Predictably, my post last week arguing that nonprofit events aren’t efficient fundraisers caused some controversy. In particular, fundraising consultant, Gayle Gifford and I had an interesting (and very polite) debate about the post.
The exchange with Gayle really made me think and further refine my argument (which is really the point of debate, right?). What our exchange made me realize is that my issue with nonprofit fundraising events goes far beyond my belief that they are inefficient fundraisers.
Rather, my distaste for events stems from the fact that they often perpetuate the charity mindset, a destructive approach that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. The world is changing rapidly and the “charity” model doesn’t work anymore. And in fact, that model holds nonprofits back from becoming more efficient, more sustainable social change machines.
In our debate, Gayle and I discussed how events are merely a symptom of larger changes happening in the economy. As I wrote, nonprofit events are part of a:
“dying mentality that “charity” lives beside,…instead of fully integrated into, the economy. I believe that we are moving to a place where the work of social change (historically the work of “charity”) is fully integrated into the rest of the economy…the work of social change is just as important as the work of making widgets or the work of building roads and everyone understands that in order for all of it to work well, we need to finance it effectively.”
And Gayle argued that what I am describing would be a significant change to the world as we know it:
“I too long for/ and am working for the day when social justice is integrated into our economy as well as our philanthropic life… though that’s going to take some pretty massive restructuring of an economy based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption. But I still hold out that hope.”
But, as I responded, I think that kind of massive restructuring is already well underway:
I agree with you that fully integrating social change into our economy is not going to be quick or easy, but the truth is that it is already happening. There is a real convergence of the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors and the result is that social change is now rather ubiquitous. At the same time, technology and the ways in which we communicate are changing rapidly as well. Add to that a Millennial generation that bakes social change into everything they do, and I think you start to see the beginnings of the “pretty massive restructuring” you and I are talking about. Nonprofits need to do the analysis and abandon activities that just aren’t effective. And then they need to look to some of these structural changes we are witnessing to find more efficient ways to create a sustainable financial model for their social change work.
In my mind, nonprofit fundraising events are anathema because they are symptom of a larger, ineffective way of thinking about nonprofits and the work of social change. Fundraising events are typically run as an aside, a tangential activity that sucks time and money out of a nonprofit and begs otherwise uninterested participants to pay the price of admission. These events keep charity squarely separate from the “real” work of the world.
And I truly believe we have moved past that. There are just too many social challenges to think that benevolent, reciprocity-based “charity” will work anymore. Social change must be bigger, more effective, and more efficiently financed.
When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” supported in part by inefficient, occasional parties, we start creating real investment, real attention, and real change.
Photo Credit: Gerald Ford Library
Fundraising is, for the most part, a fundamentally misunderstood activity. There are a lot of misconceptions, among nonprofit leaders, board members — even donors — about effective ways to bring money in the door.
Here are are a few of the worst delusions about fundraising that persist in the sector:
- Events Are Fundraisers
Very few nonprofit events generate a net income after you factor in the direct (food, venue, invitations, entertainment) and indirect (board and staff time) costs that go into them. They simply are not profit-generating activities. If you are looking to your events to bring in a profit, calculate the cost to raise a dollar to see if they actually are. Some nonprofit leaders argue that events generate value beyond profit, vague terms like “awareness” or “goodwill.” That may be, but unless you follow-up with individual event attendees to turn that increased “awareness” or “goodwill” into money, there is little financial value to events. Turn your energies instead to low-cost, mission-focused cultivation and stewardship events for your major donors and major donor prospects, then you might have something.
- Crowdfunding Creates Revenue
Nope, it doesn’t. Revenue is the on-going money you need to keep your doors open and your operations running. A crowdfunding campaign, by definition, is a one-time deal. It is organized around a specific need or timeframe. Therefore the money it generates is not easily or regularly repeated. Crowdfunding could make sense for a nonprofit hoping to raise startup, growth or capacity capital (all one-time infusions of money). But that Kickstarter campaign is not going to keep the lights on, so look elsewhere (like a financing plan) for sustainable revenue.
- Major Donors Can Be Recruited En Masse
Major donors are secured through a long-term, systematic, one-on-one process. There is no quick way to bring large donors on board. My issue with mass major donor fundraising programs (like the Benevon model) is that when you ask people as a group to pull out their checkbooks, you are leaving money on the table. The check someone feels compelled to write after watching a 20-minute presentation with their friends pales in comparison to the one they will write after you’ve built a one-on-one relationship with them over time. Put together a strategic major donor campaign, along with the infrastructure and systems to execute on it, and you will create a long-term major donor base (and its corresponding revenue stream) for years to come.
- Skimping on Fundraising Staff and Systems Saves Money
While you may save a few thousand dollars in salary by hiring a novice fundraiser (instead of an experienced one), you will cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in missed revenue. The same is true with cheap fundraising systems like an ineffective donor database, an unresponsive website, a cumbersome email marketing system, or a poor (or non-existent) marketing strategy. Figure out what it will really cost to build the fundraising team and systems you need and then raise the capacity capital to get there.
- Endowments Solve Money Woes
Let’s face it, an endowment makes sense for very few nonprofits. Even if you were able to convince donors to let their money just sit in a bank account (which is a big “if”), that money won’t really impact your bottomline. Even if you raise an endowment of $1 million, it will only generate $50,000 (assuming a 5% return) of operating revenue each year. Instead raise a much smaller amount of capacity capital which you could use to strengthen your fundraising infrastructure (more staff, better technology). Those improvements could increase your annual revenue by many times more than $50,000.
It’s time to face the facts. There are smart ways to raise money and there are delusional ways to (not) do it. Embrace the power of money and use it as a tool to create a more effective, sustainable organization.
Photo Credit: TaxCredits
One of the things I love about my job is that I get to travel to different parts of the country talking with groups of social change leaders about how to think about their work in new ways. I speak to nonprofit and philanthropic conferences, events, groups, even boards about trends in the nonprofit sector and how social change leaders must adapt.
Recently I have spoken to groups in Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, Dallas, and Idaho. You can see a video of me speaking to the Seattle Association of Fundraising Professionals Conference below (or click here) where I was talking about one of my most popular topics, How to Move From Fundraising to Financing.
I speak about any of the topics covered in the Social Velocity blog, but here is a general list of topics:
- Moving From Fundraising to Financing
- The Future of the Nonprofit Sector
- Overcoming Nonprofit Myths
- Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader
- The Power of a Theory of Change
- Getting Your Board to Fundraise
- How To Raise Capacity Capital
- Creating a Sustainable Financial Model
- Messaging Impact
- Creating a Succession Plan
- Honest Conversations Between Funders and Nonprofits
- The Critical Connection Between Mission and Money
Photo Credit: Social Velocity
It becomes increasingly obvious to me that the nonprofit sector suffers from a lack of confidence. Centuries of being sidelined as “charities” while the real work of the world (business) took center stage has made the nonprofit sector continually apologize for the work they do and how they do it.
Nowhere is this more true than in the financing of their work.
But for the nonprofit sector to start to demand a seat at the big money table, nonprofits must stop apologizing for needing money. To truly begin to use money as a tool, nonprofit leaders have to stop regretting their need of it and start demanding that they receive enough and the right kinds of money to successfully accomplish their work, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.
Note that this post is included in the recently released Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book.
You can’t simply decide to stop feeling bad about asking for money. Instead you have to find the confidence to identify and secure the right financing for your work.
Ask for Change, Not Your Organization
You shouldn’t be asking for money for your organizational needs, rather you should be asking for money as a vehicle to help your organization create social change. Everyone is uncomfortable when asking for a handout. If instead you are asking for resources to make positive social change, which a donor cares about, it is much more powerful, compelling and confidence-inspiring.
Find the Right People
It surely can be awkward asking for money if you are asking the wrong person. Don’t fall into the trap that many nonprofits do by thinking that anyone with money is a potential donor to your nonprofit. People give based on values, therefore you only want to target people for whom your mission and your work resonate deeply. No matter who your target is (an individual, a foundation, a corporation) think about whether they have the Capacity to give at the level you need, have a Connection to someone at your nonprofit, and have a Concern for your nonprofit’s mission. Being strategic about who you are targeting makes you much more confident when you finally make the ask.
Tie Money to Your Goals
If you know as an organization what you are trying to accomplish and how much that will cost, you will have much more confidence asking for money. Instead of just asking for money, you will be asking for the financing necessary to accomplish your strategic goals. If you have a smart organizational strategy you can confidently ask a potential donor to invest in a solid, well-thought out plan for creating change to a problem they care about. And that’s much less awkward than asking someone to just give, right?
Take Out the Middle Man (or Event)
So many nonprofits sidestep the awkwardness of asking for money for their mission by holding a big gala event instead. The thinking is that if they camouflage the ask inside twinkly lights, great music and food, and a loud band that people won’t mind opening their wallets. Aside from the very real fact that you are leaving money on the table, events simply enable the lack of confidence I am describing. Instead of feeling so guilty about asking for money that you run your board and staff ragged by staging a huge event, take out the middle man and identify, cultivate and solicit donors who truly care about your work and will give more significantly through a major donor campaign.
Share Your Results
If your nonprofit is truly creating social change, then you can very confidently ask others to join you as partners in making that change continue to happen. Collect, analyze and share the results of your nonprofit’s programs. Demonstrate the change that you are creating and that donors care about. With solid results to point to, you can confidently ask other people to invest in your successful work. At the end of the day, if your nonprofit is creating positive community value then you should confidently be asking for the money necessary to make that value grow.
Stop apologizing for needing the financing necessary to do the work and start finding and confidently inviting interested investors to partner with you. In so doing you will be moving your nonprofit from fundraising to financing.
Photo Credit: myguitarzz
Fall is here (at least by my calendar!) and that means new opportunities to spark conversation about how the nonprofit sector is changing and how nonprofit leaders, board members and donors need to as well.
In recent months I’ve spoken in Phoenix, New York, Washington DC, Atlanta, and Australia (via Google). And what all of these events had in common is that the audience was hungry for a new way forward.
What I love most about speaking is that it’s a chance to really open eyes to new ways of thinking. And I love, love, love engaging with the audience to challenge their assumptions and former ways of operating.
For example, at an event last month a board member and I got into a lively debate about whether board members should really be bothering with the money raising aspects of their nonprofit. His argument was that it’s the job of the board to focus on big picture mission and programs, not the day-to-day dollar concerns of the organization. My argument, no surprise, is that you cannot separate mission from money and every board member should play a role in the financial engine of the nonprofit.
As we continued to debate, the board member admitted that he actually had helped to open a door to a significant (tens of thousands of dollars) contract for the nonprofit. So in essence he was arguing against what he’d actually helped bring about. Through the discussion he came to realize that if every board member were asked to tap into their skills, experience and networks to accelerate the financial health of the nonprofit (as he himself had already done) it could be transformational.
I love those light bulb moments.
The reality is that often nonprofits exist in a series of catch-22s where board members don’t know how to help, nonprofit leaders don’t know how to get board members moving, funders don’t know the questions to ask, and nonprofits don’t know how to identify their constraints. So we keep having the same conversations over and over again with little change.
Which is why I love to speak to groups and shake up these stale conversations.
Here are some of the most popular topics people invite me to speak about:
Financing not Fundraising
Based on the popular blog series, Financing Not Fundraising, I show nonprofits a new, more effective way to fund their work. I explain concrete ways to move efforts to raise money in a totally new direction, resulting in more money flowing through the doors, a more engaged and effective board, a more energized and integrated staff and ultimately more achievement of mission.
The Future of the Nonprofit Sector
The nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that fund it are changing dramatically. A growing convergence between the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors is altering how social change happens and increasing competition is forcing nonprofits to shift the way they have always done business. Nonprofit leaders must understand trends and embrace change to emerge stronger and more effective.
The Power of a Theory of Change
A theory of change is an argument for why a nonprofit exists. It is the fundamental building block to creating a strategic direction, measuring your work, garnering more support and ultimately creating more impact in your community. Funders, regulators and others are increasingly demanding that nonprofits demonstrate how their work creates community change. I show nonprofits how to create a theory of change and then use it to drive greater support, engagement and success.
Jump Starting Your Board
A nonprofit’s board is often not doing as much as they could to bring money in the door. I take the fear and inaction out of raising money. I show board and staff how money works in the nonprofit sector, where the board can be most effective, how to get the board excited and engaged in fundraising, and the concrete steps to get them moving.
You can see a more complete list of my speaking topics, past speaking events, and videos on the Speaking page of the website.
If you want to start having new, transformational conversations, invite me to come speak. I’d love it!
I’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
Key to any smart nonprofit financing strategy is an analytical approach to focusing on your most profitable activities. Part of this requires calculating the cost of fundraising of every revenue-generating activity your organization engages in. But the more important, and difficult, part is deciding when to stop an activity that doesn’t make financial sense anymore, which is the topic of today’s installment of our regular Financing Not Fundraising blog series.
To recap, our Financing Not Fundraising blog series was born out of the reality that fundraising in the nonprofit sector is broken. 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 and instead work to create a broader approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change. You can read the entire series here.
In the world of fundraising, nonprofit leaders often make decisions based on what will ruffle the fewest feathers rather than what is financially best for the organization. For example, a nonprofit shouldn’t continue hosting their annual gala year after year simply because they always have, or because their board, donors or staff think it should continue, or because of some vague “goodwill” it creates.
Rather a nonprofit’s leaders should make a data-driven decision each and every year. When a fundraising activity starts to cost an organization more than it brings in, it’s time to abandon that activity. The same is true of a foundation grant that takes many more resources than it generates, a direct mail campaign that costs the organization more than it brings in, or any other revenue-generating event that is financially ineffective.
I know that the idea of abandoning what an organization has done in the past could cause tremendous political upheaval, so it is absolutely necessary that you follow a disciplined and defensible approach to uncovering and then abandoning costly activities. Because if you don’t, they will eventually bleed your nonprofit dry.
Here is the approach to take:
- Calculate. You need to know the net revenue and cost to raise a dollar of every revenue-generating activity your organization engages in. This includes each event, each direct mail and email campaign, the grants you write, your major donor campaign, and so on. Here’s how to do those calculations.
- Compare. Then compare the net revenue and cost to raise a dollar calculations of every one of your activities to see how they stack up against each other.
- Create 3 Lists. Assign each of your revenue-generating activities to one of three lists:
- Abandon: Activities with a cost to raise a dollar above $1.00 should be put here.
- Evaluate: Activities with a cost to raise a dollar just under $1.00 go here. You may want to investigate whether you can cut direct or indirect costs in order to lower the cost to raise a dollar.
- Invest: Activities with the lowest cost to raise a dollar are the most profitable to your nonprofit, so you should work to invest more time and resources in these activities.
- Gather Support. It’s not enough to have the executive director and/or development director on board with a decision to abandon an activity. You have to make the case to the entire staff and board, and possibly some invested donors (like event sponsors). Walk them through your net revenue and cost to raise a dollar calculations. Help them understand that this particular event, campaign, foundation proposal actually costs the organization money. Focus on how you could reallocate resources to more financially lucrative activities.
- Pull the Plug. Please, please, please don’t do the analysis, build your case and then get cold feet. It takes real courage to make hard decisions, especially in the face of opposition. But if you know you must end something then DO IT! Don’t let anyone talk you out of making a smart financial decision.
I would love to see more nonprofit leaders abandon financially draining activities. It is not easy, I know, but it is the only path toward financial sustainability.
If you want to learn more about how to do this analysis, view our Calculating the Cost of Fundraising webinar. And if you want to learn more about applying the other 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: Skley
In part 9 of our ongoing blog series, Financing Not Fundraising, we are discussing the importance of calculating the return on investment of every revenue-generating activity your nonprofit undertakes. This can be fairly easily understood through two basic, but critical analyses: net revenue raised and cost to raise a dollar. If these two calculations were applied to every money-making effort a nonprofit engages in, organizations could quickly determine which are the most effective activities and scarce resources could be more profitably allocated accordingly.
If you are new to this ongoing series, our Financing Not Fundraising series argues that fundraising holds the nonprofit sector back by keeping nonprofits in the starvation cycle of trying to do more and more with less and less. To overcome this, 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 create a broader approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change. You can read the entire series here.
There are two simple, and related, calculations necessary to determine the effectiveness of a nonprofit’s revenue-generating activities. The first is net revenue. NET revenue is so much more informative than GROSS revenue. Gross revenue is the total of all money brought in because of a fundraising activity (a direct mail appeal, a gala, a foundation grant, a major gifts campaign). But that figure is meaningless until you understand what it COST you to bring that money in the door. These costs are both DIRECT (the materials required for the activity, the staff that worked directly on the activity) and INDIRECT (volunteer hours, overhead staff time). You only really know how much money you made once you subtract the costs to make it. Thus,
Net Revenue = Gross Revenue – Fundraising Costs (Direct and Indirect)
Let me give you an example. Let’s pretend that a nonprofit organization with a $500,000 annual budget throws an annual gala with a band, catering, and an auction. One staff member spends half their time getting the event together, and a board committee helps sell tables and provides oversight. At the end of the event the organization grosses $100,000. They are thrilled that they have made 20% of their annual budget in one night, right? Wrong.
That’s only the gross revenue. What is the net revenue of this gala, i.e. what did it cost them to raise that money? The direct expenses for the event (the band, venue, food, decorations, invitations, etc.) cost them $50,000.
Direct Expenses = $50,000
But they also need to factor in the indirect expenses. Their event coordinator spent half a year preparing for this event. Their Executive Director attended meetings, made phone calls to invite people, and came to the event. The Development Director worked on the event. And the board committee put in many hours planning, marketing, and attending the event. So if we calculate the hourly rate of those staff member’s time (salary and benefits) and multiplied it by the hours they each worked, we’d get the cost of their time. We also need to do the same for board members. We can use the standard value of volunteer hours ($20.25) multiplied by the number of board members who worked on the event and the average number of hours they spent. If we add all of this up we get:
Event Coordinator = $15,000
Executive Director = $4,000
Development Director = $5,000
Board Members = $3,000
Total = $27,000
So the total costs of the gala were:
$50,000 (direct expenses) + $27,000 (indirect expenses) = $77,000
And, the net revenue on this event was:
$100,000 (gross revenue) – $77,000 (direct and indirect costs) = $23,000
Which brings me to the second critical calculation: cost to raise a dollar. How much did it cost the organization to raise that $23,000?
Cost to Raise $1.00 = Costs (Direct and Indirect) / Net Revenue
$77,000 / $23,000 = $3.35
So it cost this organization $3.35 to raise $1.00. That’s not an attractive return is it?
Although this organization actually made money, the cost of making that money is far larger than the money they made. And how does the cost of making this money compare to their other fundraising activities?
Well, let’s take another example. Pretend this organization hires a major gift officer at a salary of $65,000 per year plus benefits. Her salary and benefits are the direct costs. The indirect costs could include: the Executive Director’s and board members’ time to go on donor and prospect visits, creation of materials, and the sending of thank you letters. The total for these direct and indirect costs would be $100,000. Say that this major gift officer raises $500,000 per year in major gifts.So the net revenue would be:
$500,000 (gross revenue) – $100,000 (direct and indirect costs) = $400,000 Net Revenue
And the cost to raise a dollar would be:
$100,000 (direct and indirect costs) / $400,000 (net revenue) = $0.25
So it takes $0.25 to raise $1.00. That’s a dramatically better return on investment than the gala that cost $3.35 to raise $1.00 above, isn’t it?
I encourage you to run the numbers on your own fundraising activities and then compare. How does your net revenue and cost to raise a dollar compare across activities? Which are the most effective fundraising activities? What if you poured more effort and resources into the higher net activities? More money would contribute to your bottomline, meaning more money to spend on the social impact you want to create.
That could be transformative.
If you want to learn more about calculating the costs of fundraising, download our Financing Not Fundraising: Calculating the Costs of Fundraising webinar, or download the 27-page Financing Not Fundraising e-book.
Photo Credit: sykez