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 na├»ve. 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>