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major donor fundraising

The Problem With Nonprofit Events

nonprofit eventI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders recently about how to Move from Fundraising to Financing, and when I came to the part about events, the room went predictably quiet. Looks of shock shot around the room. Events are so ubiquitous in the nonprofit sector, how could I possibly say they have little financial value? It was heresy.

My argument in that room (and always, always) is that the nonprofit sector’s belief that events are a legitimate way to raise money is misguided.

For the most part, when you factor in the direct (food, venue, invites, entertainment) and indirect (staff, board and volunteer time) costs of an event, you either break even (best case) or lose money (worst case). The error many nonprofit leaders (board and staff alike) make is looking only at the gross revenue of an event (“We made $50,000!”) as opposed to the net revenue (“After factoring in expenses, we actually only made $20,000 on that event…”) and the cost to raise a dollar (“Whoa, it cost us $1.50 to raise $1.00 at that event!”).

Because it was a group of nonprofit leaders, they remained polite despite their disbelief (God love them!). But they did argue with me, and here is how I responded to each of their refutations:

“Board and staff time aren’t event expenses.”
The argument is that since staff salaries are a fixed expense and board (and other volunteer) time costs nothing, you shouldn’t include these items as event expenses. But you absolutely should. Every resource a nonprofit has (especially board and staff time) is limited. When you ask a board member to spend 20 hours volunteering to put on and attend an event, that is 20 hours of their time you can’t use in other (more profitable) ways. This is the idea of opportunity costs. As a nonprofit leader you want to make sure you are putting each resource to its highest and best use.

“Even if an event isn’t financially profitable, it raises awareness.”
I know I’m on a “raising awareness” rampage lately, but an expensive and time consuming activity like an event should never have such a vague goal guiding it. Awareness is not a real, tangible financial result. Awareness does not equal action, and it certainly doesn’t equal money. An event attendee’s vague sense of having had a good time quickly dissipates. Instead of trying to raise awareness, create a real strategy for getting in front of and encouraging action from your target funders.

“But our event builds our brand.”
Building your brand is about as meaningless as raising awareness. Forget the marketing jargon, the word “brand” is just a fancy word for what people think of your organization. I know this is blasphemy, but it simply doesn’t matter what people who are not in your target audience(s) think about your organization. In reality you only want to “build your brand” among those you are specifically targeting. So segment the market, figure out your target audiences, and then find cheaper, more specific ways to get them to act.

“We use events to connect with major donors”
Yes, now you are on to something. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that you should never host events. To the contrary, there absolutely are times when events make sense. When events are mission-focused, free to attend, and focused on cultivating and/or stewarding current or potential major donors (individuals, foundations, corporate leaders) they can make a lot of sense. But ONLY if you follow up with attendees on a one-on-one basis to further invest them in the organization and eventually ask them to contribute or renew their contributions. And ONLY if you don’t charge them to attend so that you can ask them for a bigger, and more meaningful gift down the road.

I stand by my claim: nonprofit events are not efficient fundraisers. Do the math on your events and see if they generate a positive cost to raise a dollar. If not, you should restructure or abandon them. But don’t continue doing something you hope is making money when it isn’t.

Photo Credit: Graham-Killers


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Thursday, September 10th, 2015 Innovators 14 Comments

A Case Study in Getting Nonprofit Fundraising Right

STsolarcisternI’ve written before about when nonprofit fundraising goes really wrong. An organization that I donated to a few times refused to leave me alone after 11 years of ignored solicitations. Today I want to flip it and talk about a nonprofit that has done a great job at fundraising. (In some ways they mirror my earlier post about when fundraising goes really right.)

Foundation Communities is a nonprofit in Austin, Texas that provides affordable housing and support services to low income families and individuals. About 4 years ago a friend invited me to a lunch at a Foundation Communities housing complex. It was NOT the traditional nonprofit gala luncheon.

Instead, when we walked into the common area of the housing complex there were box lunches waiting for us. The executive director and a couple of board members gave us a 5-minute description of what Foundation Communities is and does and why they are passionate about it. Then we watched a 10-minute video of the program in action and interviews with their some of their clients.

Finally our group was split into smaller groups led by a board member to tour the complex. On the tour, the board member explained how Foundation Communities uses an innovative financing model to acquire ineffective housing, renovate it and make it livable and affordable, while providing much needed after-school care, financial services and other help to the residents there.

At the end of the presentations and the tour we were asked to fill out a brief card with our name, contact info, and if/how we’d like to get involved with Foundation Communities (volunteer, take another tour, meet with a staff member). We were also asked if we could recommend a friend who might like to come to a future lunch. Foundation Communities holds these informal lunches every month. With that, the hour was up and we were on our way.

After that interesting and compelling introduction to the organization I started giving an annual gift. They were always very prompt with both an email thank you (since I made my donation online) and a paper thank you explaining how my gift would be used and all of the great work Foundation Communities is doing. Every once in awhile I would get an email about another specific campaign for which they needed my help. For example, right before school started one year they asked me to contribute the cost of a back pack and supplies for one of the children in their program. I found the email timely and compelling, so I complied.

When I gave my annual contribution again this year at Christmastime, I received a very nice voice mail from their Development Director thanking me for the gift and inviting me to call her back if I wanted to learn more about the program or had questions. I also received my usual email and paper thank yous, but this time with a special handwritten note from the executive director on the paper thank you.

I continue to give year after year to Foundation Communities because I am impressed by the organization, the results they are achieving, and the organization’s leadership. But I also continue to give because I appreciate how they treat me as a donor. They are informative, gracious, timely, transparent, but not annoying or needy.

Obviously Foundation Communities is way ahead of the curve, but I think they could take it further and gain even more support in the process:

  • Instead of assuming that I want their paper newsletter every month (which I do not), they could ask me via email, phone or letter how and when to best communicate their results with me (email, phone call, social media, etc).
  • Because I have a giving history with the organization, they could attempt (via email, phone, social media) to get to know me and my interests in order to 1) understand how to find more donors like me and 2) to explore whether they can increase my giving level.
  • Since I have given to them over time, and I am active with social media they might explore whether I would be willing to tap into my networks to find others interested in supporting their organization.

Foundation Communities is doing a lot of things right. Other nonprofits could learn from their example about how to consistently and effectively build a donor base. But I’d also love to see Foundation Communities build on their great work to secure even more support.

Photo Credit: Foundation Communities

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Financing Not Fundraising: Jump Start Your Board

In part 12 of our on-going Financing Not Fundraising blog series we’re talking about activating an often under-used nonprofit financing resource: the board of directors. The words “fundraising” and “board” can sometimes seem so incongruous that it results in  a lot of eye-rolling on the part of an executive director. As a general (and probably optimistic) rule, nonprofit boards of directors are not very helpful at bringing money in the door. It is often a chicken or the egg scenario that leaves many nonprofits at an impasse. But I believe it is up to the executive director to get tough and strategic about getting her board to take action.

If you are new to our Financing Not Fundraising blog series, the series is about how nonprofits must 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 create a broader, more strategic approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change. You can read the entire series here.

If you want to learn more about how to apply the concepts of Financing Not Fundraising to your nonprofit, check out our Financing Not Fundraising Webinar Series.

Here are some ways to get your board to bring more money in the door:

  • Make Them Strategic. Involve them in strategic planning. No one wants,  or is able, to raise money without a bigger plan. If you don’t currently have a strategic plan, put one together, but make sure to get the board involved in the whole process. It must be their strategic plan if they are going to help finance it. If you already have a strategic plan, make sure that you are updating the board, and more importantly, asking for their help on implementing it at every board meeting. It’s not enough to create a strategic plan, you must keep the board engaged in making it come to fruition.

  • Force Them to Give. Once your board is excited about the strategic plan and the future direction of the organization, get them to invest. It is unconscionable to me that there are still nonprofit board members who don’t make a financial contribution to their organization. Make it abundantly clear that a contribution (at a level significant to them) is a requirement of service. No one can convincingly ask someone else for money if they aren’t giving themselves. End of story.

  • Focus Their Fundraising. The highest and best fundraising use of a board member is major donor recruitment. Stop asking board members to be involved in any and all aspects of fundraising (event planning, direct mail letter creation, grant writing). Instead have them focus on tapping into their networks to bring people to the organization. And no matter how “connected” you may or may not think your board members are, believe me, their networks are vast. They include their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, social media fans/followers, church congregants, fellow alumni and on and on. Ask each board member to come up with 5 people in their network that they think have the capacity to give at your major donor level. Then have the board member spend the year focusing on getting those people in the door.

  • Integrate Money into Every Conversation. A lot of boards don’t like to talk about money: either raising it, or how it is spent. Boards often have limited financial management conversations, skimpy or non-existent finance committees, and a general preference for discussing mission over money. But you can’t let them get away with that. It is absolutely critical that money be fully integrated into any conversation the board has. They must understand what the financial model of the organization is and be continually monitoring the ability of that model to deliver on mission.

  • Don’t Sugar Coat Anything. The tendency in the sector is to treat a board as the organization’s most important donors and from which you hide the truths about your organization. But you need to move beyond that and start helping the board to understand the harsh realities of your work. The next time your board asks you to raise more money without additional staff, or add programs without new funding, or go down a rabbit hole for no reason, tell them “No.” Give them your honest appraisal of what the organization should or shouldn’t do. And make sure they listen.

Boards need to step up. There is no doubt. But it is up to the executive director to make sure that they do. By getting your board to be strategic, focused, invested, integrated and aware they can start helping to finance your work.

If you want help jump starting your board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” e-book.

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.

Photo Credit: Intercontinental Hong Kong

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Financing Not Fundraising: Finding Individual Donors

In part four of our ongoing Financing Not Fundraising blog series, we are focusing on the most untapped, greatest sustainable funding opportunity facing the nonprofit sector. Individual donor dollars make up 80% of the private money entering the nonprofit sector each year, compared to 5% from corporate dollars and 12% from foundation dollars. Yet many nonprofit organizations don’t know how to effectively embrace the full opportunity of that market.

Here are five steps to get you started:

  1. Move Beyond Direct Mail. While direct mail used to be the only way to find individuals willing to support your cause, there are now many additional channels you must explore to stay relevant (email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc). Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s new book The Networked Nonprofit makes a fundamental argument about how nonprofit organizations can use social media to leverage people outside of the organization (donors, volunteers, supporters) to build momentum (resources, funds, mind-share, advocacy, etc) for their cause. If nonprofits more effectively used social media to build their networks, individual donor fundraising could be revolutionized.

  2. Don’t Separate Donors From Other Supporters. Just as fundraising is often sequestered from the program work of the organization, funders are also often kept separate from other organization supporters.  Volunteers are often left off funding appeals for fear of asking them to do “one more thing” for the organization. And funders are not asked to become volunteers or advocates. Instead of putting organization supporters into silos, open all opportunities to everyone. Better yet, ask (or allow) supporters to create their own ways to accelerate the work of the organization (like tapping into their own networks to help). Once integrated, the possibilities for building support are endless.

  3. Stop Fearing the Major Donor. Many nonprofit organizations would love to have major individual gifts coming in the door, but don’t know how to find and solicit those donors. The process, once understood, is actually pretty simple. You must identify, qualify, cultivate, solicit and, most importantly, steward donors. Use your board, volunteers, supporters to help identify and qualify people who meet three criteria: 1) belief in the organization’s cause 2)connection to a person at the organization 3)personal capacity to give at your major donor level. Once board, friends, supporters are involved in a well-defined process, major donors are sure to follow.

  4. Get Your Board Focused. Boards of Directors are often misused in fundraising. They serve on event committees, write grants, make cold calls, or seal envelopes. Instead of using them for these low ROI activities, give them one fundraising job and one job only: to help move major donors through the cycle outlined above. Even if board members don’t have networks of wealthy friends, there is still much they can do to help raise major donor dollars. Board members can help identify major donor prospects, uncover information about potential prospects, invite prospects to a cultivation event, go on a major donor call, send thank you notes or make phone calls. The board is a key part of your organization’s network, put them to their highest and best use.

  5. Do Away With the Pity Ask. To effectively raise money from individual donors, especially major donors, you have to move away from the pity donation and toward the investment opportunity. Donations and investments differ in every aspect:
    And investment opportunities are not only for the major donor. Even your smallest donor can be made to understand the broader impact of the organization’s work, how important their dollar is, and what the return on investment can be.

Individuals are able and want to do so much more. If nonprofits more effectively seized opportunities to engage and invest individuals, the sector could become more sustainable and better able to create change.

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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