Thursday, June 25, 2009

Meeting Expectations

My sister is the chair of the development committee for a small nonprofit in the education field. She’s been the chair for a couple of years, and to tell you the truth, she’s pretty burnt out.

“How,” she asks me periodically, “can you stand to do this for a living?”

What frustrates her (and frustrates me as well) is the fact that for many people fundraising is what others(namely, you) do—even if they have it as part of their job or volunteer description.

More than that, there is this clear lack of understanding that fundraising takes time. Add these two together and you get zero, as in “we hired/appointed YOU to do our fundraising. Where is the money?”

Ahhh, I see lots and lots of you nodding your heads. You know this; you’ve been there. The big question is how do you manage expectations? The second big question is how do you engage them so they understand that fundraising really is a team effort?

I wish I had a magic bullet to offer you. I don’t. Managing expectations is hard work, but maybe not as hard as engaging your “team.” There are, however, things that will keep your stress level down to a minimum.

The first is for you to have real clarity about what you can accomplish given your resources and available time. In my sister’s case, for example, the development plan called for a certain amount of money to be raised by each board member. When the total goal was not reached (by a very long shot) because most board members did not do their job, my sister felt like a failure. Had she been an employee instead of a volunteer, that “failure” may have had an adverse effect on her job.

Since my sister could not control what board members would or would not do, she needed to clearly identify what she could accomplish. And then she needed to loudly celebrate her successes.

This celebrating serves several purposes. It proclaims that you have done what you said you would. It shows that success is possible. And both those, in turn, act as an impetus to others and can help to motivate them to do their fundraising jobs.

Okay, I get that my sister, as a volunteer, has a lot more leeway. Too often us paid workers have to live with goals that others set for us. Which is why it is vital that you take that goal and create a plan that clearly outlines how you will go about reaching it. If you don’t have a goal, writing a plan to discover your goal is even more important.

This plan needs to be very specific. None of this “Identify prospects, cultivate and solicit” stuff. Remember—a big piece of what you are doing is managing expectations of others. So, if you are supposed to raise $1,000,000 and your organization has never raised more than $375,000, well you may just have an expectation gap.

Your plan would show where you want to get, and then what resources you have to get there. That means you will need to make some assumptions about how many prospects at what levels are necessary. Then you should show how many prospects at those levels you already have and where they are on the cultivation (for this next gift) continuum.

Your plan will also take into consideration how and where you can find new prospects and how long it would take to turn those prospects into donors. What are the steps you need to take? What are the tools you need in order to take those steps?

By now you should realize that your plan may have a hidden agenda. If you are expected to move from $375,000 to $1,000,000 and you do not have the appropriate resources to be successful, where can you get with what you have? Your plan needs to show that. For example, if given the donors you have and the prospects you’ve already identified and begun to cultivate you feel confident that you could raise $500,000 you would show that in your plan.

To reach the next $500,000 (or whatever dollar amount is your nut) might take introductions from your board and/or additional staff (or more events, direct mail campaigns, whatever) you would clearly delineate that in your plan.

As you work through your plan, you need to keep the Board, your boss, whoever, informed. The best way to do this—and the way that will get heard—is to show your successes, and be very clear what it took to be successful.

If the $50,000 gift you just got came about because your Board chair introduced you to one of her clients, make sure the rest of the Board knows that. If it came from an existing donor, they need to hear about the donor’s history with your organization.

If, however, your search for new prospects is still in the search phase, get that message across. But no whining. Report that you have been to three chamber mixers and have collected 45 business cards. You’ve contacted 25 of those folks, had a meeting with 3, and think that perhaps one of them will—eventually—donate.

In this way, you can educate and explain without seeming to that fundraising takes time. It is about relationships. And those relationships need to be nurtured.

And here we are, back to the point that the more they do their part in fundraising the more successful your fundraising program will be, and the more likely that everyone’s expectations will be met.

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, June 18, 2009

Can Do

I’m having one of those days when I want to run away, pull my blanky over my head, shut out the world. Nothing is particularly wrong, but on days like today it is so easy to focus only on what isn’t right.

Starting the day with the news adds to my malaise. But it is the things closer to home that sit most heavily. Like the fact that everything takes longer than I anticipated, or costs more or—even worse, delivers less. Particularly on days like today, however, the most insidious is the “can’t do” attitude of some of my clients even some of my best friends.

You know this one. Maybe you are this one, and if so—STOP IT, stop it right now. It’s when no matter what solution, idea, suggestion comes your way, you find all the reasons why you cannot implement it.

I never had much use for Spiro Agnew (the disgraced Vice President of the equally disgraced Richard Nixon), but I share his frustration, as shown in his overly alliterative words : Nattering Nabobs of Negativism Over the years I’ve worked with too many people who would rather moan about the darkness than light that proverbial candle.

The rotten economy seems to be making this tendency even worse. My experience is, of course, anecdotal. The client that tells me they can’t spend any time building a development program because the board won’t do its job. Or the development officer who cannot possibly whatever is recommended because “it just won’t work.” My favorite, though, are the people who are stuck in either “We tried that and it didn’t work,” or the ones who tell you that “this is the way we do it.”

Did you ever notice how self-fulfilling prophecies are? If you think you can’t, usually you can’t. And if you focus on what is not, you somehow never notice what is. Fundraising is not all that much different.

If you really believe that your mission is good, that the organization works well, that you use your money wisely, asking people to support your cause isn’t very difficult. It’s not necessarily easy, mind you, but being positive about your cause goes a long way.

Likewise, focusing on what you can do instead of bemoaning what you can’t really does make a difference. First of all, your energy is now on doing something rather than preventing action from happening—and we all know that the more you do anything (eat, sleep, even donate to charity) the more you tend to do it. As you concentrate on what is possible, you will find that you can actually achieve much more than you thought.

No, I’m not being Pollyanna-ish. The first step is to identify what you are supposed to accomplish. Let’s look, for example, at a worst-case scenario: the task that is impossible to accomplish. Rather than focus on that inevitable end, let’s try to figure out what you can do to at least begin walking up that trail.

Raise $1,000,000 when you have no prospects. Really, you have no prospects. And I agree: You probably cannot raise $1 million with no prospects.

You can get stuck there, or stuck at bemoaning the real fact that your board just won’t or can’t introduce you to people with capacity OR you can start to identify what you can do to begin identifying prospects. Does that mean reading the business section of your local newspaper and sending a congratulatory note to that newly named CEO, inviting her to tour your organization….and then following up to set an appointment? Does it mean getting involved with your city council or local service club?

Yes, it’s a long row to hoe (and it is one of those days where I’m throwing in every metaphor in the book!) but (watch it, here comes another) you do need to that first step on every journey. And it does get easier, more do-able. The first few months you may only identify and get to meet one new prospect, but that one will lead you to others. More, you will get better at figuring out what actions are effective and which ones are not.

So make my day—and yours—and stop being so negative. Throw off your blanky and (last one—I promise) pull your head out of the sand and look to the horizons for all the opportunities you do have. I promise, you’ll be awed and amazed at what you can accomplish step by little step.

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, June 9, 2009

Being All You Say You Will Be

I spent much of the other day listening to complaints about development staff. Not any particular staff, just fundraisers in general. It was discomforting because there was so much truth in the generalizations that the complainers made.

”At the interview,” one person said, “we’re told that the person will help us to raise a lot more money. But once they get here, what we actually get are excuses as to why they aren’t raising money.”

He then went on to enumerate those excuses:
1. There isn’t enough buzz about this organization. First I have to improve our communications.
2. The board isn’t stepping up to the plate.
3. The database—it’s either a mess or it’s nonexistent. In either case, the emperor has—er, the fundraiser can’t raise dough.
4. I’m not the person who raises money. You are.
5. I have no time to raise money. I’m focusing on communications.
6. I can’t talk to you right now, I’ve got a lunch date.

Are you wincing? I was. These are excuses I hear every day and somehow it doesn’t matter that there is some truth to every last one of them.

Fundraising does depend on message. Communications are important. So is the involvement of senior management and the Board. I agree that in an ideal situation, the development staff’s role is to coordinate and facilitate fundraising efforts of the Board and senior staff. However, few of us live or work in an ideal world. And given that fundraising is all about relationships, databases do matter and so does lunch. But all these things are parts of what we need to do, and we can’t get lost in one to the expense of actually getting out there and coming back with financial commitments.

What’s a fundraiser to do? For starters, understand your job (and make sure that your bosses and the Board understand it also). Some of you are not going to like this, but the definition of fundraising includes variations on these words from Wikipedia: “…by requesting donations from individuals, businesses, charitable foundations, or governmental agencies. “ In other words, whatever else we do, we ask others to support our mission.

In order to make sure you are asking, you really must have a plan and that plan should focus its outcomes on how many requests you will be making. To figure out what that number must be, you must first know how much you need to raise, what the fundraising history of your organization is and how you are going to go about raising funds.

Once you have your outcomes, you can work backward to figure out how best to get there. I like calendars. First you block out all things that will prevent you from fundraising at those times. Holidays, vacations, doctor’s appointments all should be put in this calendar.

Next, put in dates for events, grant deadlines, direct mail, etc. Make sure you are blocking out not just the endgame, but the steps you have to take to get there. Put in times when you will be on the phone, trying to get appointments. Add those appointments. Needless to say, much of this will be changing on a regular basis, but you have to remember that you must control it.

If you want to see three major donor prospects a week, you will probably have to block out several hours a week making those appointments. Try to get into the habit of blocking out those hours a week or two in advance and then treat those as if they were meetings with the President. Only change those times if there is no other option. If you must, practice saying “Gee, I’m sorry. That’s not a good time. How about...” and then fill in with a blank time on your calendar.

But what about that communication plan? And, really, the database is a mess. Well, fine. Calendar in the times you need to spend in those areas. But be realistic. If you are spending 6 hours a day working on a communication plan or fixing the database you are not doing the job that is expected of you. Which brings me to my final piece of advice (well, for this posting): Manage expectations.

Fundraisers have a tendency to oversell what we can do. And those who don’t fundraise rarely understand what it takes to raise funds. A realistic plan with clear outcomes and a calendar which visually shows what is required will go a long way to turning those complaints into compliments.

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, June 2, 2009

How (Not) to Hire a Fundraiser

There were seven of us talking about this and that when the conversation turned to how it was for organizations to hire decent development officers.

It’s because they don’t know what they are looking for and don’t understand what the job should entail,” said one.

”That’s for sure,” said another, which turned the conversation to a dissection of the interviews we’d collectively been on over the years, sharing horror stories and hilarity.

”And then there’s my favorite question,” someone said with a laugh and we all jumped in: Tell us about your largest gift and what your role was in securing it.

I don’t know about you, but over the years, many of the largest gifts received on my watch came in as bequests. Frankly, in most cases, I had nothing to do with it. The second largest gift I ever received grew out of a business deal with my institution. Oh sure, I had to write the proposal and make sure that the right people were involved—and I did arrange for the check presentation.

The third largest fell into my lap when an annual donor called to tell us that he had sold his business and now had a huge an financial problem with appreciated stock. Could we help? You betcha.

This is not to say that what we do isn’t important, but judging by size gift is not the best way to understand how someone goes about the business of raising funds. Indeed, I’ve worked hardest for some of my smallest major gifts. Picture a shrug here. Was I happy that I had spent a lot of time to get a small return? Of course not. But I know that fundraising is about relationships and I also know that the best donor is an existing one, so I knew that over time the odds were that this donor would make a large gift. And it would be because I had cultivated well and—most of all—knew the value of keeping in touch with my donor in between asking for a gift.

So how would I hire a fundraiser? First of all, I would spend a lot of time thinking about what I really wanted this person to do.

Too many nonprofits hire a development director and then expect that person to log in the gifts, send out thank you letters, manage the annual gala and the golf tournament, make nice to board members (but don’t for pity’s sake ask them for anything), keep the files up to date, get out a newsletter, arrange for the bus to pick up….and oh yeah, in your spare time, could you make sure you close the financial gap between our revenue and expenses.

All these tasks may belong in the development department. But not even superman could accomplish all and do any of it well. For starters, these all require different skill sets. Beyond that is the fact that most people who are not in the business of fundraising do not seem to understand that development is not a single thing with a single set of tasks that require a single set of skills to be accomplished in a single timeframe.

The skills to be a good annual giving fundraiser are vastly different from those required of a planned giving officer. Major gifts need a lot of lead-time—and are best accomplished with a team. Each type of fund raising requires different things, and while your organization may be able to afford only one fundraiser, when you start thinking about hiring, be realistic about your specific needs. What type(s) of fundraising does your organization really require?

Be clear about your expectations and make sure that your job description outlines them completely. And then develop questions that will truly dig into a person’s style and beliefs. Make sure your questions will let you know if someone honestly knows how to do the job you want done.

If my organization doesn’t have a robust fund development program, I want to know the steps someone will take to develop one. If we don’t have a rich prospect pool, I will ask what—exactly—will this person in order to create one. I want to know what they think is most important in fundraising, and why. But I don’t really care about the size of the gifts they’ve gotten, or what they are going to tell me they learned from a mistake.

Because I believe that interviews are two way streets, I also want to make sure that my candidates know what they could be getting themselves into. What questions I ask should give them a transparent picture of the situation. If not, why am I asking? I once was asked in great detail—several questions in fact—what I would do in my first 90 days to connect with current major donors. Not a bad question except this particular organization had no current major donors. They had no individual donors at all. They had been largely federally funded and wanted to change that. The questions they should have asked me would have focused on how would I begin to identify major donors and what would I do—if I would do anything—to build an annual giving program.

Hiring the right person is hard. It takes a lot of work and a lot of serious thought and planning. Don’t shortchange yourself, or your new staff person, by creating a job description and developing screening questions that have no connection to reality. The average tenure for a fundraiser is 18 months. Given the disconnect between what most fundraisers think they are getting into and what most of organizations think they are getting, it’s a wonder that fundraisers stay on the job that long!

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