Nonprofit dashboards 101

May 30, 2024

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 11:41 am

The phrase “Nonprofit Dashboard” is not one I recall hearing in my first decade in the nonprofit sector (1994-2004).  Then, a few years into the new millennium, I started to hear the phrase occasionally.  By the early 2010s, I started to hear the phrase frequently.  

Dashboards have emerged as a tool for nonprofits because most organizations have far more data about their own performance than their counterparts two decades ago (or longer).  In addition, tools for graphically displaying data have become commonplace, embedded within programs we already use like Excel. 

But Dashboards aren’t something that are right for every nonprofit and doing them right requires serious thinking.

So what is a Nonprofit Dashboard

The term Dashboard is used because the tool is analogous to a car dashboard – a quick, comprehensive view of the overall status of the car.  In the organizational context, a Dashboard is usually a 1-3 page document, produced on a regular schedule, which uses a combination of tables, charts, and graphs to visually represent key metrics by which an organization is evaluating itself.  

While Dashboards can be focused solely on a specific program or other activity (e.g. fundraising), more often organizations develop Dashboards that are comprehensive with regards to their organization.

Why create a Dashboard? 

Do staff really need one more report on their to-do list?

Dashboards can serve many purposes, but the three most common benefits Dashboard proponents cite are: 

  • It generates strategic thinking about how the organization measures success.
  • It can help to identify on a timely basis where an organization is being successful and where things may be going off course.
  • It can provide a useful tool by which to focus the attention of the board on the most important things.

For really small organizations just struggling to hire their first few staff, a Dashboard is probably overkill.  But at some point Dashboards become worth the investment.

What should a Dashboard measure?  

There are many terms bandied about, but the one I like is Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  “Key” because you have to pick and choose since there are many metrics that matter to an organization and the challenge is to pick out a reasonable subset of them that are most important.  “Performance Indicators” because you’re measuring something that’s an indicator of success.

How do you choose your KPIs? 

If at all possible, the search for KPIs should begin with an organizational strategic plan, which should already identify goals and measurements of success.  The challenge is to then pick which measurements are the most important to pay attention to in the next few years. 

If you don’t already have these, start with your programs and ask: Which are most important?  Some are more likely to be icing on the cake and others get at your core.  Focus on the core. 

For each program, what metrics are you already tracking (or can you reasonably track in the future) to evaluate your performance over time?   For some organizations these are straightforward.  A school may be tracking enrollment and learning (via test scores or grades).  A homeless shelter may track people served and homeless placed into permanent housing. 

For other organizations, particularly those engaged in advocacy, the search for meaningful program measurements can be more complex.  But every time I’ve engaged with an organization on this topic, we’ve come up with some outputs that are good indicators of progress, even if they don’t represent the ultimate outcomes being sought.

Leaving programs aside, nearly every Dashbaord I’ve seen also include multiple KPIs that focus on finances – mostly on the revenue side of the equation.  Here the challenge is to think through your revenue generating strategies and identify what matters most.  Overall revenue is obvious. Unrestricted funding is another good one. Or you may find it important to focus on fundraising metrics by major type of revenue (e.g. individuals, corporations, foundations, etc.).

With regard to fundraising from individuals, some metrics that may be important are: the number of individual donors (or members), retention rate for individual donors (how many who gave in the prior year, have given in this year), average gift levels, the percentage of donors who have upgraded in the last year, number of donors who’ve made a second gift, etc. 

Over several years, the list of which metrics you focus on may evolve – but at any given time you should look at your fundraising strategies and see what matters most. 

Sometimes no one metric seems right so you have to invent something that rolls up several data points into a new one.  For example, when I was Executive Director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, we developed a long-term communications plan where progress could be measured in dozens of different ways, no two or three of which seemed most important. 

Yet, in the end, we knew that what we really wanted out of our communications was for our constituents to take action.  So we created a new metric which we called “Total Actions” taken in response to our communications.  Each quarter we added up all sorts of actions people took in response to our online communications, such as clicking on links, forwarding emails, donations, downloading documents, social media shares, etc.  As long as Total Actions was on a solid upward trajectory, we knew we were making progress.

Of course, having good fundraising and/or communications data for your Dashboard presumes you’re using a valid Constituent Relations Management (CRM) database to track donations, online communications, and other data necessary to produce the metrics.  If you’re still on Excel or hate your current database, getting past that hurdle should come before you create a Dashboard.

Likewise, the discussion about program metrics presumes that you have a means of tracking the outputs and outcomes from your programs and you put that data somewhere – whether in your fundraising CRM or in some separate data set. If you’re not pulling together data to evaluate individual programs, it will be hard to create a Dashboard.

The last question is: how do you display the data?

I’ve found that Excel is plenty powerful to take data and generate good charts and graphs for a good Dashboard.  Or sometimes, just putting the data into a Table and color coding rows as Green, Yellow, and Red based on whether you’re doing great, okay, or not well is sufficient.

If your own Excel skills are too limited, you probably can find a skilled volunteer who in just a few hours time can take data in a spreadsheet and display it in a useful manner in a way you can easily replicate every 3-6 months without ongoing assistance.

It’s worth investing some time/energy to get the Dashboard display right.  If you’ve done all the work to generate and select the data, you should absolutely make sure it’s presented to your board and senior staff in a format that aids comprehension.  

If you have an example of a Dashboard you’re willing to share with me, I’m always looking for more ideas for how to use them effectively.

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On the value of one-on-ones

April 30, 2024

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 10:37 am

I was recently talking to an Executive Director and it became clear they hardly ever met with anyone else one-on-one. They were doing so much writing, emailing, and group meetings that they were hardly ever talking to just one person.

When I pushed them on this, they responded that meeting with just one person is inefficient.

I believe that is short-sighted. Organizations thrive based on personal relationships and it’s very, very hard to forge such relationships other than in one-on-one (or one-on-two settings when you’re forging a relationship with a couple).

Something happens in a one-on-one conversation that doesn’t happen at events and certainly not via email/mail or even on the phone.

You can form a stronger personal relationship and you can ask people to take personal responsibility.

Let’s start talking about forming relationships.

It’s not rocket science to understand forming relationships is easier in person.  Legions of studies have demonstrated the role of body language and facial expressions in communications – neither of which works over the phone. 

And in one-on-one meetings, you can make the communication truly two-way – asking questions of a potential organizational supporter and not just talking to them.  This can help you understand what motivates them so you can calibrate any asks to match their needs. You can do this in an authentic and not a staged way.

Meeting with people one-on-one also allows you tap into personal responsibility and not just collective responsibility.

At an event, it’s about how all these people in the room can help.  One-on-one, it’s about how you can help. Yes, peer pressure can matter. And well run events tap into that collective power. But getting somebody to take real ownership and dig deep when giving almost almost always works better off outside of events.

Studies done in the 1970s and 1980s focused on personal versus collective responsibility in a different context.  Scientists had people fake epileptic seizures in public places to see who would help. Sometimes they did this when only one person was around. Other times they did this when several people were around. Which situation led to more help?

Interestingly (to me), the answer is you were more likely to get help during the seizure if just one person was around. This is contrary to what I would have thought.

But it rings true upon further reflection.  When something happens and other people are around, you tend to look around to see how they’re responding.  And in unusual situations, people are often slow to act. If everyone else is also just looking around, you may think: I guess it’s not my problem. 

But if there’s nobody to look at for social cues, you know it’s about you, and you alone.

When you’re invited to give and the invitation is clearly about you, that’s when people tend to step up and make larger donations. 

In these contexts, as you get to know people, you’re also in a better position to add in further opportunities for them to step up — will they champion the organization to their friends, will they volunteer, etc.

This helps explain why time and time again, organizations that invest their staff and board time in doing one-on-one donor meetings are quicker to transform themselves financially than those that bank on fundraising events. 

The same thing is true beyond fundraising. Time and again, I’ve seen organizations build far more effective coalitions and partnerships with allies by doing a series of one-on-one meetings rather than relying on group meetings with several organizations at once. One-on-one meetings are also the bread and butter for community organizing where you’re trying to build not just an episodic volunteer base, but one where the volunteers are willing to take on leadership.

So stop putting your time into the next great event and banking on social media revolutionizing your organization.  If you want to grow, and grow quickly — get out and meet with more people and invite them to take responsibility.  Of course, for many Executive Directors, that requires figuring out what you can jettison from your busy schedule, a topic I’ll discuss next month.

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How to relentlessly focus on relationships

July 25, 2023

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:42 pm

I’ve previously written about the value of relationship-building to nonprofit organizations.

Organizations that thrive relentlessly focus on relationships. Successful organizations are constantly expanding their pool of relationships and strengthening existing relationships. Then they consciously activate those relationships.

I was recently talking to a nonprofit leader who seemed to grasp this in theory, but struggled with execution.

As such, I’ve repackaged in this article some of my prior writing about the value of relationships with the aims of providing more practical advice people can use when it comes to building relationships that matter for your organization.

But first, why relationships?

It comes down to human nature.  While people receive information outside of relationships, relationships have a powerful role in how people react to information.

People listen more to people with whom they have a relationship.

People are more likely to be persuaded by people with whom they have a relationship.

People take action more when requested from people with whom they have a relationship.

Of course, the quality of the relationship matters too. The deeper the relationship, the greater the odds that we will listen to someone, be persuaded by them, or take action at their request.  Conversely, a bad relationship makes someone even less likely to listen or act upon a request.

Here’s a practical example of how this may impact fundraising for a nonprofit.  An Executive Director may give a pitch-perfect donation request to John Doe. A board member may give a mediocre donation request to the same John Doe.  If the board member and John Doe are friends and the Executive Director has never met John Doe, the mediocre board request is far more likely to yield a significant donation.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think of relationships as just about fundraising.  Relationships impact an organization’s interaction with volunteers, media, allied organizations, elected officials, and people the organizations are working to serve.  Any time you’re trying to shape behavior, relationships matter.

So how do you go from theory to practice?

Here are seven ideas worth considering.

First, build into your workplans (especially Executive Directors) time set aside for relationship-building.  If you don’t set aside time for it, you’re less likely to make it happen.  Examples of relationship-building activities that take time:

  • Attending fundraisers for peer organizations.
  • Going to lunch or coffee with allies who you don’t know particularly well.
  • Asking for advice from elected officials or other decision-makers.
  • Attending conferences and focusing on relationships more than the conference substance.

Second, create events with relationship-building in mind.  This could be:

  • A volunteer appreciation event. 
  • A “Meet the Executive Director” or “someone else important” event. 
  • A workshop or training where time is set aside for people to get to know each other. 

Every time you plan or attend an event, a standard question should be: “how can this event be used to meet someone new and/or strengthen my relationship with those I already know?” 

Third, train your staff about the value of relationships and events.  If they’re attending an event while working for you, they should understand they should be focused on new people and not just standing in the corner chatting with folks they already know well.  Challenge them to come back from every event with a couple examples of new people they met with whom they should do some follow-up.

Fourth, set relationship goals.  When I was an Executive Director, I had a goal of having lunch or coffee with one allied Executive Director per month with no agenda other than getting to know them (and their organization) better.  By putting this goal in writing as part of my annual goals with the board, I “forced” myself to stay on track.

Fifth, use your organizational database to record what you learn.  Even with the best intentions, it can be challenging to meet people and remember everything of relevance you learned six months or a year later. Your organization should have a CRM (constituent relationship management) database (probably primarily for fundraising, but for other things too) where you can keep track of who you met with of significance and add notes of anything significant you learned where you may wish to follow-up at your next meeting. Taking notes in your database doesn’t make your relationship any less authentic. It just recognizes we have fallible memories.

Sixth, seek out and bring into your organization those who’re obviously good at relationships.  You and I know them.  I’m a natural introvert.  But we all know those extroverts who seem to know everyone and like playing a connecting role between people. They are golden for your nonprofit if you can excite them about your cause.  If you see somebody who fits that bill express interest, put extra time and attention into cultivating them.

Lastly, be committed to asking those with whom you’re in a relationship to activate their relationships on your behalf.  As I write this, I have 1,345 LinkedIn Connections.  Those 1,345 have more than 477,000 unique connections!  Of course, LinkedIn is just being used as an illustration of a point:  the people with whom any individual has relationships open them up to a vastly larger network of relationships than they can ever tap on their own. 

So don’t just rely upon this “activation” of relationships to happen by chance.  Directly ask your supporters to reach out to their friends and neighbors.  This could be as part of a Peer to Peer fundraising effort, as part of volunteer recruitment, recruiting people to attend events, sharing online news, or some other method.  Bottom line: turn donors into fundraisers and volunteers into volunteer recruiters. 

Do you have other ideas for how to build and strengthen relationships? I’d love to hear in your comments.

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Scary Nonprofit Quotes of 2022

October 19, 2022

Filed under: About My Work,Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 4:57 pm

Welcome to the 2nd annual edition of Scary Nonprofit Quotes.

I authored the original Scary Quotes edition in 2021 as Halloween approached, documenting examples of some of the scariest things I’ve personally heard uttered by nonprofit leaders during my time as an Executive Director and consultant.

For this second edition I put out a call to colleagues far and wide to hear their scary quotes.

So without further adieu, here are the top Scary Quotes shared with me for 2022.

1. “We’re a 501c3 so we can’t lobby”

Note: Yes, 501c3s can lobby

2. [As told by a board member to an outgoing Executive Director]: “We’re going to hire a person to run the organization even though they quit on you despite you telling us not to hire them.”

Note: 2 years later the  organization went defunct  

3. [Told by a board member to an Executive Director]: “I don’t want to ask X person for money because I think it would be impolite”

4. “Rather than pay a salary, let’s pay the development [fundraising] staff 100% on commission on the funds they raise.”

5. “Our nonprofit should expand. You’re either expanding or dying.”

6. “Raising funds for our issue is much harder than raising money for other issues.”

Note: I’ve heard person raising money for issue X say issue Y was easier to raise money for even as someone working on issue Y said issue X was easier to raise money for.  Unless your issues is exceedingly niche and unpopular, this is almost never the case.

Alternative version: “It’s much harder to raise money in ____ (locale).  People here just don’t donate like they do in ________.” 

Note: again, almost never true. Yes there are giving differences by location, but that’s very rarely the true barrier to an organization.

7. [By an Executive Director to another staff person]: “They can never fire me.  I am indispensable.”

8. [By a board member}: “We don’t need an Executive Director, a monkey could do that job!” 

Note: This board chair decided to do the job himself and tanked the organization.

9. [By a board member]: “I don’t do fundraising.”

Alternative version: “Why would I share my contacts/friends list with the organization?”

10. “Don’t worry about entry level staff pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. If people leave, no problem. Everyone wants to work here.”

11. [By a board member]: “It doesn’t matter. We’ll never get audited.”

12. [By an Executive Director asked why he wanted to be an Executive Director]: “I figure nobody could tell me what to do.” 

13. [By a board chair]: “The Executive Director doesn’t need a raise because his wife is a doctor.”

Let’s do a poll!  Please vote for your favorite Scary Quote of 2022.  I’ll be sure to post the results on Halloween.

Please also comment if you have your own scary quotes you’d like to share!

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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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