Thankful nonprofit quotes

November 24, 2021

Last month, in the spirit of Halloween, I shared the scariest things I’ve heard uttered by nonprofit leaders.

As a counterpoint, this month I offer up some “thankful” comments about and from nonprofit leaders.

These are things I’ve actually heard nonprofit leaders say, or close paraphrases, to the best of my recollection and/or based on looking back at interview notes I’ve taken down over the years.

  1. Our donors are really amazing. Getting to know them is one of the best parts of my job as Executive Director.

  2. I really enjoy working with the rest of the staff. The team has really gelled over the last few months. It gives me such a thrill to see them working so well together.

  3. It feels so good to start work every day knowing I’m making people’s lives better.

  4. I love, love, love our volunteers.

  5. My board is our secret superpower. They provide so much great energy for our work.

  6. When we lost our largest funder, our board really stepped up and helped me find a path forward.

  7. I’ve only been at the organization a couple of years, and I’m sure I’ve made several life-long friends already.

  8. When one of the students [we’re teaching] eyes just light up because they’ve learned something new, I have to resist the urge to go give the a high five.

  9. I know this sounds nerdy, but I love crunching data with our fundraising database.

  10. [AND LASTLY, MY FAVORITE]: The strategic plan has been incredibly helpful as a roadmap and in securing big gifts.

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Scary nonprofit quotes

October 29, 2021

In honor of Halloween 2021, here are the the scariest things I’ve heard from nonprofit leaders.  These are paraphrases as I wasn’t writing them down at the time.  If you read one of these and don’t think they’re scary, let me know and we can discuss. 

  1. I don’t have time to plan.  I’m just too busy.
  2. I don’t want an engaged board of directors.  They’ll just get in my way as Executive Director.
  3. I sent an email to my board asking for someone to volunteer for a task and nobody responded.  I guess they don’t care.
  4. I’ll be so glad when we get our Development Director hired and I can cut back on most of my time fundraising.
  5. “I hate hitting up people for money,” said by a Development Director.
  6. Not really something said, but I had lunch with a new Development Director.  It was a get acquainted meeting.  They talked about themself the whole time and didn’t ask me a single question.
  7. My staff’s pretty mediocre, but I’ve just come to accept that’s the way it is.
  8. I don’t care what the data says, I know it’s true.
  9. “It’s not that I don’t want coalition partners, it’s just that I think the other organizations who’re doing similar work just keep making stupid decisions.”  (Pretty sure that one’s an exact quote).
  10. Nonprofit leader: “I was really upset with the decision we made to X.” 

    Me: “But you didn’t say anything during the meeting!” I replied.  ‘If you disagreed with the potential decision, why didn’t you speak up?”

    “I didn’t want to make anyone upset,” he replied.

Have you heard any of these before? Something else scary to share?

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Ticket to Ride and nonprofit leadership

January 27, 2021

Filed under: Communications,Consulting,Fundraising,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

One of my pandemic “weaknesses” has been the amount of time I’ve spent playing Ticket to Ride – the online version.  For those not familiar with the game, you can read about it here. 

In short, your intent in the game is to connect train routes between different cities, collecting cards of varying colors and playing them in a strategic way before your opponents take the connections you need.   Longer routes are worth more than shorter routes.  You can add routes during the middle of the game, not just the beginning. For the most part, two players can’t use the same connection.

In order to “justify” my time spent, I started thinking recently about the lessons Ticket to Ride offers to nonprofit leaders.   

So here, without further delay, are my top 5 lessons for nonprofit organizations.  Of course, I’m pretty sure these lessons are worth reading even if you have never and will play the game . . .  .

Lesson 1 – In Ticket to Ride, there is a tension between waiting to have all your cards collected to complete a whole series of connections versus seizing some early connections that are good enough to get you started.  If you wait too long, though, you can miss your moment — in particular, somebody else may claim the same connection.

I’ve seen some nonprofit leaders fail because they were so focused on getting everything right, making sure all the plans and resources were perfectly aligned, that they took action too late.  A certain degree of boldness is essential to lead a nonprofit. 

Lesson 2 – In Ticket to Ride, there are eight different colored cards and one wild color (e.g. yellow, green, black, etc., plus wild.) and you have to be mindful of what colors you need now, what colors you need in the future, and what colors are available right now (you get to see 5 options or pick a mystery card). If you focus too much on your short-term needs only collecting colors you need for a few early connections you want to make, you’ll find yourself short of what you need for subsequent connections.  Of course, sometimes that first connection is critical and it’s worth the short-term focus.  But, over time, I’ve found that I tend to score highest when I focus on a diversity of objectives, looking beyond the initial few steps and towards the next set.

So too in nonprofits I’ve seen nonprofit leaders become so short-term focused that they find themselves emerging from a successful early activity completely ill-prepared for what comes next.  In contrast, nonprofit leaders who amass a variety of resources with the aim of pursuing a series of objectives over time tend to achieve greater success.

Of course, astute readers may ask: “doesn’t this contradict Lesson 1?”  In part, yes.  But not completely.  You must be bold (as described in Lesson 1), but not so bold that you fail to build up the resources (money, people, other assets) that you need to be successful in future endeavors. 

Lesson 3 – in Ticket to Ride, there is a benefit in collecting a series of routes that piggyback on each other, so that you can advance towards multiple objectives (e.g. routes) with a single connection.  For example, connecting Denver to Kansas City could help you connect Salt Lake City to Chicago as well as San Francisco to Washington DC.   You can use that connection on both routes.   

So too for nonprofits, it’s important to look for synergies and other ways in which the same activity can serve multiple purposes.  To take just one obvious example I’ve experienced recently, if you write an article for your email newsletter, are you also posting the same content (with either no or minor edits) on a blog?  Posting it on social media? 

Similarly, if you build relationships with constituents as part of your volunteer program or advocacy, are you taking advantage of those same relationships when fundraising rather than treat your fundraising as unrelated? While this may seem obvious, I’ve watched more than one organization fail to take advantage of the volunteer-fundraising synergy. 

Lesson 4– in Ticket to Ride, you can play cutthroat, where instead of building your own connections/routes, you anticipate the routes others appear to be building, and you block them on your turn.  This is perfectly legal within the rules of the game. 

But within my own social circle and with those I’ve been randomly playing online, it’s considered a social faux pas, and people (including yours truly) will often refuse to play in the future with those who compete in this “blocking” manner. 

A similar dynamic is true for nonprofits.  There can sometimes be short-term advantages you can seize away from an organization with which you are sometimes allied and sometimes in competition.  An example I’ve observed: raising money from a set of overlapping donors with a fundraising message that’s explicitly anti the other allied organization.  This may yield some short-term donations. However, if you get a reputation of being not a good collaborator, future opportunities to collaborate/partner will disappear, to your detriment. 

I can attest first-hand that as an environmental group Executive Director there were some environmental organizations who I cut out of opportunities because I’d seen them repeatedly use messages that undercut other allies.  If you develop a reputation for not being a “fair” player, your nonprofit will be weaker in the end.    

Lesson 5 – In Ticket to Ride, most players exclusively focus on building connections that complete their routes, and nothing but their routes.  However, I have noticed that really stellar players are aware of the overall board and sometimes build beyond their routes, to the next major city.  Perhaps they have to go from Boston to Phoenix and they go ahead and build as well to Los Angeles.  This is because late in the game you can score extra points by drawing new routes and some cities in particular (Los Angeles being an example) come up a lot.  This is an “if you build it they will come” approach, to quote the movie Field of Dreams. 

So too in nonprofits, sometimes when launching a new program, you just have to go the extra mile and do it, even if there’s not yet funding attached.  Build the program and then go out and seek funding for it, rather than the other way around.  I’m not saying always do that; you have to evaluate the level of potential benefit and financial risk.  But on several occasions, I’ve seen organizations grow dramatically in their impact by taking leaps of faith like this at key junctures.

And there you have it – five lessons for nonprofit leaders from Ticket to Ride.  I can now play the game some more without feeling guilty.  And if anyone is playing it online and looking for an opponent, just email me and we can set up a game. 

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The Ten Commandments of Fundraising

December 11, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 9:35 am

When I first became Executive Director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, one of my early conversations was with Sam Schuchat, who was my counterpart at the California LCV. Over the years, I learned many things from Sam, particularly about fundraising.

He produced a 1-page summary of his fundraising rules, entitled The Ten Commandments of Fundraising. I was recently going through old paper files and recycling materials I’d never use again. I was struck by how well Sam’s Ten Commandments had stood up to the test of time, leaving aside the obvious missing references to email and online giving.

I made some tiny edits to his work.

They are worth sharing with anybody new to fundraising or anybody who needs a reminder about how fundraising tends to work (or not work).

The Ten Commandments

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Overcoming fear

September 23, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:28 am

For many of those responsible for securing major gifts for their organization, it’s one thing to know in theory what should take place when meeting with a donor.  It’s another thing to overcome their “fear” or “discomfort” that gets in the way of asking.  This is true both in-person and virtually.

In my experience there are five primary fears – three that are openly acknowledged and two that are more under the surface.

Commonly stated fears:

1.            Fear of harming relationships

2.            Fear of receiving reciprocal asks

3.            Fear of looking foolish/don’t know what to say.

Common unstated fears:

4.            Fear of rejection

5.            Money as a taboo topic

Each are worthy of discussion.

Fear 1:  Damaging relationships

For some fundraisers, relationships are like a cup of water and asking for a donation is like withdrawing water from the cup.  In reality, meetings done properly should add “water” to the relationship, even if they say no. 

This is because:

  • They will learn your story and you will learn theirs.
  • You will have shared with them something you care about, making the relationship more authentic.
  • They will most likely respect you for having the courage to make the “ask” (since most people who haven’t done it much fear fundraising).
  • They will often feel flattered that you felt they were the type of person who’d make a major gift.

Of course, if meetings are mishandled – heavy handed, language around guilt used, no effort made to listen to them, etc. – these benefits might not accrue.   If the only time you ever speak to someone is when you ask, relationships could fray.

The good news: avoiding those downsides is entirely in the control of a well-trained major donor fundraiser.

Fear 2:  Reciprocal Asks

Some of those I train, particularly board members, worry that if they ask friends for a donation, the friends will turn around and make a reciprocal request.

This is a relatively small risk.  The universe of those who fundraise is vastly smaller than the universe who give, so the odds start out low that those you’re asking have some other organization for which they will be raising funds.

Beyond this small risk, two other factors mitigate against it.  First, you’re not obligated to say yes if the cause they pitch to you isn’t a priority for you.  You do have an obligation to be authentic – to say no to a request that doesn’t match your values or priorities.  I’ve had to do this a few times over the years and I’ve never felt damage to a relationship because I was able to frame my “no” in a respectful manner.  

Indeed, in a few instances I very much appreciated the reciprocal ask as they introduced me to organizations doing great work.  To that extent, one could just as easily see reciprocal asks as an opportunity rather than something to fear.

Fear 3:  Looking Foolish

Nobody likes to do something where they feel inadequate and may appear foolish or incompetent.  Having talked with many board members, I’m convinced this fear is both overblown and straightforward to address when it comes to donor meetings.

For starters, there are many resources available to boards (and staff) to develop basic skills for fundraising.  When you combine training with some degree of ongoing support/coaching, pretty much everybody who would otherwise be an appropriate board member should be able to avoid looking foolish while fundraising.

Board members should also understand that those asked do not hold board members to the same standards they would staff.  The value of board members as fundraisers is from sharing passion, not expertise.  And for both board and staff, it’s always acceptable to tell a donor “I’ll get back to you” if they ask a question you’re not equipped to immediately answer.

In the end, adequate training and support should be able to get all board members (and staff) to the point they should be able to make an effective ask while coming across positively.

Fear 4:  Rejection

Major donor fundraisers will feel rejection.  Prospects will say “no.”  As much as half of the time.  Indeed, a useful maxim is that if nobody is saying “no” to you it means you’re not asking enough people for money.

Some techniques that have helped other fundraisers get past this fear:

  • Recalibrate in your mind what is meant by success.  Don’t judge yourself by school standards (90% = an A, 80% = a B, etc.).  Judge yourself by major donor fundraiser standards (anything better than 50% yes is pretty darn good).
  • Recognize that most “no’s” are really “yes” to something else.  You may be “selling” “racial justice,” while they’re prioritizing “climate change.”  Or they may be prioritizing personal/family needs at this point in their lives.  It will be an exceptionally rare circumstance where someone will say “no” to you while saying they’re going to invest in something you actively oppose.
  • Recognize that many of those who say “no” are really saying “not now.”  They may have already given away all they can during the period in time, but perhaps you’ve set them up for a big gift next year.
  • Recognize that other positive outcomes can come from meetings where those solicited say no, such as volunteering, new ideas, more knowledge of other things in your community, and/or leads/referrals to other prospects.    

Fear 5:  Social taboos around money

Lastly, some fear of fundraising actually stems from a more generalized social taboo around money that exists in American society.  It’s generally considered rude to ask people how much they make for a living.  Or to talk too much about money.  So asking for a donation is bringing money into the conversation in a way that makes us uneasy.

There is no magic formula for overcoming this taboo other than practice.  From talking to a lot of fundraisers over the years, those who make a series of asks almost always get past this taboo rather quickly if the asks are done properly.

Getting above the passion versus fear line

I’ve separately blogged about the passion versus fear line.

Imagine two intersecting lines.  One horizontal line is “fear of fundraising.”  Another line running from the lower left to upper right is “passion for the mission.”  When fear of fundraising exceeds passion for the mission, fundraising doesn’t take place.  When passion for the mission exceeds fear of fundraising, it does. 

The techniques discussed above are all aimed at lowering the “fear of fundraising” line.  A separate way of overcoming fear is to raise the “passion for the mission” line.  The more excited board members and staff are about what the organization can and needs to accomplish, the more likely they are to push through their fear and fundraise.  After all, people do things they’re afraid of all the time – if they want the outcome badly enough.

So take time with your boards in particular to keep them jazzed about the mission.  If your board meetings are dry affairs focused just on finances, that can be deadly to fundraising because a board member who’s bored with your organization is unlikely to step out of their comfort zone. 

Feedback for me

Have you encountered fundraising fears I didn’t mention. If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Or if you have additional techniques you’ve used to address fear, please do share them with everyone.

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Tips for Virtual Donor Meetings

August 11, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 4:33 pm

Donor Meetings in a Pandemic

Previously, I’ve blogged about Donor Stewardship Amidst a Pandemic.

Of course, stewardship of donors only matters if you eventually solicit them.  And the gold standard for solicitation of major donors has historically been the one-on-one in-person meeting.

Given the pandemic is continuing – and in all likelihood will remain uncontrolled until we have new leadership in DC that takes science seriously and is willing to make tough decisions – nonprofits who wish to solicit their major donors must move on from the gold standard and continue to solicit major gifts.

So let’s talk about “virtual” donor visits as something more than a phone call and less than in-person.

How do you get them?  And how are they different from in-person?

How do you get them?

You get them the same way you would an in-person meeting.  By picking up the phone and calling to request it.  Sure, you can email/text an attempt first.  But in my experience, it’s easy for them to give a quick “no” to an email/text, while a phone call is more likely to yield a “yes” in response to a meeting request.

It may seem weird doing a short phone call to schedule a video meeting, but I’ve done it. 

Start the call by thanking them.  For past donations.  For past volunteering.  For something else they’ve done in the community.

Be passionate/upbeat, but not scarily so in light of the pandemic.  You want them to want to spend time with you and people, in general, want to bask in the passion of those who’ve excited about something. 

Make clear you’re looking for their input and to see how they can help. 

Some potential language to use: “I’m trying to stay connected with our donors and it really helps me to have face to face communications.  Would you be open to doing a zoom or google hangout with me next Thursday to learn about what we’re up to, give us feedback, and figure out if now’s a good time for you to support the work?”

Based on what you know about the donor, you could pitch this as a virtual coffee or a virtual happy hour (if aimed at the late afternoon and you think that would appeal to the prospect).

Notice the suggested language is to ask for a specific date.  Use the “assumption of yes” to focus their attention on when to meet, not whether to meet.  Sure, they may still decline, but they’re less likely to do so.

The good news: in general, the pandemic has allowed for most people to have more time available and more flexibility than prior to the pandemic – with the exception of parents with school aged kids, who’re often busier.    

Be prepared to re-ask if they initially decline to schedule a meeting.  If they ask you to mail them something, you can say: “I’d be happy to mail you something.  But I’d really appreciate the chance to talk in more depth.  It’s really important for me to speak with potential supporters to get feedback on what we’re doing.  Can you make a little time on [DATE]?”

If they say they’re already planning on giving and it would be a waste of your time, say: “Thanks, but in no way would it be a waste of my time.  Meeting our supporters is one of the things that keeps me excited about being involved with ORGANIZATION.  We’re at a critical juncture and we think it’s important to talk with our supporters as we enlist your renewed support.  Can you make a little time on [DATE]?”

Assuming you get to yes, ask: “While we can do this as a phone meeting, I much prefer to do a zoom or google video call.  Does one of those options work for you?” (The percentage of people who’re familiar with at least one of those services is now very high).

Then send them a follow-up email or text confirming the appointment and including the link for the meeting.  Or just with a time/date for a phone call if that’s all they commit to doing.

What about the meeting itself?

A virtual donor meeting should generally follow the same outline I recommend for in-person. 

  • Chit chat; relationship-building. 
  • Tell your story
  • Get their story/get to know them.
  • Three stories:
    • Why the organization exists
    • Why the organization is successful
    • What’s urgent now
  • The ask
  • Re-solicitation/follow-up as necessary
  • Thanks and referral requests

So what’s different about doing it virtually during the pandemic?  Not a lot; but a few things come to mind:

1. The chit chat should start with some expression of care/concern given the pandemic and a check-in regarding whether they and their family have been able to stay safe.  This could very well lead to a side conversation that lasts a few minutes, but it’s important to treat your prospects as human beings and not checkbooks.

2. It’s always important to keep these meetings interactive and not monologues, but this is particularly important in a zoom meeting.  You need to keep this a conversation, bearing in mind that the virtual context may mean slight pauses since not everyone’s internet is equally speedy. 

3. Consider turning either the Why we Exist or Why we’re Successful stories into a 2-3 minute slide show where you screen share.  This is something you can’t easily do in an in-person meeting, but online you have an opportunity to do so if you have some great visuals.  But 2-3 minutes is tops.  Just 2-5 slides to help illustrate your story. 

4. The urgency story needs to take COVID into account, either in addressing what you’re most focused on your specific funding needs for the next 6 months.  It would be weird not to acknowledge the impact the pandemic has had on your finances.  Or if it hasn’t, to acknowledge tat it could. 

If that’s the meeting substance, what about everything else that surrounds the substance.  Here’s some basic tips:

  1. Send a reminder email/text with the log-on info the day before. 
  2. Log on 5 minutes early to make sure everything’s working.
  3. Make sure you have adequate light for the time of day. 
  4. Have the background be professional, but it’s okay if there’s a personal touch.   I’m not a fan of the zoom backgrounds that make you look like you’re somewhere you’re not. 
  5. Dress professionally or semi-professionally, appropriate for the donor in question based on what you know about them. 
  6. Before doing any of these, test out your sound ahead of time with a friend.  If the sound is good without a headset, don’t use one.  But if the sound is appreciably better with one, then do use one.  This will vary based on the quality of your laptop’s built in microphone.
  7. Have water handy in case you get dry mouth and need to drink something.  Or, as noted above, you could make coffee or some other libation a theme of the meeting that comes up in the chit chat. 
  8. Try to talk looking at the camera and not your own face on your screen.  This means knowing where the camera is on your computer/tablet. 
  9. Don’t freak out if you have kids or a spouse or a pet that interrupts the call.  It will just make you seem more human.
  10. Be prepared with a plan B should the technology fail – e.g. if one of you can’t connect online, plan on giving them a phone call during the same time.

Have you done any online donor meetings?  If so, what’s worked well and not well.  I’d love examples and feedback on my advice.

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The passion versus fear equation

July 16, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:54 pm

When training boards (and sometimes staff) on fundraising, I often refer to the passion versus fear equation or line.

Often, I’m asked to help a board get past their fear of fundraising. There are tools to address their fear.

But there’s another side to the equation: passion.

Imagine two intersecting lines. One is fear of fundraising. The other running from the lower left to upper right is passion for the mission.

My maxim: when a board member’s passion for the mission exceeds their discomfort/fear about fundraising, they will raise money.

Lowering the blue line (e.g. their level of fear) is one way to make that happen.

But the other is to increase their passion so they’re further to the right on the orange line and thus more likely to have their passion exceed their fear.

After all, people do things they’re scared of all the time if their desire is strong enough. How many of us remember how fearful they were the first time they asked someone out on a date!

So how do you increase a board’s level of passion for the mission:

  • Make sure board meetings aren’t entirely dry affairs focused on finances.
  • Find opportunities to have the board members experience the positive benefits the organization is generating. That could be meeting people who’ve been served, experiencing a location saved, etc.
  • Make this collective: do an exercise where board members share their “personal story” of why they’re involved. They will feed on each other’s passion — not just their own.
  • Create a sense of teamwork and camaraderie: to the extent they are passionate for their fellow board members, that will also count.

None of this discounts the importance of training as a tool to help board members past their fear. But don’t forget the passion side of the equation.

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Donor stewardship amidst a pandemic

June 4, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 4:17 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about effective donor stewardship in the midst of a pandemic.

Some strategies that traditionally are used for donor stewardship aren’t feasible during social distancing.

For starters, you’re probably not taking out donors to coffee or lunch to brief them on your work.

And you’re not hosting big gatherings where you can mix & mingle with your donors.

But while the tactics might change, the fundamentals of donor stewardship don’t.  So it’s worthwhile to start with some basic principles and then flesh out a pandemic donor stewardship plan accordingly.

In my mind, effective donor stewardship is a three-legged stool.

Leg 1: Helping donors better understand the work you do and its importance/impact.

Leg 2: Making donors feel appreciated by the organization as an individual, not a checkbook.

Leg 3: Strengthening personal relationships between the donor and organizational leaders.

When thinking about potential stewardship tactics, you should only use tactics that accomplish at least one of these outcomes, and preferably at least two.

So what potential cultivation tools can you use with the limits of social distancing?

For starters, general communications can continue, whether via email or postal mail, updating donors on the work of the organization.  The annual report, for example.  Or a twice-per year update to organizational insiders, with hand-written notes as appropriate.

In addition, you can still provide opportunities for top supporters to engage in the work.  Some types of volunteer activities are no longer possible. But you can still ask people to take actions online, respond to surveys, or otherwise spread the word about your organization’s work.

And for your top donors, you can still think about more personalized donor stewardship tools that could work with individuals, couples, or small groups.

Creative examples I’ve seen so far from my network:

  • Beyond requests for meetings via zoom (or a similar platform) as a replacement for a coffee/lunch, consider a Zoom “fireside” chat with organizational leaders or experts and a limited attendance – no more than 10 people. (Okay – fireside may not make sense in the summer, but you get the idea).
  • Set google news alerts for your top 30 donors and send emails acknowledging them if and when they are in the news.
  • Try to match a top donor’s expertise with an organizational need and ask them for some very targeted volunteer assistance.  If a top donor is a lawyer, is there a legal issue with which they can be asked to help?  If they are a marketing expert, are you looking for input prior to creating an updated website or refresh of your brand?   Don’t create work that won’t actually help you, but if it will help, asking a top donor to help can both help you advance the ball and build the donor’s commitment to your organization — even if they decline to volunteer!
  • Can’t invite a donor on an in-person tour of your facility (for organizations that have facilities). Consider doing a video tour instead.  Pretty much every phone is capable of playing this role if you practice.  
  • Send extra handwritten thank you notes to your top donors telling them how much you appreciate the support they’ve provided.
  • Invite a donor to go on a socially distant “walk” if you live somewhere this is appropriate.  Just tell the donor that you’re looking to update donors about the challenges and opportunities facing your organization and you’re hoping to combine that with walks in parks or natural areas, so long as you suggest a location where it would be relatively easy to maintain a distance of 6 feet between you.

In the end, I think the pandemic actually creates an opportunity for nimble organizations who’re able to think beyond the box to explore new stewardship tactics that could strike a chord with donors because of the novelty.

If you have other ideas on effective donor stewardship during the pandemic, please share them using the comments below.

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Planning and Management Amidst a Pandemic

April 28, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:42 pm

I’ve worked with quite a few clients over the last few years developing strategic plans.   A few have called me and asked: what now in light of the pandemic?

I always start with the question: has the lay of the land materially changed in a way that renders key strategies unworkable and/or goals unobtainable? 

Every time the answer has been “yes.”  Usually, it’s because they fear (accurately I assume at this point) that their plans hinged on fundraising that will not materialize in light of the pandemic.  Other times, the change to the lay of the land isn’t about money, but rather the fact that their programmatic work depends heavily on in-person forms of outreach or other work that has become impossible.

Here’s four pieces of advice I’ve given Executive Directors and Board Chairs who find themselves in either or both of these predicaments.

1. Hug your donors, just not literally.

Any reasonable fundraising strategy involves a combination of maintaining and upgrading existing donors (both individual and institutional), while also seeking new ones.  During the immediate health crisis and the economic fallout, organizations are going to have more success with their existing donor base as compared to attracting new donors.    

That means using multiple avenues to communicate with them (e.g. email, phone, online briefings, etc.).   And for those donors who love you the most, be really candid with them about where things stand for you.  They are the most likely to dig deeper to help you get through the crisis.

2. Don’t forget to plan

There may be a temptation in a crisis to mistake activity for productivity.   It may feel “good” to get really busy, but it’s critical that you focus on the right things.  That means reevaluating your goals (the ends you’re trying to achieve) and your strategies (the major types of activities you’re undertaking to achieve your goals).  What priorities have shifted?  What strategies are no longer tenable and what can replace them?   

I recently facilitated a team meeting planning for a 2021 grant and we had a robust conversation about the ways in which the world will look different and what that means for their programs.  We touched on everything from changes to volunteerism, to how people engage politically, to whom people are willing to talk.  They may not have accurately predicted all these shifts, but it’s far better to have the conversation than to just plunge forward without thinking.

3. Don’t throw out the whole past plan

Some people are tempted to just throw out their strategic plan and start from scratch.  There may be a few organizations for whom that may make sense.  But for most, if your plan was solid before, ask yourself:  do you just implement the same plan just over a longer time period, assuming everything takes longer?  Or have the fundamentals changed such that some of the goals or strategies needed to change? 

In most cases, starting with the old plan and editing it makes more sense than a blank slate.

4. Give your staff (and yourself) time and space to grieve and experiment

Your staff are your most precious resource and it’s important to recognize that they need special handling in this environment.  Beyond the obvious shift many organizations have to go through of suddenly managing an employee working remotely, staff are likely to feel agitated, upset, uncertain, etc. 

While not everyone has experienced the loss of a loved one or even someone they know, there is a degree to which nearly everyone is mourning the loss of the world as we knew it.  You should find ways to give people the space to share their feelings and concerns, even if that costs you time and productivity.

The flip side is that the new context for some people provides a burst of creativity.  I’ve seen this first-hand with another one of my clients where a staff person came forward with some really interesting and implementable ideas for taking real-world activities into the virtual world, with some potential amplifying affects for the group’s ability to communicate – at least in theory.   As a manger, it’s imperative that you keep an open mind towards new ideas that are worth an experiment.

Have you had some experience managing or planning amidst the pandemic you’d like to share? I’d welcome additional thoughts or experiences.

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Does your nonprofit pass the marshmallow test?

November 18, 2019

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:59 pm

One of the most famous social-science studies was the marshmallow test.  Put a marshmallow in front of a preschool aged child and tell the child they can have a second marshmallow if they wait 15 minutes before eating the first one.  Leave the room and observe. 

The study, which tracked kids for years after the test, purports to show that those kids who, at an early age, had the self-control to double their payout (by waiting for the second marshmallow) do better in life (as measured by various objective means).

Serious doubts have since been raised about the reliability of the study and its purported conclusions when it comes to childhood development, taking into account differences in demographics.  But I want to draw upon it as an analogy to something I’ve seen time and again in the nonprofit world:  many Executive Directors struggle because they are eating their marshmallow too soon.

What do I mean by this?

My thesis:  smaller nonprofits who have the discipline to hold off on eating the marshmallow are more likely to thrive than those who partake right away of the marshmallow.

In the nonprofit world the marshmallow is your program.  Just as eating a marshmallow feels good to a child, it feels good to nonprofit employees to do the organization’s program.

You know what doesn’t feel good?  Doing less of the program work that directly advances the mission, especially when there are obvious community needs you can meet. 

There’s always a time trade-off.  Time you spend on program is time not available for organizational development (fundraising, board governance, administration, etc.).

If you do too much program as a small organization, you’re eating the marshmallow. What do I mean by “too much program?”

I know one nonprofit Executive Director who’s been running the same small nonprofit for the last decade who expresses frustration that other organizations have outgrown theirs.   But when I give advice about ways to raise more money, their answer is always: “I don’t have time because there’s so much of the work to get done.”

And it’s important work.  And they’re getting it done well.

But they’re eating the marshmallow too soon. 

Their theory: do great work and the money will follow.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way since good fundraising takes a real time commitment.

A small organization for whom growth is important should do the absolute minimum level of program work required in order to keep faith with donors.  And then focus every remaining second on fundraising and other essential organizational development activities.

That means leaving marshmallows on the table in the short run.  So that you can get to far more marshmallows — and make a bigger impact towards achieving your mission — in the longer run.

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