving on a foundation’s board of directors (and who is serving in what positions of leadership); you can find new contact information for the foundation (and sometimes, individual trustees); you can learn the latest projects funded (and sometimes foundations can change their funding focus areas without notice); you can discover the amounts of the grants awarded (thereby indicating the level of potential interest in your perhaps similar project);  and more.

Try the “advanced search” function on GuideStar, and you can discover such things as every museum in the state of Texas (and you can sort by budget size), or, every human services nonprofit in the state of Virginia, for instance.

GuideStar Data at a Glance

1.8 million IRS-recognized tax-exempt organizations
5.4 million Form 990 images
3.2 million digitized Form 990 records
6.6 million individuals in the nonprofit sector

For me, the printed and online foundation directories are excellent resources for honing-down generally on prospective donors I want to research. But the truth is, the tax returns tell a more exact story about their current circumstances.

There are other research resources that provide general assistance in this regard, among them The Foundation Center’s “Foundation Finder,” and the National Center for Charitable Statistics. I personally find GuideStar to be the most accessible, and I like the added benefits of its GuideStar Exchange Program, the GuideStar blogs, and the ability of individuals to review nonprofits via GreatNonprofits (your reviews are linked to the organization’s GuideStar profile). In fact, you can click on this link to find my “ongoing” GreatNonprofits reviews.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg! I urge you to explore GuideStar’s website to discover all the helpful information and resources it provides. And my hearty thanks goes to GuideStar for featuring my two case studies. I hope you will take the time to read and enjoy them!

Best wishes for your fundraising success,

Carolyn M. Appleton

Twitter notes ....
Twitter notes …