Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Taking Stock

School was not a high point in my life. I was, so my teachers always told me, smart, but I didn’t apply myself. Not in the classroom, not in after school activities, certainly not in the homework I was supposed to but never quite get to.

It wasn’t that I was lazy, or even that I didn’t want to do it. Mainly it was that I didn’t know how.

Studying was a complete enigma to me. I’d read the material, think I understood it, and then do poorly on the tests. I did pay attention in class—sort of—but I was painfully shy and so unless I was called on, didn’t participate. My shyness (and for those who know me now and cannot connect Janet and shy in the same sentence—I have overcompensated) also prevented me from joining in after school activities. For starters, I didn’t get that one went after what one wanted; I thought you had to be invited. And, as a shy kid, I was rarely invited anywhere.

I can’t remember exactly what turned the tide for me. I do know that I was long out of college and working on my second or third career before I got any of it. But somewhere along the line, someone convinced me to look back at an experience or span of time, take stock of what happened, and think about how I could have made it all a better experience. Doing that helped me to move forward in getting where I wanted to go.

So, as we head toward the new year, you may want to think back on the past twelve months and consider what you might have done. But don’t get hooked on coulda’, shoulda’, woulda’s. If it’s really done, it’s done. Don’t obsess over what you can’t change. That’s my job. Yours is to think broadly about the work you are paid to do and to think about ways to be more productive, effective and efficient.

Since I write mostly about fundraising, let’s focus on that. If you have a development plan, pull it out—how well did you follow it? If you don’t have a plan, maybe this is the time to begin creating one.

Look seriously and critically at what you’ve been doing and ask yourself: Am I spending my time in the right places?

Do a quick assessment of your development program and your results. (If you want to go more deeply into this than the questions below, send me an email at for a self-assessment tool that will get you on the right track.)

Was all your time this year spent on one event? Or only on writing grants that, by the way, are getting harder and harder to get? Have you incorporated social networking into your annual giving program? Do you even have an annual giving program? Are you approaching individuals—the group that makes up the largest piece of that charitable giving pie?

As you evaluate what you’ve done, start thinking about how you will improve your performance in the coming year. What are the steps you need to take? How do you need to involve your staff, your colleagues, your Board? Do a reality check—do you have the resources to accomplish what you want to? Be honest here. Too often we wring our hands in despair bemoaning our lacks without thinking about what we do have and how we can maximize those assets.

With all this data, write down where you want to be next year at this time. Think about how much you need to raise. How much of that are you sure you can from tried and true methods? What are the new things you need to incorporate (and new can include additional hours spent as well as new methods)? And now—and here it is the real key to success—what is the first step you have to take to put yourself on the right road?

In detail, spell out what you are going to do in January. And make it a habit that each time you accomplish one of those steps, you write out what the next step will be. Then give yourself a deadline. Make yourself a promise: When you slip (and you will) or miss a deadline (and you will), don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you are (a) bad and (b) blew it. Instead, simply set another step or deadline and try as hard as you can to keep to it.

And while you are taking stock, don’t forget to consider all the good things you accomplished. Give yourself (and your colleagues, staff and Board members) a pat on the back for a job well done. Most likely, you deserve it.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Communicate, Evaluate, and Keep Everyone in the Loop

Every so often I send an email to my sister with the subject line: The Whine Report. Then I proceed to bitch and moan about all that is rotten in my life and the world. One thing that would definitely get a headline in The Whine Report is the lack of ability many people seem to have with the word no.

As a friend once told a prospective employer, you won’t have to put me on a suicide watch if the answer is no. I just need closure so I can move forward. I know that feeling well.

It’s more than just saying no, of course. It’s the lack of communication about what is going on, what needs to be going on, and (back to that no) what isn’t going on that often drives me to think about drink.

It’s that sinking sensation you get when you are working on a project and your Board president informs you that something you didn’t even know about is moving forward rapidly and it directly contradicts what you are doing. Like the grant proposal to the funder who only takes one proposal—so why did we submit one for $5,000 when I am working on one for $200K?

Communication shouldn’t be that hard, and yet, somehow it is.

That was the thing I hated most about management. There seemed to be such a fine line between micromanaging and not having a clue what my staff was doing. With certain people, I never seemed to be able to get a good feedback loop going.

That was particularly difficult when that person was my administrative assistant—and that was too often the case. But that, I fear, was a personal problem.

More to the point, oftentimes I would find myself shaking my head and wondering what my staff was thinking as I found out they were spending time on something that wasn’t where we really wanted to go.

So much of that could have been avoided, if only they would have reported in to me what they were doing. But that seemed to be secret. Not with most of my staff—mostly we did communicate and keep things on track. But there was always someone, and sometimes a few someones, who didn’t think they needed to play on the team.

So maybe I was a bad manager. Or perhaps I didn’t communicate well enough. Certainly in my consulting I find weekly reports invaluable. Yes, they take time, but then I can feel sure that we are both—my client and I—heading in the same direction. And if we’re not, it becomes clear before we’ve gone too many miles and at that point, it is easy to correct.

And so, I have come to love metrics—measures by which we can evaluate progress. When carefully developed and used, these do increase success rates considerably. On the downside, too often these are merely sticks and that serves only to increase failure.

Metrics should not be something to fear. Nor should they be arbitrary. They should be a way to make sure that we are all headed in the same direction and that we all have the necessary tools to get there.

Creating a metric that says, “last year we raised $X. This year you must raise $X plus 10%” is a losing proposition. Unless you put that up as a target and work as a team to develop the strategies and tactics for getting there.

For example, you might note that last year in order to reach X, one–third of the Board introduced you to a new prospect. This year, you would work on ways to get the remainder of the Board to make some introductions. Or perhaps you could segment your database and find new people on whom to call.

As part of this, you could—really, you should—clearly define the purposes for which you are fundraising. I know, this is a hobbyhorse of mine, but I truly believe that if you can’t articulate your need, you can’t effectively raise funds. And even if you bring in gifts, you may not be raising the money you need.

As you head into the new year, why not try a new tactic. If you are the boss, be very clear about your expectations with each of your staff members. If you are staff, resolve to let your boss and your colleagues in on what you are doing. But don’t stop with staff—think about Board Relations.

The biggest complaint I hear from Board members as well as management of organizations is that the other is not doing their job. I suspect that in many cases, the problem is that the other doesn’t know what job they are supposed to be doing—or know the job but haven’t a clue how to do it.

Try this—have an open meeting and talk about roles and responsibilities. You may want to do this with both Board and staff—but not in the same meeting. You may want to bring in an outside facilitator, just to make sure that you are hearing each other. And from this, develop your metrics for the coming year.

Opening up lines of communication can be messy, but mainly it can give you an incredible insight as to what is really going on and a clearer vision of what you need to do to get where you want to go.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Running on Air

Remember Wile E. Coyote? He’s that character in the Roadrunner cartoons who is always running off the edge of the cliff. As long as he keeps his eye straight ahead, he seems to be able to run on air. But once he looks down, watch out.

A lot of nonprofits are like Wile E. As long as they don’t look too carefully at their financials, everything seems copacetic. They keep truckin’ on, not paying attention to the need to bring in more revenue, cut back on programs that have grown too large or extras that are really not necessary.

I once worked at an organization which had a serious structural deficit. But the CEO liked his food, which meant that every meeting we had—and there were lots of them—were catered events. So Monday morning staff meetings turned into full blown breakfasts. Mid-day gatherings had hors d’ouevers to die for. It cost the organization a ton of money we didn’t have. Worse, it impacted our mission negatively.

Most of the organizations I know aren’t doing that sort of thing, but they also aren’t taking care of business. In a survey just released by the Bridgespan Group, 93% of charity leaders said that their organizations were feeling the impact of the economic downturn. That’s up from 75% who were feeling the impact a year ago.

All indicators point to an even more difficult year in 2010 for the sector. Organizations that relied heavily on grants, are finding they are needing to look elsewhere for financial support. I get a lot of calls now from organizations looking to start an individual giving program.

But while individual giving makes up about 80% of the charitable pie, it takes a long time to build up a strong donor pool. I think it’s good that these organizations are looking to diversify, but I also want them to understand it probably won’t solve their current funding problems.

Nor, alas, will social networking. I know, we’ve all read about the huge increases in online giving and the wild success of this or that twitter/cellphone/facebook campaign. But to make any of those successful takes the same type of prospect pool needed to for any individual campaign and then getting those prospects to the site so they can make a gift. And that is often something smaller nonprofits just don’t have the juice to do. And yes, I know all about viral marketing, but unless you have a large number of “hosts”—i.e., people who are looking at what you want them to look at—there is no one to pass on the virus.

So okay, gloom and doom. What do we do? I think for starters, making sure you are covering your basics. Have you appropriately thanked every donor who made a gift of time or treasure this year? Even if yes, perhaps in the waning days of 2009 you should send a personal note to those who could make your new year a bit brighter.

What about those folks who have given in the past but haven’t made a gift this year? Perhaps they can’t, or don’t want to make a smaller gift. But if you contact them directly, odds are they will meet you part way. So if in the past I made $1,000 gift each year this year it may be only $100, but that’s a $100 you didn’t have before. More importantly, you will have touched a donor who will remain a donor.

This may also be the time to start thinking about how you can bring down your fundraising costs while increasing the value of making a gift to your donors. I don’t think it can be said often enough that fundraising is essentially about relationships.

I was thinking a lot about this the other day. One of my alma maters is in the midst of a year end phonathon. Students from the university call me—but I keep refusing to take the call. Why? They can’t get my name right. I don’t mind if they pronounce it Leveen or Levine, that seems to be a coastal thing, but I do care if they ask for Janice Levay or, as the person did last night, “Jane Lee—lee, er, is Jane there?” Not knowing my name is no way to solidify a relationship. I mean please. Read the name. If the pronunciation isn’t clear, ask! “Hi, may I speak to Janet…and I apologize, I’m not sure how to pronounce the last name,” shows that you at least care.

Beyond knowing my name, think about what your donors really want. Don’t know? Well, heck, ask them. And what a wonderful way to connect with prospects. While you are asking, don’t forget about your Board. Ask them what they want, and then ask them to ask their contacts what would make them happy donors. Your Board may not want to ask for a gift, but they may be very willing to broach this subject with their friends.

Speaking of Boards, how about an end-of-the year meeting asking every Board member to come with a revenue generating idea that will not stretch the limits of your financial or other resources? Make it a brainstorming session, with the understanding that brainstorming means no idea is dumb and everything should be brought to the table.

Think outside of your normal constituencies. Who are the people you haven’t been targeting? Why? What might be a way to get them interested in what you do? Who are the folks who are already interested but you’ve not asked them to support you for one reason or another—often because they “are poor” or because “they already give so much of their time.” Think about those issues differently.

When I first got into sales, a very successful salesperson told me that I should understand that I wasn’t selling something to someone but, rather, giving that person an opportunity to get what he or she wanted or needed. That is even more true when we are talking about fundraising.

Instead of focusing on why people won’t be giving this year or next, consider what opportunities you can offer. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Time's Arrow

Next week I start my home remodel. About six months the contractor says. I’m thinking about a year. My husband thinks I am being too cynical. I know he’s too unrealistic. After all, he’s a college professor. Time is something very specific for him—at least time spent teaching. No matter how much he procrastinates, no matter what else gets in the way, it all must be done by the end of the semester. The syllabus must be gotten through, the assignments given, tests graded and grades submitted.

But I have worked in the nonprofit sector for over twenty years. Time in this world is very flexible and generally moves very slowly. At least when we are talking advancement.

Advancement is a term that is generally used in higher education. It is comprised of all those activities that are not academic but do move the mission of the institution forward. Typically, advancement is responsible for all of the institution's relationships with individuals external to the institution. Practically that means that development, public relations and communications, government relations, alumni relations and all those other outside relations are part of the advancement office.

I go off on this tangent because in my experience, for many smaller nonprofits, all these activities are kept firmly on the backburner. There is no pressure—even when the need for action in these areas is critical to the health of the organization.

We are coming down to the wire for the end of this calendar year. And still many nonprofits I know of are wringing their collective hands, crying the sky is falling. And yet, they haven’t gotten the direct mail appeal out the door, have missed several grant application deadlines, have not enforced their board’s giving policy. And certainly haven’t got out in front of any prospects to ask for a gift.

There is no time, they say. We have no resources to do these things. We are, in point of fact, too busy to reach out to our external constituents. The financial crisis many of these organizations are feeling is not creating a sense of urgency, but rather a feeling of helplessness.

Despite what you may think, I really am not casting stones. I am, rather, trying to shout a wake-up call to those of you who are involved with such an organization. It’s not too late, but it is getting close to midnight.

If this is you, you must shake off your lethargy and get moving. No excuses. Inaction is a decision and that decision could mean you close your doors or have to cut services. And neither will help your clients or your mission.

So think about time—what is your critical need before the year ends? What must be accomplished? How much money do you have to raise? And what do you need to do to get on the right footing in the New Year?

Ah yes. New Year’s Resolutions. Those pesky promises that if you would only keep them would change your life.

Before you shut that thought down, remember habits can be broken and they can be made. Twenty-one days is a common figure thrown out for how long it takes to make (or break) a habit. So if you start today, by January first you will have broken old (bad) habits and developed some new ones.

Start with breaking the habit of thinking you have no time or resources to spend on raising money. Think instead of what you can accomplish with what you’ve got. For example, we can all find the time to make one phone call or write one personal letter a day. You probably have enough time—and certainly enough resources—to do one of each.

If you don’t know who to call and who to write to, try this: every day, write a personal letter to your largest donors, thanking them for past support, and reminding them how much that support has done. If they haven’t made a gift this year, ask them to do so before the end of the year. And whether they have or haven’t, also tell them you would very much like to get together with them in the New Year. Your follow up phone call in a week or so can be the one call a day you make.

But since you have at least a week before those calls begin, try calling up lapsed donors. These are people who gave to you at some point but not in the past 12 months. Start with people who perhaps gave to you in the first quarter of 2008 but haven’t given since. Call to tell them how much their support is missed and all the wonderful things their support can do.

Perhaps calling donors isn’t what you think you need to do. That’s fine. Pick something that you have been saying you should do and start doing it. Start small—don’t think you are going to turn around your fundraising program overnight.

If you stick to this regiment for at least 21 days, it will become if not a habit at least something you do. And as you do it, you’ll find that you actually have time to do it a little more, with more consistency, and who knows, next year you may find that you really aren’t Too Busy To Fundraise.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Boards, Management and It All

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of employees who, for one reason or another, just didn’t work out. Once I actually left a job because two of my staff—one inherited and one who I inexplicably hired—were driving me to imagine inflicting unconscionable violence against them. Worse, the only grounds for firing at this organization would have been for them to be caught engaging in acts of public bestiality.

All that aside, whenever one of my staff didn’t perform at an acceptable level, I always felt it was as much a failure of management--mine—as it was their own failure.

Ditto with Boards. Volunteers are to some degree unpaid staff, performing vital jobs for the nonprofit. Or they would if only they knew what those jobs should be.

Too often potential Board members are recruited by being told that there is “not much” they will have to do…if they have to do anything at all. I’ve been asked to serve on Boards where the Executive Director tells me that my only responsibility will be to show up to at least one of the four quarterly meetings. Really? What, then, is the purpose of having me (or anyone!) on the Board?

Most likely it has something to do with financial support. There’s always a lot of discussion about whether nonprofits should have a “give and/or get” policy for the Board. Questions range from whether this is a good idea at all to should there be a specific size contribution expected from the members or just a “generous gift?”

This issue seems a wrong thing to focus on. It fragments the real job of your Board.

What is that real job? Let’s start by identifying what it is NOT. It’s not fundraising or attending at least 3 out of 4 Board meetings a year. Nor is it “serving on a committee,” though all these things are part of what you should reasonably expect from a good member of your Board.

A Board’s main responsibility is one of governance—ensuring that the organization is both well-run and running well . A big piece of that is the Board’s fiduciary responsibility.

As a Board member, you must help to guarantee that the organization is fiscally sound: Are programs effective? Are any fees that may be charged appropriate? Is there a net gain at the end of the year? If that doesn’t happen—and it often doesn’t—and if there is a gap between money needed and money on hand, then every member of the board has a responsibility to do what is necessary to bridge that gap.

Give and get in action.

A really well-run organization, however, focuses not on gaps but on what is needed to run the programs you want and be the organization you desire. There must be a clear understanding of what it takes to run the organization as you wish it to be. In other words, the goal is to support your vision as well as your mission.

The next step is a discussion and agreement on what funds are on hand for use, what is expected to come in and what is needed to get where you want to go (all this is called the budget process). Then, once that magic number--how much do we have to raise so that we can run the organization as we want it this year, with reserves and investment for next year and beyond—is known, we can intelligently discuss what the Board's responsibility for that number is.

So yes, I come down firmly on the side of a Board give and get policy. All Board members need to understand that there is cost to be on the Board. It is divided into two parts--the part the Board member personally brings to the table and the amount that the member helps the organization to get. What I don’t agree with is a size gift that has been arbitrarily chosen sometime in the past.

Each year, at the meeting where the budget is adopted, I believe Boards should agree with how much the give and get is--and define what they mean by "Get." Do they actually solicit for gifts by themselves or do they help in the cultivation of prospects who they have brought to the table; help with continuing stewardship of the donors who had been their identified prospects, and generally help to create that culture of philanthropy.

And that brings us back to management. Good management, I believe, all boils down to two things. The first is that those you are managing buy into what you trying to do. That segues nicely to the second—that those you are managing know what needs to be accomplish and what their role is in getting there.

Regardless of what give or get policy is on the books at most nonprofits, the reality is that few enforce it. Therefore, only a minority of board members comply. Far better to open the discussion up and let the Board decide what it will take this year to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility.

In my experience, not only does the Board take a greater role than what they merely accept, they are far more rigorous in meeting their target when have been part of defining it.

And just as poor performance can indicate a failure of management, when staff—paid and unpaid—exceed expectations, management can give itself a pat on the back for a job very well done.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Right Words

In five years, where does your organization want to be? That’s a question every nonprofit should be able to answer, but I suspect that for most, if they’ve considered the question at all, the answers they’ve come up with are sketchy at best.

It’s not that these organizations don’t have the ability to envision, or the desire to plan. They do but so many of us are completely focused on keeping our heads above water and getting to land that we don’t bother to think about which part of the beach we’d like to land on.

Fundraising ends up being a lot like that, too. We may consider how much we need to get through the year, but we don’t consider what it will take to allow us to do what we want to do next year.

This focus on survival rather than vision and growth may be why so many volunteers have a problem fundraising. No matter how you couch it, asking someone to help you keep the doors open feels a lot like begging.

”Give me a script,” Board members say, but it’s not about the right words. It is about clarity on what the call is supposed to accomplish.

For years, I sold insurance—life, health, disability. In order to sell insurance, of course, I had to get in front of people and talk with them about my product line. I had no natural constituency, so I spent a lot of time cold calling. I knew the odds were dismal—I could count on one in every hundred becoming a client. And it wasn’t one for each 100 calls I made, but one, over time, for every hundred. So sometimes I would make literally a thousand calls before I hit pay dirt.

As any sane person would, I hated it. But my kid really did need new shoes, so I persevered. And I discovered a few interesting things. The main one was the odds were about the same whether I used the professionally prepared scripts my agency offered, talking about building wealth and security and such, or whether I simply cut the chase and said, “Hi, I sell insurance.”

Along with that, I discovered that the appointments I did get were much smoother when we—the people with whom I was meeting and me—were on the same page. When they knew I sold insurance, it was easy: that’s what they were interested in and why they had agreed to the meeting. There were no misunderstandings or crossed wires.

Fundraising is not insurance. And you may not be calling to get an appointment. You might not even be cold calling. So, who am I calling? And why?

Is this a friend—to me, to someone on the Board, to the organization? Am I calling to thank them for past support, invite them to something, or yes, ask for an appointment? What outcomes I am hoping for? Do I simply want to make them feel good, introduce myself, begin cultivation, connect them a little more closely to us?

The who, why and what will tell me how I will approach this person.

Remember, when you call, you have literally seconds to get someone’s attention. That’s why when I trained students to call alumni I would recommend that their first sentence be “Hi, I am a student at (Your Alma Mater)” and then say “my name is….” Their name would not mean anything to the alumni, but the fact that they are a student and the name of the Alma Mater would grab attention.

So, “Hi, it’s Janet,” to my friend assures that I will get my say; “John Jones suggested I call you,” will reach John Jones’ contacts, and “I’m calling from (the organization you care about)” will push the person you are calling to listen.

But if this call is to a person who I know about but they don’t know me, my organization, or anyone else involved with the organization, this may be a very cold and difficult call indeed.

In these cases, I try to use what information I may have about the person to get the person’s attention. Generally, I make the first contact via letter or—increasingly—email. In the letter, I explain who I am and why I am contacting them. And then I tell them what I want and close with the comment that I will be calling in the next few to days to arrange for a meeting.

Here, especially, keeping the doors open to an organization they are not tied to is not terribly compelling. Nor, frankly is letting us continue to do what we are doing at the same level we have been doing it. If that’s all you want, you don’t need new supporters.

Rather than offering your Board members scripts for phone calls or face to face meetings, engage with them in a conversation about where you want the organization to be next year, the year after that and the year after that. If you did get there, what would that mean? How would the world—the world that your organization impacts—be changed? How many more people would benefit from the good you do?

If you dream enough—and then make concrete plans to make those dreams come true—believe me, you won’t need scripts to get your passion across. And since you won’t be asking people to dig deep to help maintain the status quo, you may very well find that whatever words you use, as long as you convey the mission and the goals, you will be as articulate as necessary.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Blame Game

If I can blame you for all my problems, then I don’t have to face facts or—heaven forefend—reality. Kids do that a lot. It’s not my fault, they say, as if that solved anything. But kids grow up and we can hope that in growing up, they learn to take responsibility.

What about organizations? What happens when the organizational culture is one of pointing fingers rather than finding real solutions? Of refusing to accept culpability for bad or even neutral things?

Pointing fingers can wear many different guises. The organization who “can’t fundraise” because they “don’t have resources,” is playing the blame game just as much as the man who says his failures are all his mother’s fault.

It’s not, of course, just about fundraising, though organizational attitudes about fundraising do have implications that reach far and wide.

There are ongoing discussions about what nonprofits are and are not. Some of those discussions center around financial issues: Can or should a nonprofit actually be profitable?

Personally, I’ve always thought this as bogus. Yes, clearly what sets nonprofits apart from for-profits is the focus—the latter on earnings, the former on mission. And yes, frequently, perhaps always, that mission is by definition something that cannot pay for itself, let alone make surplus dollars. But the organization always has other options for earning revenue. Beyond that, the organization has an obligation to spend what monies it does have wisely.

So OK, the core mission is a money-suck. The nonprofit is always scrambling to meet payroll, to pay vendors, to keep moving its mission forward. Organizations whose culture is one of accountability and responsibility, of understanding that part of running the organization is ensuring its fiscal health, seem do well.

Those organizations somehow understand that fundraising is as important a part of the organization as are the programs. It isn’t someone else’s responsibility—it is everyone’s. That doesn’t mean that every staff member and volunteer goes out and asks people for money. It does mean that development must be incorporated into the organization. As plans are made and budgets are developed, fundraising must be considered.

Every professional fundraiser will tell you that the hardest money to raise is unrestricted dollars….unless you can clearly show how that money will make a difference in your mission and why that mission matters.

Think about it. If someone asks for $1,000 to allow her to do what she does, your reaction won’t include reaching for your checkbook. But if that same person were to explain to you that the salary she gets from her part-time job leaves her $1,000 short in order to pay her school tuition, you may at least consider it. And if she can show you why her school tuition is important not just to her but also to you, odds are you will be moved to help.

Organizations where the leadership—and make no mistake, culture flows from the top—blame others for their failures do no service to the missions they claim to serve. It’s not the board’s fault that the needed funds did not come in; it’s not the development director’s fault if his job description wasn’t clear and no one bothered to monitor what he was doing, and it certainly isn’t the fault of those who haven’t given, especially if they haven’t been appropriately asked!

In fact, assigning blame for things that are less than successful is a losing proposition. It takes you off task, allows you to duck and not do what you should be doing. Far better to identify what the problem really is, and to create a real plan of attack that will if not completely solve at least begin to mitigate the problem. Who knows? If you stop playing the blame game, you may find yourself involved in activities with far better outcomes, ones that lead to success.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Here We Go Again

Edward and Marcia Dawson have made incomes commensurate with those of Wall Street bankers. They are, however, not bankers but the founders of Social Vocation Services, a nonprofit social-service organization in California.

Personally, I don’t care how much money Mr. and Mrs. Dawson have made. But they seem to have done it in not such an ethical manner. That will give a certain group of people the ability to say, “Aha! Those nonprofits—they are just not trustworthy.” And that I do care about.

Nonprofits, it seems to me, get tarred with two sides of the same brush. First we are told we are not business-like enough. We’re inefficient, poorly managed, and unrealistic. On the other side, organizations that play by business rules are bashed because they are untrustworthy and care more about the bottom line than the mission they were created to fulfill.

There’s truth and falsity in both those sides. Nonprofits are businesses, and there should be an expectation that they are run professionally and well. Not that all businesses meet those criteria, but we should be striving to be the best. But as nonprofits, we are also mission-driven organizations, and that mission—not profit—should be what rules.

I worked in higher education for a long time and over the years, the push was to become more “business-like.” The result, I think, is that universities and colleges focus on what brings in revenue rather than on education, which presumably is their mission. Programs are decimated not because they don’t bring value to an educational organization, but rather because they don’t sustain profitability.

The educational sector is not alone in this.

Over the years, I’ve seen too many nonprofits lose sight of their mission. I see that a lot when it comes to grants or gifts that the organization really shouldn’t be seeking.

More than a decade ago I was working with an organization that was offered a grant for a project that did not meet their mission in any way, shape or form. The CEO was all for it—the grant, after all, was equal to a quarter of his operating budget. Saner heads prevailed. They helped the funder find a more appropriate organization for their grant. And for their efforts they received a much larger grant to enhance a core project.

It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Greediness often prevails. People forget why they got involved with nonprofits to begin with. Or, like so many of us, they get seduced by easy money, access to powerful people—all the same things that entice most of us.

They may or may not be bad people, but they are bad for the sector. Not so much, I think, for what they do but for what others make them stand for. A CEO of a for-profit business makes obscene amounts of money, or runs the organization into the ground. People will shake their heads and some will even be enraged. But the business community as a whole isn’t excoriated.

Let the antics of an Edward and Marcia Dawson get out, however, and trust for charitable organizations plummet.

Perhaps it is understandable that we should be held to a higher standard. But until the many, many organizations that hew to that higher standard are topics of front page news, we will have to work harder to ensure that we are letting our supporters know that we not only do good works but that we do them well and we are, therefore, worthy of their gifts and of their trust

Janet Levine is a consultant and trainer, teaching fundraising, board development and grantwriting skills online and face to face. Contact her at

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Finding the Right Who

Maybe it’s the season. Or perhaps it is the economy. Whatever, a number of my friends, acquaintances and clients are in the market for development staff.

”Can you recommend someone?” is the way the email generally goes. Well, yeah, but first I have to know what you are actually looking for. More to the point, you have to have what you are looking for. And no, it’s not just “someone to raise money.”

I’ve been reading Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street, a book just about this topic. Like too many books of its kind, Who is a great magazine article masquerading as a book. That means there is a lot of filler. But there is also a lot of solid and good stuff. Good, I hasten to add, because we are in agreement.

The authors of Who note that one of the most critical points of failure in hiring come about because the managers are unclear about what is needed in a job. The other thing Smart and Street say that I really like is that instead of focusing on a bunch of activities—you know, “identify, cultivate and solicit donors and manage the donor database”—to hire the right person you must understand what is that you want the person to accomplish. Specifically. Now.

In order to be able to pinpoint that, the manager or members of the search committee will first have to have a clear vision of where the organization is and where it needs to go.

For example, many of my clients have been heavily dependent on grants for charitable revenue. We all know the direction that’s heading, so many of them really need to develop or expand an individual giving program. In order to hire the right person to do that, they will first have to define what that means in their context.

Organization A may actually have a fairly robust database of individuals who give annually very small gifts via direct mail. They will need someone who has the ability and skills to segment that data and move some of those donors up the giving pyramid.

Organization B, on the other hand, has no database and no natural constituency of individual prospects. This organization needs a rain-maker—someone who can get out there and create interest in the organization in order to build a prospect pool.

These two organizations have very different needs and the right person for one would probably be a poor hire for the other. This is why it is so important to know what you need.

But this isn’t just something to think about when you are hiring. Management jobs—and especially those involved with development—should be reviewed regularly. You must be asking: What do we need this person to accomplish now?

This question takes into consideration the initiatives you are currently working on as well as those you will be implementing shortly. It is informed by the external environment (things are different now than they were just six months ago—how have you adjusted for these changes?) and by how well your organization has managed its resources.

This doesn’t mean that you are constantly changing what you expect from staff. The things they will be doing probably won’t change. Fundraisers will continue to prospect, cultivate, solicit and steward. But the things they must get done may change.

If, for example, like so many other nonprofits, you are finding that your donors are giving less than they gave a year ago, the focus for your fundraiser may move to identifying more prospects who can give at this lower level. If your direct mail is dying on the vine, the person responsible for direct mail may also need to be looking at ways to augment this fundraising technique.

This also has serious, and to my mind terrific, impacts on evaluations and the setting up of metrics. In the past, both these activities were fairly generic if they existed at all. We should be creating a set of measurements based on what is needed over a specific time frame. Therefore these measurements may just change each year.

That makes a lot more sense to me than arbitrarily insisting that a fundraiser raise 5% more than last year (despite the economic environment), or make 112 prospect calls each year (regardless of how many prospects have already been identified) or—more likely—setting no requirements and then being disappointed because your development director didn’t meet your unstated expectations.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits on issues of productivity, resource development and board development. She can be reached at

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Control Freaks Anonymous

There always seems to be one at every organization. Typically, it’s a manager, often the CEO. At a nonprofit, it frequently is a Board Member. Heck, once I had a secretary who fit the profile perfectly.

I am, perhaps not so obviously, talking about the person who has to control everything that goes anywhere near them. These are the people who are so busy working, they frequently don’t get anything done. And they certainly don’t allow anyone around them to accomplish their work.

If this is you, stop. Take a deep breath. Look around. There are competent people there who could be doing a credible job if you would just let them.

But if this is you, you probably don’t recognize yourself. If, however, you are someone who works with or for this person, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And believe me, I feel your pain.

Working for or trying to work with someone who has an issue with trust or control is more than difficult. Frustrating is one word that comes to mind. But in a world where funding is increasingly more difficult to get and where opportunities must be grasped when and where you can find them, the micromanager is more than simply frustrating. He or she becomes a serious liability.

When that person is also a CEO of talent, passion, charisma, it is that much more depressing. The very person who should be leading the organization onto what my colleague Jeff Wilcox calls “higher ground,” too often is a lead anchor. Since nothing can happen without that person’s direct input, and since that person is just too too busy for words, the result is that indeed, nothing happens.

Or rather, something, but that something isn’t positive. Nor is it benign.

I have watched as even a basic direct mail appeal cannot go out on time because the CEO has to put his or her imprint on it. So the October drop date morphs into November and when the appeal finally goes out it is in the middle of the holiday season. What might have brought a respectable 4 or 5% response, gets under 1%. And the control freak says, “See. If I hadn’t taken over, we would have gotten no response at all.”

This behavior is particularly difficult for small organizations where fundraising doesn’t get enough attention to begin with. If plans are created, they are not implemented because actions get stopped at the leader’s door. They are, they will tell you, too busy to give the plan their attention, so it will just have to wait until they have time.

I understand these people. Shoot, I am one. But when I work with someone who shows me that he or she is up to the job—cares about the outcomes, accepts responsibility for mistakes, and mostly keeps me constantly in the loop, I will, reluctantly, give up the reins and let them fly.

My mother used to tell me not to get mad but rather to get even. If you work for a control freak, getting mad just convinces them that they are right in not allowing you any freedom. Your “unjustified” anger proves that. So get even, by mastering your job and by always, always letting your controlling boss know what you are up to. Eventually, most will grant you an “area of expertise” where you will be the go-to person—even for them.

But even if that doesn’t happen, if the control freak just keeps on holding fast to everything and keeps your work from getting done, you can just take your expertise elsewhere. Hopefully somewhere where you will be able to shine.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at
Other online classes will be available November 1, 2009 at

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thank You, Thank You

I recently facilitated a workshop where 35 discrete organizations were represented. During a discussion on retaining donors, I asked “How many of you send a thank you letter to every single donor?”

You may not be surprised, but I was when only two hands went up. I shouldn’t have been. I hear often enough from donors who complain about not being thanked for their generosity. And while I believe them when they say they don’t receive thank you letters, I also want to believe that these letters are going out, it’s just that it’s not enough or not timely enough for donors. Or, perhaps, donors weren’t opening these thank you letters, thinking it was just another solicitation letter.

Clearly, however, I was giving more credit to nonprofits than many of them deserve.

That started me writing an online course, Step by Step Stewardship, which will be available in the spring at the to-be launched next month (November)>. While I am not above self-serving advertising (obviously), the other reason I mention this what has come up as I’ve been researching and writing.

I’ve long known that what can seem to be fundamental is often not-so basic to many organizations. More importantly, these basics do define development programs. Which leads me seamlessly into my soapbox oration of the day.

When I started in this field about 25 years ago, there was a real push to stop calling it “fundraising” and focus on the word “development.”

Development is synonymous with such words as expansion, progress, improvement. It suggests a continuum of activity that grows over time and makes things better. It implies involvement, which, in turn, certainly means that relationships are built and, yes, nurtured. Stewardship.

Fundraising, on the other hand, focuses on that one act of getting money or other kinds of support. It’s more transactional than development, and more often than not (think politics), there is some quid pro quo--something for something—involved.

Because the pendulum has swung back, as it generally does, the word development appears mainly in titles (development department, development director. The function of those who work in the area is to fundraise, pure and simple. And what that does is put the emphasis on getting the gift. Once the gift has been gotten, the job is done.

Thinking (and acting) that way, of course, makes the development director’s job more difficult. Since the most likely prospect for a gift is an existing donor, it’s only smart to keep that donor happy.

Remember the last time you gave something to someone—your kids, your spouse, someone else’s kids, a friend. How would you have felt (or, perhaps, how did you feel) if they simply took what you gave and walked away? Now think how you would feel if the next time they deigned to speak to you was—yes!—when they were asking you for yet another something.

Unless you are a lot more saintly than I, you probably weren’t looking upon that someone so kindly. Indeed, while you mayhave given them what they asked for this second time, if they didn’t change their behavior, you sure wouldn’t give them anything a third.

Donors are no different. If you don’t thank them for their gift, they are not going to be inclined to make a second gift. And you will have spent a lot of time and effort to get minimum return.

Start by making sure you say “thank you” to every single donor at the time they make their gift. Then think about the many ways you can develop that relationship. For here is a basic truth that you should never forget: Donors give because they care about the work you do, have a connection with the person who asks for the gift, feel connected to the organization and generally are involved with your organization in as many ways as possible.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at
Other online classes will be available November 1, 2009 at>

Friday, October 2, 2009

Defining the Problem

My friend Ruth is a prodigious seminar taker. A few years ago she took one that taught how to solve a problem by first defining the problem. I think that is a seminar most nonprofits should take.

To me it has always seemed obvious that you cannot solve a problem if you are unclear about what problem you are trying to solve.

Most of my clients would define their problem as a lack of money (or, as nonprofits love to whine, “not enough resources”). But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that is the cause or, more likely, the result of the problem and not the problem itself.

Defining the problem often means accepting responsibility for what is going on. If lack of money is the problem, well, that’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. If, on the other hand, the real problem is how the money is allocated and spent, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

For many organizations, the problem seems to be circular: we don’t have enough money or resources so we cannot invest in a program to develop money and resources, which means we don’t ever have the money and resources. This in turn generally leads to a paralysis that ensures that there will be no money and/or resources and that means that your mission doesn’t really move forward.

From where I sit, it feels like I am watching a comedy of errors. Once, a client paid me good money to write a direct mail piece. Several weeks after they approved the package, the Executive Director sighed that they just didn’t have time to get it done. I said I would get the printing and mailing quotes, and then once a vendor was chosen, I would follow the mailing through. First, however, I needed to know how many pieces they would be mailing.

Well no one, it seemed, had time to check out how many records there were on the database and numbers like 2,000, 5,000 or maybe around 8,000 flew. Not helpful. I couldn’t go into the database to check because it was held on one computer and I guess that computer was in use 100% of the time every day of the week. Must have been.

I took my best shot, got a quote, and eventually got an okay to move forward. Except—yep, no one had time to export a list. And so, the mailing never happened.

An extreme case? I’d like to think so, but I’m not entirely convinced.

Whether or not your organization resembles this, being clear on the problem will make a positive difference. If your organization writes grant proposals, you already know how important the problem or need statement is. The clearer and more precise you can be about why what you want to do is necessary and important, the better your chances are of actually getting funded.

More importantly to my way of thinking, a clear need or problem statement helps to ensure that you are going after a grant that will move your mission forward. Likewise, identifying the right problem ensures that you look for the right solutions. This is turn will help to make sure you are getting where you actually want to go.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at
Other online classes will soon be available at>

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Helping Your Donors Make Wise Charitable Choices

Could everybody repeat after me: Fundraising is about relationships. And relationships not only take time, they take nurturing. You can’t walk up to a virtual stranger and say “gimme,” and, on the off chance they do, walk away with nary a thank you and expect that the next time they will give to you again.

Yet, this is what so many nonprofit organizations try to do.

I sometimes speak on how to make wise charitable choices. One of things I urge potential donors to do is to look at the stewardship practices of the organization in which they have an interest.

Does that organization provide timely tax receipt with the appropriate substantiation or quid pro quo statements? Six month or a year after a gift was made, do they follow up and let you know how your generosity made a difference? In fact, do they connect with their donors at any time other than when they are asking for another gift?

At first I was surprised, then I got to expect it, when more than one-quarter of every single group I talk to feels that they have made a charitable gift and never received a thank you! My mother, who insisted I write a thank you note for any kindness I received let alone anything concrete, would twirl in her grave.

”If you don’t take care of your friends,” she would tell me, “don’t expect them to take care of you.”

And of course, they don’t. Donors get tired of always being asked for money and getting little if anything in return. Corporate reps get leery every time a nonprofit approaches with hands held out to receive but offering not a whole lot in return.

I know, I know. This is about gifts. We’re talking charity here. People should give without thinking about receiving.


Thinking that way is just naïve. There are so many good organizations out there—so many important, needed missions—that donors have many choices to meet their philanthropic goals. So why would—should—a donor chose yours?

That’s not a rhetorical question. And yes, it does circle back to relationships.

The important relationship is between the prospect or donor and your organization. More importantly is the understanding that it doesn’t start with you. Your needs are not the guide star here. The donor’s needs are.

Make no mistake—donors have very specific needs that must be fulfilled if you are to have a happy and consistent donor. It starts at the beginning—understanding why they may support you.

While your mission plays a role, it actually goes back further than you. Studies point out the very real fact that the most likely donor to any organization is a donor to any other organization. Philanthropic people (or organizations for that matter) are philanthropic. Before you look for wealthy folks, look for those who share whatever their wealth is.

Once you know they are philanthropic, find out what kinds of programs appeal to them. In an ideal world, you’d first always find out what matters to them, and then you’d tell them what you have that matches that interest. But the world isn’t perfect, and sometimes you have a need that must be met, which means that all prospects must first be approached to support that need.

But don’t just jump in with your hands out held. Talk to your prospects. Find out what matters to them. Then tell them of your need but speak from their perspective. Tell them how their gift will do what it is they want done. If your donor wants recognition, talk about naming rights, publicity, whatever you have that will tout their goodness and support to the world.

If they want to do something specific for your clients, make that match your focal point. Don’t make things up—but do connect the dots that show your donor that his or her needs are being met along with yours. And if what you need doesn’t match what they have told you they want, tell them—and then see if there is something else at your organization that they can support.

Above all, remember that isn’t about you and what you think you need. It is about your donors and what they think they need and most of all, it is about your clients and what they really need in order for your organization to meet its mission.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Her online classes will soon be available at>

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Making a Point

Taglines. Those great, pithy sayings that well, say it all. You know—Nike’s Just Do It. Apple’s Think Different. It’s those few words that catch the essence of who you are or want to be (or, when we’re talking marketing and sales as we were just a sentence ago—what you want your customer’s to think about as they plunk down hard cash for your goods).

Nancy Swartz and her company Getting Attention have a great way to get nonprofits to understand the value of taglines—and what makes communication great. She’s culled through over 1,700 tagline entries in 13 categories and has chosen 60 for your vote. But rather than steal all her words, let me share her blurb with you:

Spot the Next Great Nonprofit Tagline
Vote here for the 2009 Getting Attention Nonprofit Tagline Awards.
Voting will:
• Sharpen your understanding of what does and doesn’t work in nonprofit communications.
• Inform and inspire your organization’s messaging.
• Give you the chance to register for the free 2009 Nonprofit Tagline Report, with 2,500 tagline examples.
The 60 tagline finalists have been culled from over 1,700 entries in 13 categories. Now it's *your* turn to select the best.
VOTE Now. Polls close midnight, Wednesday, September 30th.

Do vote—but more than that, look at these taglines and think about why they are so good. Then look at your organization’s tagline, or consider the fact that you don’t have one, and try to put your organization’s mission and meaning into two to six words.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not not

In his September 15th blog ( , Seth Godin said two things that really resonated. The first was his opening sentence where he took nonprofits to task for identifying ourselves as what we are not. Defining what we are is something many of us have a problem with.

The second thing he said was that nonprofits abhor change. I agree, but I wouldn’t focus just on nonprofits. And I certainly wouldn’t—as Seth Godin does—focus on the fact that many nonprofits (but not nearly as many as he claims) are not utilizing social networking well. That hardly proves his case.

What is real, however, is the paralysis that hits too many nonprofits when faced with doing things that make them uncomfortable. Far better, I suppose, to wring your hands and (as Godin aptly points out) complain about lack of resources than to actually go out and do something proactive about it. But I don’t necessarily think that social networking is the answer.

An answer? Sure. But at best it is a way to increase the number and frequency of small donors. This can be huge as, yes, the Obama campaign showed. But the truth is that most nonprofits are not national in scope; many aren’t even of concern three blocks from where they have offices. Pareto’s principle, which in fundraising terms says that 80% of the dollars raised come from 20% of the donors, is still pretty viable. What that means that is that social networking can be a great boost to your annual campaign, but probably won’t provide enough funding for those changes that Godin advocates.

This is not to say that nonprofits shouldn’t engage in social networking. Of course they should outreach in every way possible. But I think that the change that is necessary in the sector will come from very different actions.

Which brings us back to Godin’s first sentence. How we define ourselves is key. How we tell our stories is also important. But stories without purpose are not much more than entertainment. What is too often missing is that strategic, long view of what we do and how we do it, now and in the future. Nonprofits tend to be better at that from a programmatic point of view than they administratively and, especially, when it comes to resource development.

Fundraising is too often not at the table when the party is being planned but is expected to somehow come up with all the presents. If fundraising were truly infused throughout the organization, if planning took into consideration not just how much something will cost but where those funds must come from, then and only then will nonprofits be able to systematically and continually find the funding they need.

Once nonprofits can support themselves and their programs, then they can begin to focus on what they are and understand than “nonprofit” (or not-for-profit”) is actually a positive. Unlike for profit businesses that exist to make a profit, we have been organized for other purposes, which may be charitable (relating to generosity), educational, scientific. And this is nothing that should make any of us who are committed to this sector feel ashamed.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Her online classes will soon be available at>

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sales and Fundraising

A friend and I have an ongoing argument—she is horrified that I even think that there is a correlation between sales and fundraising, let alone that I believe they are virtually the same. I am frustrated that she can’t see the connection. So I was particularly excited to hear from Ron Walrath, VP for Development at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

“[W]e have to sell our product…every day,” he wrote. But he doesn’t think of that as a problem. “When one adopts a sales approach,” he continued, “strategic vision, mission, operations and detailed development plans all begin to mesh into a coherent effort aimed at customers and prospects.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sales too often has a dirty name. People think of someone who is slick, a little greasy, conniving, and not quite honest. Ron and I both have sales backgrounds, and I don’t think either of us fit that description. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) doesn’t agree with it either.

According to them, professional selling is "The holistic business system required to effectively develop, manage, enable, and execute a mutually beneficial, interpersonal exchange of goods and/or services for equitable value."

I like that definition, just as I like thinking about myself and my colleagues as “professionals.”

What’s to argue with having vision, mission, program and development all meshing? Transactions and relationships should be mutually beneficial. It’s what we should be aiming toward. I think that’s why I find the sales model so enticing.

In all my sales training, the emphasis was on selling the benefits of my service or product and not on the features. That’s what I think we should be doing in fundraising—show our prospects how what we do benefits our clients and our donors. In order to do that, we—the fund development staff and volunteers—need to understand what those benefits are. That means, as Ron implies, we need to have a strategic vision and mission for our organizations. We must have an operation that promotes the mission and vision. And we must have a development plan that will raise the necessary funds for the operations.

The plan, of course, will not by itself raise money. That’s where resources—human and otherwise—come in. They support the plan. People have to work the plan, and they must have the skills and tools to do that.

All of which pinpoints what I think is the basic differences between most sales and most fundraising. Salespeople generally get trained on the products and services they sell. They know the features and the benefits. Fundraisers are too often fuzzy about what they should be raising funds for. Our training tends to focus on fundraising channels rather than on the purposes. The more complex the organization, the more problematical that problem becomes.

And then there is the fact that too often fundraisers are not rewarded for raising funds. I’m not—repeat not—advocating for a commission based model, which is how much of sales works. But there is something about the concrete connection of what you do with how much you earn that is missing from fundraising and which too often leads to no fundraising at all.

In short, we need to stop thinking that nonprofits are “above” selling and recognize that there is nothing wrong—indeed there is much right—in, as Ron Walrath says selling our product every day. After all, our “product” is something we should be proud to tout and prospects eager to buy.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Her online classes will soon be available at>

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Donors Not Dollars

Fundraisers are exceedingly proud of the money they raise. They are particularly proud when it is more money than what was raised the prior year. Already I have two problems. Even in a staff-centered development operation, fundraisers alone do not raise money. But, okay, let’s ignore that for now. What I really have a problem with is counting dollars instead of donors.

Fundraising, I really believe, is about relationships. A good fundraiser helps to create and nurture the connections that donors feel about the organization, its mission, the programs it provides. Fundraisers who are focused only on dollars are missing the point.

More insidiously, they are often being untruthful about the value of the money they are counting.

A case in point: I recently lunched with a colleague who waxed eloquent about the fact that the development department brought in almost twice as much this year to the organization as it had in the prior fiscal year. But that wasn’t actually the case.

The main reason for the huge bump in revenue was a bequest. Nothing wrong with a bequest, but I think it is wise to pull out these unique gifts when comparing income year to year. It’s not like this donor is about to make another gift any time soon. Moreover in this particular case, there was some question as to whether the organization should be a major beneficiary so a lawyer was hired on contingency, and his take was 35%. Counting the entire amount of the bequest, therefore, is somewhat disingenuous.

Another large “gift” was actually a contract between a company and the organization which was written as a restricted gift. There is nothing wrong or illegal about this, but the development department had little or, more likely, nothing to do with this transaction.

I don’t mean to pick on my colleague. He’s a really good fundraiser. Far better than I ever was. But, and here’s where we part company, I have always been more interested in creating a development program is sustainable and, therefore, responsive to the ongoing and ever-changing needs of an organization than in getting any single gift.

To me that means tying the goals and objectives of the organization to what the development department is doing. Making sure, in other words, that I am raising the gifts that are needed and not just the gifts I can get. The key to that, I believe, is having a solid core of donors who are committed to the organization, care about the mission and, therefore, are receptive helping out when there is a specific need.

When your focus is on raising dollars, too often your time ends up being spent on gifts that make your bottom line look good but do very little for your programs.

When I started in this business, there was a real move to change the term “fundraising” to “development.” With good reason, I think. The former has a focus on the funds. The latter, on the building and growing of the relationship. When times are hard, as they most certainly are now, it becomes too easy to simply scramble for the gift. In the long run, however, I think that hurts everyone.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Her online classes will soon be available at>

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Working Social Networking

Recently, I took a road trip with my 34-year-old daughter. I was amazed—though I shouldn’t have been—at how many hours she spent in social networking. During the day she texted non-stop, or would have if I hadn’t taken her phone away when she was driving. And at night, in our hotel room, she chatted with her friends on Facebook.

First she would type madly for a few minutes, then sit back and wait. When the tone that indicated someone responded sounded, she would lean forward, read for a moment, then type madly again. I was reminded of Billy Crystal’s line about dancing—that it was just like standing still, only faster. This was like a conversation, only slower.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social networking as I get ready to teach a workshop on how social networking can augment a nonprofit’s existing fundraising programs. The power of social networking is clear; it is the time consumption that concerns me.

I remember when word processing became ubiquitous. We all thought that it would make our offices more efficient. At first, of course, it didn’t, but there was the learning curve and it was sure to come. Then, one day I asked my secretary to prepare a memo for me to send to my boss. In the old, typewriter days, it would have taken less than an hour before a clean, typed copy was on my desk.

Two days passed.

“Claire,” I finally said. “That memo?”

”Oh yes,” she answered brightly. “I should have that done this afternoon.”

”Is there a problem?”

Well, no. There wasn’t. And yet, yes, there definitely was. She was “formatting” the memo—playing with fonts and sizes and styles. She could bold,, italicize, underline, and a whole host of other things that she had been unable to do before. It was awesome. But here’s the dirty truth—it wasn’t better, it didn’t add value, my memo wasn’t more effective.

I don’t want to sound like a neo-Luddite. I’m not. I love my computers—and yes, that’s a plural, I have two. I love the things I can do that I couldn’t do when I started working. I love the possibilities that technology brings. My husband swears I love my iPhone almost as much as I love him. But I don’t love inefficiencies and I abhor spending work time unproductively.

A recent study surmised that for a nonprofit to effectively use social networking for development purposes it would take 20 hours a week. Now, that’s just the managing of the technology. It will take additional time to develop the strategies, create the content, and evaluate the successes of your social networking programs. If you are a small nonprofit where you are already too busy to fundraise or do anything else, you will really have to think long and hard about jumping on this particular bandwagon.

I don’t think that nonprofits can afford to ignore technological advances. I do think that social networking must be part of their advancement program. But these are techniques and channels that must be used judiciously and with planning aforethought.

You will not raise tons of money solely by putting a “Donate Here” button on your website. Developing a Facebook page will not bring wealthy donors ripe for solicitations. Your Tweets may get you a Twitter following, but if you are not clear about the purposes for which you are using these tools, you will build nothing worthwhile.

These are tools that, used well, can help you to reach more people. Used well, they will allow you to build relationships that might otherwise not be possible. And fundraising is, above all, about relationships.

But there is a price to be paid. The wise nonprofit understands that and makes sure that before starting out on this journey, they have carefully mapped out what seems to be the best route, and have an understanding of what side roads could be interesting to explore.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Whose Rolodex?

Many years ago, when I was applying for my second fundraising job, I was asked a question I thought very…well, questionable. “What donors can you bring with you?” the chair of the search committee asked me.

To be honest, I was quite nonplussed. I had only been in the field 3 or 4 years, but it seemed to me that donors were not the same as say the clients of a hair stylist who would bring his or her customer book to any new location. Donors, I thought then and now, don’t “belong” to the development staff. Rather, they have been cultivated and solicited because they had been identified as someone who would want to be involved with an organization’s mission.

As a fundraiser, I may have coordinated and facilitated their gift, but it was a gift to the organization or institution for which I worked. It was not a gift given because they personally liked me.

So, baffled as I was, I simply sputtered, “None.” And didn’t get the job.

While it was the first time I was asked the question, it was far from the last. And each time, I tried to explain that I considered my job to cultivate donors for the organization and if I had done my job right, when I left, the donor would have relationships with others who worked and volunteered at the organization and so would remain a committed supporter.

Further, I would tell my interviewer, just as I won’t be bringing donors with me, I won’t take donors from you when I leave.

Since I was offered a number of these jobs, and was able to continually move up the proverbial food chain, it was clear that many people understood and possibly agreed with my position. And yet, I can’t help but think that there often was a disappointment that I didn’t bring with me a fat rolodex of people who would write a check within weeks of my arrival.

I, however, always want to be more than merely a money machine to any organization I work with. I want to create or strengthen a foundation where there is sustainability. I think our job as fundraisers is, as I said a few paragraphs ago, to mainly be a coordinator and facilitator—both to help donors make satisfying and effective gifts, and also to assist volunteers and other staff members to be part of the process.

This is not to say that I have never offered a donor I knew from one organization the opportunity to support another if I thought there was a reason to believe that donor would be interested. After all, as every good fundraiser knows, the best indicator that someone will become a donor to your organization is that he or she is a donor to another organization.

Still, I think it shows a complete lack of understanding of why development is important to an organization to expect a fundraiser to bring donors along with her. Yes, yes of course, fundraising is about bringing in money. But it is mostly about building relationships that will help to nourish and grow an organization.

If you believe that, then it is clear that the right question to ask a potential fundraiser is not who do you bring with you but rather, how do you go about finding and caring for those to whom our mission matters? And what steps would you take to ensure that this person (or organization) is well connected to our organization and feels part of the work we do?

Fundraisers who can answer those questions are worth their weight in gold. And, trust me on this, over the long haul, they will bring in far more gold than someone who brings his gravy train along for the ride.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Right and Left Hands

I read a lot of fiction. One thing that strikes me is how often the characters go off in strange and unlovely directions simply because they fail to communicate with each other, or at least, fail to communicate fully.

Of course, I’m struck by the same thing in real life, but who pays attention to reality anymore (unless it is televised)? Certainly not those who think that there really is a fund raising magic bullet.

But, surprise!, I’m not going to rant here about the lack of understanding of certain board members and CEO’s who are sure that everyone is just dying to give them some money if only somebody (else) would ask. I am going to rant about communication gaps.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, is more irritating than finding out that you are the right hand who doesn’t know a thing about what the left hand has just done. I wish I had a dollar for every time a program officer informed me that someone in my organization just submitted a proposal for $5,000 so they could not consider the one for $50,000 we had been discussing until the next funding cycle. I wouldn’t be rich, but I could buy a pretty fancy dinner. And let’s not even mention the Board that decides that instead of the one-on-one major donor solicitations they had agreed to, they’ll throw another “fundraiser” event instead. So what if that will net very little?

Complaining, however, is one thing. Communicating so that complaining is less necessary is another. You’d think that in a world so full of noise, communication wouldn’t be such a hard thing to do. But it is.

The first step is to make sure that you are not part of the problem. You are only allowed to complain about how they don’t tell you what you need to know if you are telling them what they need to know.

Speaking of reality as we were a few paragraphs back, recognize that not everyone communicates and the best response to that is to communicate with that person.

My husband, who is an engineer and we all know how well they mix with communicating, used to have a bad habit of not telling me if he was going to be late or if he was bringing someone home for dinner. I, a sales type with motor mouth who informed him of everything I might possibly do that day, decided that two could play the no communication game.

Instead of making things better, it made them worse because now neither of us had a clue what was happening. It was so bad that my dogs too often did not get their evening walk as because the one who was home was waiting for the one who wouldn’t be home until 10 but hadn’t bothered to inform the other. And instead of learning from my lack of information, he decided that it was now completely OK to forgo telling me anything. That notion, I might tell you, took a lot of work to undo.

With fundraising, communication is even more important. Fundraising is much like a dance, and if both partners don’t know the steps, you are liable to stomp on each other’s toes. Practically speaking, that means that your organization needs to have a plan of action and that action must be communicated to everyone. Everyone.

Communication can be even more basic. Recently, I was conducting a workshop to help board members make the case for giving. The first step, I told them, is to define the situation, the problem or the need.

”Everybody knows the situation,” the ED snapped. “We don’t need to belabor that to everyone.”

Beyond setting my teeth on edge, that attitude is exactly the one that (a) too many nonprofits have and (b) is guaranteed to keep donors away from you. YOU may know what you do, how you do it, and what all those acronyms nonprofit and educational organizations are so fond of, but I guarantee that most of your prospects, many of your donors and even a large percentage of your board, don’t. If they do, it’s not necessarily on the top of their thoughts and they will (silently) thank you for being communicative with them.

Besides, you won’t necessarily be saying “Homelessness means that someone doesn’t have a home.” Rather, you will talk about why homelessness in your community matters to your community and by extension to your prospect.

Communication in the dictionary of Janet is defined as the fine art of including people into your world so they will want to be involved. Or, as so eloquently puts it:

Two way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants no only exchange information but also create and share meaning.

Think about it. Give and take. Sharing. Creation. Aren’t these all things that good nonprofits practice? And aren’t they all the things that move your good mission forward?

So, talk to me and to each other. Make sure that the right hand does know what the left is doing and vice versa. But also, perhaps especially, listen. Hear what the other is saying. You will be astonished at how much more you can do—how much better you will do it—if you communicate.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Thursday, August 6, 2009


For years I’ve tried to no avail to learn another language. It isn’t so much that I can’t master the grammar or learn the vocabulary (though none of that comes easily to me) but rather because I wouldn’t use what I knew. I wouldn’t speak the language because I couldn’t speak it well.

That was dumb. And I knew—know—it was (is) dumb. And yet I could not make myself speak it because everyone would know I wasn’t perfect.

Perfection. Sigh. When I was a little girl I thought perfectionists were people who did things perfectly and I wanted desperately to do be perfect at something. I haven’t completely outgrown that desperation—or the desire to do things without error. But I have learned that perfection is a pain—and it can also be a barrier to doing anything at all. Hence my mono-linguism, and perhaps, your organization’s inability to actually fundraise.

Over the years, I’ve heard boards and staff tell me that they can’t possibly fundraise yet because:

• We don’t have an elevator speech.
• Our database is messed up.
• We don’t actually have a database.
• No one knows who we are.
• Our website is embarrassing.
• We don’t have any brochures.
• Name your favorite non-fundraising excuse.

In short, things aren’t perfect so we can’t possibly move forward and ask anyone to help us move our mission forward. And speaking of mission, have you noticed that no one ever says, “We can’t ask anyone for money because we aren’t doing good work”?

It seems to me, that if your mission is good and you aredoing good work, you are perfectly situated to raise funds. Yes, you do need to let people know about you—but you really don’t need fancy brochures. Databases are built over time and by themselves, don’t actually fundraise for you. And an “elevator speech” is nothing more than a statement of your passion about your organization.

Good fundraising does rely on a strong database and great communications. But—to coin a cliché—every journey starts with a single step. Begin by identifying five people who you have reason to believe would support your organization. Find out if anyone on your board knows any of those five—and what size gift they think is reasonable as a first gift.

If you can convince your (fellow) board members to set up meetings with these five, you will probably get three to five meetings. If you can’t, count on one. And each time someone is willing to join with you in supporting your organization, add that person to your database. More importantly, ask that person who else you could call on and, by the way, would they be willing to introduce you? Next, add another 5 potential prospects to your list.

Slowly, surely, you will develop that elevator speech. The more you tell others about your organization, the more you will understand what catches their attention and fans their flames of passion.

Your database will get filled with premier prospects and more and more people will know who you are. If you actually start fundraising, you will start to raise funds. And I ask you, what could be more perfect?

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Taking Care of Business

We all know them—those nonprofits that have a wonderful mission, really good programs, but the operations side of the house is run so unprofessionally and so poorly that we are constantly amazed they make it through yet another week.

I’m not talking here about the organization that struggles to make ends meet, though the places I am talking about do that, too. I am talking about places that simply do not take care of business.

Too many nonprofit organizations like to protest that they are not, really, businesses at all. They are mission-driven. They are good people doing good works. But if you don’t do well at doing good works you won’t be doing anything much at all for long.

And besides, non-profits arebusinesses. After all, most are 501(c)(3) corporations. Like all businesses, there are rules and regulations that must be met. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, most of the time I think it is something very good.

Picture your favorite on-the-edge nonprofit. Think about the work it does, the clients it serves. Now picture it as a well-run organization, with policies and procedures that are in place and actually followed. How many of these would neglect to send appropriate thank you letters to donors? And now, picture those donors. Instead of complaining they are happy and happy to give follow on (and perhaps larger) gifts.

In this organization, budgets matter. Staff (and the board!) knows what it can spend and for what. Programs can grow and flourish; more clients can be serviced.

And staff….they know the job they are to perform and whether they are accomplishing what they are supposed to accomplish.

All right, I admit it. I do have a rich fantasy life. And even most for profit businesses don’t reach those standards of excellence, or even of okay. But that’s not a good excuse for us not to do better.

One problem is that too many nonprofit leaders, and development directors, don’t ever educate themselves on the legalities and, yes, the niceties of running a nonprofit. They don’t know when they have to send substantiation or quid pro quo statements or what the difference is between the two.

Staff and board members don’t understand nonprofit accounting rules, and therefore, are too often confused about when and for what purpose they can touch certain pots of money. And they don’t, therefore, understand what kind of gifts they need to raise and what kind of donors they should cultivate.

While it is good to be passionate about the mission of your organization, it just isn’t enough. We all need to be professional and insist on a level of knowledge and proficiency in every aspect of what we do.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wise Investing

The question was how would you invest a $5 million gift given to expand your organization's base of individual donors? One respondent said that after he thanked the donor, he would “put the money to good use within the charity to do good. I would then continue what I was doing knowing that as a Charity I did what my mantra was- help others, as opposed to becoming a charity burdened with administrative costs. “

Besides, he said, a lot of good pr comes from the announcement of such a large donation and that “ just promoting the donation will lead to growing your donor base without having to invest in it. “

This answer bothered me on two counts. The first was the smug naïveté of it all. It’s the “people should support us—after all, we do good work,” nonsense so many nonprofit folk spout. Here’s a news flash: No one “should” or even will support you merely because you think you are doing good.

The larger concern, however, was this person’s clear unconcern for what the donor wanted, and frankly for the legal restrictions this donor’s gift put on the organization.

If a donor wants a gift to be used for a specific purpose, and you accept that gift, you must use the gift for that specific purpose. Period. You may not decide that you have a better use for that money.

You can, of course, discuss the matter with the donor before you accept the gift. On a couple of occasions during my fundraising career I thanked a donor for his or her good thoughts and tried to direct them to make the gift in a manner more fitting to our needs.

Once it worked out wonderfully. They actually liked the new idea better—twice as much in fact, as reflected by the twice as large gift we received.

Several times it worked out fine. They agreed that they would give the gift for our requested purpose.

And twice the donors said no thank you and took their money elsewhere. One of the donors did give us a smaller gift for our purpose and then continued to be a regular and major donor. The other time, well to be honest, we never heard from that donor again.

Most of the time, however, nonprofits simply take the money and try to meet the donor’s wishes. Sometimes that works; sometimes not. It never works if you take the money for one purpose and use it for another. Donors have brought lawsuits over this very practice.

So what would you do if someone were to give you $5 million to expand your base of individual donors? I know exactly what I would do. I’d use that money to ensure that development and communications had the resources—human and otherwise—to identify, cultivate and steward donors. I’d make sure that staff had the tools, which includes appropriate training, to do their jobs well. I’d make sure that my development managers were coaching staff and using regular evaluations to ensure that good actions were being reinforced and bad ones replaced by good ones via training.

I’d get the Board involved. They are a major key to building up your individual donor pool. But it doesn’t always come naturally, so I’d make sure that they had the training they needed to be part of the solution.

I’d bring my individual prospects and donors in to my organization, so they could see first hand how their generosity was being used and how it (and they) were making a difference. I’d ensure that we were hearing from them about how they felt about their involvement and what else they would like to see.

And I would thank (and thank and thank) that original donor over and over again for understanding that it truly takes money to make money, and that with enough money we really can build a better mousetrap and be far more successful.

But first I’d spend time with that donor, brainstorming ideas on what would be a good use of the funds for our organization and create a comprehensive plan to build a sustainable development program that would ensure we never needed another infusion of funds just to build up our prospect pool.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at