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