It used to be that a nonprofit leader receiving a check from a donor would smile politely, say a big “Thank You” and go on her way. But just as (seemingly) every aspect of the world as we know it is changing, so too is philanthropy. We are starting to question long-held assumptions about how money is given and how it should be spent.
As a nonprofit leader, if you want to start securing and using money in a more strategic way, if you want to move from fundraising to financing, you need to bring your donors along with you.
It is up to you to enlighten your major donors about how they can use money more effectively. So that instead of being merely the recipient of your donors’ largesse, you become a true partner in putting their money to work for real social change, which is today’s topic in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising blog series.
The Financing Not Fundraising blog series encourages nonprofits to move from the exhausting hamster wheel of fundraising to a long-term, sustainable financing strategy for their work. You can read the entire series here.
We simply can’t sit around and wait for philanthropists to suddenly understand the hurdles nonprofits face. So the next time you meet with a major donor (an individual, foundation or corporate donor with whom you have a one-on-one relationship), make time to have a deeper, different conversation aimed at enlightening them about the realities you face.
Here are some ways to start that conversation with your donors:
“Overhead Isn’t a Dirty Word Anymore.”
The notion that “overhead” expenses, like administrative and fundraising costs, are unseemly in the nonprofit sector is becoming antiquated. Instead there is a growing effort to evaluate nonprofits based on the results they achieve, not the way they spend their money. And effective nonprofits need strong organizations behind their work. Take some time to educate your closest donors about this growing movement to support all aspects (including staffing, systems, technology) of a nonprofit organization.
“These Are The Hurdles Standing In Our Way.”
Let’s face it, most nonprofits struggle with some key organizational challenges. Perhaps you struggle to secure sustainable funding; or you can’t recruit and engage an effective board; or you want to grow, but lack an effective growth plan. Whatever your challenges are, start being more open with your funders about those challenges. It is a risky conversation, to be sure. But I bet that your long-term funders have probably already recognized some of those roadblocks, and your open and honest approach to facing them might start a new conversation about solutions.
“Here Are Some Solutions to Those Hurdles.”
You don’t want simply to tell your donors a laundry list of woes. As my mother always said “Don’t come to me with your problems, come to me with your solutions.” So before you tell your close donors what is holding you back, do your research about how you might overcome those hurdles. If you struggle to bring enough money in the door, perhaps a Financial Model Assessment could help. If you can’t effectively track and communicate with donors, you may need new technology and systems. If you don’t have enough staff to grow your programs, analyze the additional expertise you need and calculate how much it would cost. Put together a thoughtful plan for how you can overcome the obstacles you face.
“Here is How You Can Help.”
Which brings me to the key conversation you need to have to enlighten your donors. You cannot execute on a change plan if you don’t have the resources to do so. That’s where your key donors come in. If you’ve spent the time educating them about organization-building, the key obstacles in your way, and your plan for overcoming those obstacles, then the next logical step is to ask them for help. If you have invested them in the need and direction for change, you are ready to ask them to invest in the solution.
I know it’s difficult for nonprofits and their major donors to have open and honest conversations. But we will never move forward if nonprofit leaders don’t start initiating some difficult, but potentially game-changing conversations with their donors. Indeed, effective social change depends on it.
Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit aimed at ending childhood hunger in America, wrote a really interesting post recently. He argues that nonprofits must be more bold, that the risk aversion that defines the sector is itself holding nonprofits back from creating change.
Shore encourages nonprofit leaders to figure out exactly what they are trying to accomplish:
Nonprofit organizations would be well served to step back from the day-to-day operations and ask themselves what success means, how will they know when they have accomplished their mission, and how will they measure it along the way. It sounds like common sense, but almost no one does it, in part because it’s so hard to do. But if you answer those questions with precision and clarity, and articulate the goal you hope to achieve, everything else falls into place.
And Bill is not alone in making this charge to the nonprofit sector. The Case Foundation, founded by Steve and Jean Case who made millions from AOL, has made its focus getting nonprofits to be more bold, to Be Fearless.
But if we are going to ask nonprofits to think bigger we have to address the elephant in the room: money. Nonprofit leaders often put themselves in a vicious cycle of thinking they don’t have enough money to be risky, so they don’t create ambitious goals, and then their lack of ambition impedes greater outside investment.
It is in fact the very act of being bold that inspires action and investment, that marshals resources to do the impossible. The most obvious example is John F. Kennedy’s 1962 charge to “to go to the moon in this decade.” At the time, the goal he set was crazy. NASA had no idea how they were going to make that happen, and they were already behind the Russian space program. But the very fact that the goal was set, and set so publicly, was inspiring. That simple act of inspiration moved people, money, resources. And Kennedy’s goal came to fruition in July of 1969. The impossible became possible simply because he set a goal.
Often nonprofit leaders are hesitant to set a bold goal because they know they currently don’t have the money, staff, relationships to make it happen. They don’t want to set a goal whose execution is not readily evident. So often nonprofit leaders start from a point of scarcity. They ask the question:
“How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?”
Instead, nonprofit leaders need to start asking the question:
“How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”
It may seem like semantics, but I believe the distinction is profound. Instead of money holding you back, money becomes a tool to employ in accomplishing something much bigger. If you start by setting bold goals about what change you want to create, that very act, the act of putting a stake in the sand, can inspire. And that inspiration can attract the things you need to make your goal a reality.
In order to set bold goals, nonprofit leaders need to remember why they started their organization in the first place and why they continue to come to work each day. What is that passionate resolve that keeps you going every day? Why are you pouring your heart and soul into the work? What ultimately are you trying to change about the world we live in?
Start there. Create your bold goal from that place. Remove the obstacle of not having enough and watch how you suddenly have more than you could have ever imagined. That’s where real change begins.
Photo Credit: Mission Controls celebrates the moon landing, NASA.
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