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When Individual Donor Fundraising Goes Well

Fundraising Bright SpotsThis week the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund released the second in their series of reports about fundraising.  Their Fundraising Bright Spots report, by Kim Klein from Klein & Roth Consulting and Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, joins their Beyond Fundraising report, released last month.

These two reports are part of the Haas, Jr. Fund’s larger “Resetting Development” effort “to ‘learn out loud’ about how to…help put the sector on a surer path to sustainability and long-term success.” Given my concerns about their Beyond Fundraising report, the Haas, Jr. Fund very graciously asked me to review this latest report.

This new report analyzes 16 social change organizations that have been successful at individual fundraising to determine what the sector can learn from them.

I am always a huge fan of case studies. I think there is much to be gained by looking at others who have done things well, so I applaud the Haas, Jr. Fund for moving from theory into practice to see what is working in individual fundraising.

But first, we have to understand this report for what it is. This report only looks at nonprofits that have been successful with individual donor fundraising, which is just one of several ways that nonprofits bring money in the door. And the report only looks at “progressive organizations with limited budgets and small staffs.” So I would argue that this report and the case studies contained within it will only be applicable to similar types of nonprofits that have individual fundraising as part of their financial model.

Nevertheless, the report finds four themes present in these 16 social change organizations, which are that fundraising:

  1. Is core to the organization’s identity
  2. Is distributed broadly across staff, board and volunteers
  3. Succeeds because of authentic relationships with donors
  4. Is characterized by persistence, discipline, and intentionality

Many, if not all, of these themes make up the “culture of philanthropy” that the Beyond Fundraising report described.

There were several things I liked about the Bright Spots report.

First, I love the report’s focus on making fundraising part of the job of an entire organization’s board and staff. Two case studies in particular, Jewish Voice for Peace and Mujeres Unidas y Activas, demonstrate how major donor fundraising should be shared among senior staff and board members. For example Jewish Voice for Peace “has 57 portfolio managers from across the staff, board, and volunteers who together manage 600 major donor relationships in addition to other roles they play within the organization.”

Indeed the report points out that in these 16 organizations the head fundraiser’s role is to marshal staff, board and other organization resources toward fundraising, which I love: “Time and again, we heard from the development directors at these organizations that their job is to coordinate, to teach, to coach, and to inspire. The individuals in this role are highly relational and they take deep satisfaction in enabling staff, board, volunteers, and members to be successful fundraisers.”

Second, I really appreciate the Breast Cancer Action case study, which emphasizes creating a give/get fundraising requirement for the entire board:

At Karuna [Jaggar]’s first in-person board meeting as the new executive director, she laid out her desire to establish a board give-and-get policy to her board members, each of whom had been told explicitly upon recruitment that they did not have to participate in fundraising…After an in-depth discussion, they set a give-and-get policy of $10,000 per board member. “Maybe we lost some potential board members who felt they couldn’t do it,” said [board chair] Tracy [Weitz], “but only in the first year. Now, our veteran board members can share their fundraising stories with prospective members and say, ‘I’ve been fine, and you’re going to be fine.’” It’s important to note that BCAction does not prioritize personal wealth now more than it did before this policy change, but rather invests the time to support board members’ success, regardless of personal financial capacity, in the fundraising program.”

Yes! That’s exactly the way to get every board member involved in fundraising, of which I am a huge proponent.

Third, the Bright Spots report points out the need to fully integrate marketing and fundraising in a nonprofit: “A critical aspect of building and refining an individual donor program is tending to the intersection of communications and fundraising…development and communications are inextricably linked and staff driving these efforts work extremely collaboratively.” Agreed, fundraising can not sit on the sidelines of anything an organization does, but must be fully integrated throughout the organization.

Now, let’s get to where I think the report falls short.

First, I would have liked to understand better how these 16 organizations were selected as “bright spots.” I think in holding up organizations as exemplars it is critical to understand in what ways they are exemplars. While the beginning of the report describes what these organizations have in common: “a deep commitment to and strong track record with raising money from individuals,” and “individual support is a consistent part of their overall revenue strategy,” and the report highlights some of their individual donor fundraising successes, it is unclear why these 16 organizations in particular are held out as bright spots.

In my mind, I would select case study organizations that achieved: individual giving growth year over year, and/or higher than average donor retention rates, and/or more profitable than average fundraising activities, and/or demonstrated long-term financial viability. While some of the 16 organizations had significant individual donor growth, not all of them did, so I’m not sure what selection metrics were used. I would like to understand how the Bright Spot organizations’ fundraising metrics compare to their most fundraising-successful peers.

It is particularly important to understand what makes these organizations bright spots when the report points out that some of the 16 social change organizations are struggling with scaling or making sustainable their individual fundraising efforts:

“We heard from the Bright Spot leaders who want to grow their organizations that they are grappling with how to scale this organizational highly relational approach to fundraising. And many of them acknowledge how dependent their success is on long-time leaders, despite their distributed approach to fundraising…Many of the Bright Spots will soon have to adapt to very long-time leaders moving on.”

Second, the report does not make a clear distinction between small donor fundraising (one-to-many cultivation and solicitation of donors) versus major donor fundraising (one-to-one cultivation and solicitation). I wonder if the four themes that the report uncovers differ, and if so how, between fundraising activities targeting many small donors versus fundraising activities targeting a few large donors.

Third, the report touches briefly on the 16 organizations’ fundraising systems and use of data and metrics, but not in a robust way. I would have loved to understand better the kinds of systems these bright spot organizations use and what metrics they are tracking and trends they are seeing. While I understand the report’s overall emphasis on some of the “soft” skills of fundraising (“authentic relationships with donors,” “culture of philanthropy”) I also think that understanding the “hard” skills (systems, metrics) is key to replicating fundraising success (and overall financial sustainability).

Fourth, just as the Beyond Fundraising report did, the Bright Spots report continues to leave the problems (and in this case, the successes) with fundraising largely in the hands of individual nonprofits and their leaders. I am still hungry for case studies and research about how nonprofits (and their funders) can overcome the more systemic financial flaws inherent in our social change sector.

In the end, I would say that the Bright Spots report gives us a glimpse into a piece of what works to bring money in the door. For social movement, individual donor fundraising at small nonprofits, the Bright Spots report provides some important and useful insights. But for more broadly understanding what contributes to overall financial sustainability in the nonprofit sector, this report falls short.

But as I have said before, I don’t fault the Haas, Jr. Fund for exploring these issues. Indeed, they are one of very few funders contributing to the knowledge base about what creates a more financially sustainable nonprofit sector. We just need more of them.

Photo Credit: Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

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Financing Not Fundraising: Aligning Money and Mission

In our ongoing series “Financing Not Fundraising,” we are exploring the argument that nonprofits need to stop fundraising and start financing social impact. The idea is that nonprofits have to break out of the narrow view that traditional FUNDRAISING (individual donor appeals, events, foundation grants) will completely fund all of their activities.  Instead, they must work to create a broader approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change.

The previous posts in this series include an overview of the idea and how to create a financial plan.

The next piece of the puzzle is to create alignment in your nonprofit organization between mission (your reason for existing), core competencies (what you do better than anyone else in the world), and money (how you sustain yourself financially).

An organization in alignment looks like this:

Mission, Money, Competency

The mission is supported by the organization’s core competencies which both feed into how it brings money in the door.

When one or two of these three elements are out of alignment, chaos can ensue.  For example:

Mission is misaligned: An organization that can generate money and operates great programs, but can’t bring it all together in a coherent single purpose, this is otherwise known as “mission creep.”

Core competencies are misaligned: An organization that has a great, clear idea of what they do (mission) and can raise money around it, but can’t deliver. This is reminiscent of the dot com era when there were countless businesses with fabulous ideas that successfully raised VC or angel money, but didn’t really have a core competency or product to deliver and eventually went bust.

Resource engine is misaligned: This final misalignment is the one nonprofits are most familiar with.  An organization has a great mission and can produce great results, but they can’t find a way to make the organization financially sustainable.

And it is this money misalignment where Financing Not Fundraising comes into play. Traditional nonprofit fundraising is often an example of money misalignment. It looks like this:

  • The development staff (money) and program staff (mission) sit in separate parts of the building, rarely ever talk to each other, and make their respective decisions without consulting the other
  • The board and non-fundraising staff disdain money and refuse to participate in bringing it in the door
  • A nonprofit creates fundraising events that have nothing, or very little, to do with the mission of the organization
  • A nonprofit raises money around gimmicks and donor benefits instead of around the mission and impact of the organization
  • The organization’s strategic plan only contains goals for program delivery (mission), not how to finance that delivery (money)

And that’s just a beginning list. Shoving money to the side and ignoring it is the equivalent of a business owner saying they don’t need to pay attention to sales. “Nonprofit” means that individuals (private owners or shareholders) don’t gain financial benefit, it doesn’t mean that the entity doesn’t make money.

To get money back in alignment with mission and competencies nonprofits need to do several things:

  1. Embrace the idea that money is not a necessary evil to your organization, but rather an equal and supportive partner to your mission
  2. Train your entire board and staff on money in the nonprofit sector in general, and how money comes in the door at your specific organization
  3. Make sure that your strategic plan has a realistic and thoughtful financial plan attached to it
  4. Move fundraising activities and special events away from convoluted ways to extract money from people and towards celebrating and educating the community about the impact you are achieving
  5. Be up front with board members, donors and staff about how much it costs to fund every aspect of the organization’s operations and the various ways that money offsets those costs

Instead of sequestering fundraising away from the “true work” of the organization, nonprofits must fully integrate financing into their mission. It’s the only real way to create social impact.

If you want to learn more about applying the concepts of Financing Not Fundraising to your nonprofit, check out our Financing Not Fundraising Webinar Series, or download the 27-page Financing Not Fundraising e-book.

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