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 janet@janetlevineconsulting.com. Her online grantwriting class is available at www.janetlevineconsulting.com/classes.html.