The biggest barrier to effective major donor fundraising

March 25, 2015

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:21 am

What’s the biggest barrier to organizations launching an effective major donor program?

My three nominees are:

• Lack of connections
• Lack of time
• Lack of skills

Let’s discuss each in turn.

Connections: Most people I talk to feel their biggest barrier is lack of connections.  In my experience, this is not the case.  When run through an exercise to identify who they have as acquaintances, nearly everyone I’ve worked with discovers major donor prospects ($1,000+) in their midst.  More importantly, if conceived of as a program and not a one-time effort, everyone knows people who, in turn, know major donor prospects at even higher levels of potential.  Part of an effective major donor program is identifying the “connectors” you know, securing their donations (even if at lower dollar levels), and then enlisting them in the effort.

Skills:  Others come to me feeling their biggest barrier is lack of skills.  This is, of course, a real barrier.  Partly because lack of skills can lead you to use the wrong approach to meetings, leading to fewer and smaller gifts.  And partly because the lack of skills can sap you of the confidence necessary to build an effective program.  The good news: there are techniques anyone can use that will allow them to improve their success rate when talking to prospects.

Time: Lack of time is, in the end, the barrier that I find leads many organizations to fare poorly when it comes to launching an effective major donor fundraising program.  It takes time.  Especially at the start.  You can’t launch a major donor program with a stable staff without clearly identifying what you’re going to do less of because time is going into major donor cultivation and solicitation.  Even if you’re adding staff who will take the lead with major donors, you need to still identify the time needed by others in the organization and account for how it will be allocated — especially for Executive Directors who are essential to major donor fundraising.

Time is also a big challenge for programs that aim to take advantage of the board’s connections and passion.  The best board member on paper isn’t all that helpful if he or she lacks the time to commit to helping an organization.  This should be a major part of the conversation with potential board members in recruitment and organizations should overstate rather than understate the time requirements of serving on the board so as to maximize the number of new board members who can truly fulfill their role.

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No magic words, but themes matter

January 29, 2015

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 5:04 pm

I was recently asked by a nonprofit leader whether there are certain words or phrases that the organization should be sure to utilize in major donor fundraising because they tend to be particularly effective.

The leader (at the urging of a board member) was thinking about major donor fundraising as a marketing exercise in which certain words hold special power, particularly if repeated over and over.

In my view, major donor fundraising is more analogous to sales if one wishes to make an analogy to business. While I have no doubt some words are particularly effective in sales, my experience is effective salespersons think more about what stories and themes to tell than what specific words to use.

I responded to the leader accordingly.  Don’t focus on what words to use.  Focus on what themes should show up in the stories you tell donors.

I highlighted three themes to her.

First, it’s critically important to focus any donor conversation first on values and only secondarily on the work of an organization, statistics, or public policy.  Connect with people emotionally by sharing your personal story and by speaking in values terms that resonate with them. Ask their story to understand what values motivate them. Only then are you likely to engage them in a conversation about your organization’s strategy and details in a way most likely to lead to major gifts.

Second, it’s very important that you both demonstrate there is a problem the donor wants to help you address and that they should have hope that your organization can be part of the solution. Don’t assume potential donors already get the problem and rush into talking about your programmatic work (which tends to be your solutions).

But that doesn’t mean the conversation can end with the problem. If all you demonstrate to donors is you’re working to address a problem, they are unlikely to dig deep. You need stories that demonstrate your capacity as an organization (and sometimes as an individual leading the organization) to address the problem. You need to leave them hopeful.

Third, donors increasingly need to simultaneously understand that your organization is uniquely positioned to make a difference and that it’s also not a “Lone Ranger.”  This can be a quandary. On the one hand, you need to stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, donors increasingly prize organizations that collaborate and who can articulate how their work dovetails with others. You should be able to tell the story of your work that navigates this challenge.

Do these themes match up with your own experience as a major donor fundraiser?  Are there other themes of equal relevance?

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The Science behind Storyelling

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

Here’s a really quick, but useful read about the science that explains why fundraising via storytelling is more effective than relying on statistics to mak your case.

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.



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Guest blog: Grantwriting as a Team-building exercise

May 19, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Guest blog by Sami Fournier of Element Exercise.

Faced with the prospect of submitting a grant proposal, consider what a great opportunity you have before you. Beyond being a challenge and a bit of a chore, the grant writing process can define your organization’s work in a way that also improves the leadership of your team.

A looming grant deadline can be a team-building experience.

Let’s take the example of applying to a foundation for a general support grant.

Your first instinct as Executive Director might be to sequester yourself in your office and just write it.

But consider this alternative possibility:  Get your team together (on a rational, roomy timeline, if possible) and build an outline using the funder’s guidelines and requirements. Suppose you start with something like this:

  • Intro
  • History and Background
  • Statement of problem and need
  • Goals and objectives
  • Solution to the problem
  • Budget
  • Timelines
  • Applicant qualifications
  • Evaluation
  • Organizational Sustainability

Carve out assignments for your team members, knowing that each will review and edit and feed into the main narrative as well.

Whomever is drafting the narrative is not working in a vacuum. That person is hopefully starting from the organization’s strategic plan and building on the organization’s mission and goals.

The main job of the narrative writer is to organize and delve into the details of the how and each step along the path to the goals. The proposal should describe clear goals, activities and tasks you will do toward each goal, the target audience, and the intended impact. Be honest and direct about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and make it clear how you will evaluate the success of your efforts.

Now, back to your team.  Perhaps you had a lead and some other folks (board? staff?) assisting with various sections, or perhaps it was a set of reviewers providing input. No matter how you organized yourselves, the process helped each team member feel pride of ownership, and the end product gave them more guidance in their work.

That’s how you got the multiplier effect of improving and developing staff as they work through drafting and presenting your organization’s proposal to a funder. Throughout, you can be making process improvements and tweaks, and finding and developing leadership qualities in each staffer.

By this time, you have a proposal that can be submitted as a centerpiece of your group’s work. It describes a problem, but puts much more emphasis on your approach to solutions and their execution. In the process, you came away with a tighter team, and more direction and sense of purpose. The support you got from the funder went well beyond the financial benefit. You arrived with stronger leaders and greater skill than ever to go forward. No matter what, make sure to tell the funder how much you grew in the process.

Sami Fournier has a Bend, Oregon-based consulting company called “Element Exercise,” which sounds like a personal training outfit, but actually specializes in grant writing in the field of alternative transportation.  She formerly directed the League of American Bicyclists’ Education programs.   Sami can be reached at

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Connecting fiscal management to strategy

May 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:14 am

I recently published a guest article for 501Commons on the importance of building a fiscal management system that connects with strategic decision-making.

The main point: you should track revenues and expenses by categories that provide information useful for strategic decision-making.  That means moving away from an exclusive focus on a “line item” approach that focuses on things like printing, postage, and salaries and also layers in a way of tracking by functional categories that represent your programs.

Check out the full article on 501Commons website and then let me know what you think.


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Ideas for Donor Involvement

April 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 12:36 pm

I once talked to an Executive Director who resisted inviting major donors to volunteer or become more involved because “I don’t want to seem like I’m bothering them. Their gift should be enough.”

I thought that was backwards. Of course, you could make the ask poorly in a way that’s bothersome. But as a general rule, inviting people to get involved is a key way to enhance the commitment of your donors to the organization.

Here are 6 ideas for how to engage current/potential donors, in no particular order.

1. Hold a conference call briefing for them. New technology allows opportunities for people to be on the call and ask questions, without it being disruptive.

2. Invite them to volunteer on tasks that could be done by staff or board members, but don’t have to be done by staff. This will vary wildly by the type of organization, but could include everything from having them help out in the office, to assist with an event, to lead a hike or tour.

3. Hold a “focus group.” Whether as part of strategic planning or otherwise, pick some topic where input from those beyond the board/staff would be helpful and invite enough donors to have 8-10 participate and lead them through a conversation.

4. Hold a “Salon.” Pick a book, article, or even a TedTalk video for them to read/watch and have them join a board member at their home to discuss it over a glass of wine. Obviously, you’d want to pick a topic that’s relevant for the organization.

5. Participate in a committee. This could be an ongoing committee or it could be a short-term committee charged with answering a specific question.

6. Send them an online member survey. Ask for their feedback on how the organization is doing and priorities for the future.

I’m always looking for more ideas, so let me know what else your organization has done to make donors feel involved.

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Guest blog: 5 Questions to Ask When Using Marketing to Grow Your Non-Profit

March 31, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:18 am

Guest Blog by Natalie Henry Bennon  —

Marketing gets a bad rap. And sometimes it’s deserved. I don’t like being told I need a new thing when really I don’t.

And yet, marketing is key to successful for-profit businesses. Non-profits have finally taken notice. Some are hiring marketing staff. Some have shifted budgets from media relations to marketing and social media. Others are hiring marketing firms under contract.

Whatever your non-profit growth challenge, here are five questions to ask in determining how marketing can help your non-profit grow:

1)    What are your measurable goals?

This could be: We want to attract 1,000 new members in 2014. Your marketing goals could also be recruiting new volunteers or board members; retaining members, volunteers, or board members; or raising awareness and attention to your issue.

2)    Who is your target audience?

Let’s assume you are trying to recruit more members, and you know you want younger and more diverse members. Your target audience might be women and men between the ages of 20 and 35 making $30,000 to $55,000 per year. It may help to give this person a real name and picture and persona. Think about what s/he does for a living and for fun.

For example, let’s say you are creating a marketing plan for The Sierra Club. They want to recruit more members. This might be a useful target audience persona:

Meet Chris. He is 28, works at a company that manufactures solar panels, buys mostly organic food, and has in the past volunteered at his local beach cleanup. He likes to ski, hike and cook.

3)    What is your value proposition?

For this, it’s helpful to actually define the difference between marketing, branding, advertising and sales. For non-profits, Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy defines “marketing” as a process that brings about the voluntary exchange of values (as opposed to goods) between a non-profit organization and its target market. For example, it could be a transfer of a donation in exchange for addressing a social need.

What value is your audience getting? A value proposition helps you articulate this.  It names your target audience, what you want them to do, what benefits they will receive, and why.

Keeping with the Sierra Club example, here is a specific example: When you donate to the Sierra Club, you get peace of mind that your money is going toward proven, effective environmental advocacy that will help provide clean air and water, improve human health, and protect wildlife and wild places.

4)    What is your position in the marketplace?

Now it’s time to consider your competition. Non-profits don’t always like to call it competition, because we don’t actually want other groups doing important work to fail. But you are competing for members and volunteers. So what is your position in the marketplace? How are you different than other non-profits? A positioning map can help with this.

For example, the Sierra Club engages in advocacy, lobbying, and litigation. The club works nationally, but also has local chapters, and even some international programs. Compared to other international environmental non-profits, it positions itself as more reasonable than Greenpeace, which is very confrontational, but more aggressive than The Nature Conservancy, which is less confrontational in its tactics.

A non-profit’s position in the marketplace will help establish trust from different audiences. Moreover, a non-profit’s positioning, combined with it’s value proposition and its target audience, help non-profit managers make a cascade of other strategic decisions including messaging, partnerships and how to get the message to the audience.

5)    How will you reach your audience?

Where do they spend time? What do they like to do?

If you are aiming for the 20-35 year olds in my example, I think the things they are doing are trying to build a career, and find a mate. So perhaps the Sierra Club would offer professional networking events, or young and social volunteering and hiking events. The club might also create a community online where young people engage with Sierra Club actions. The club could also become a news and action resource for all the things this age group cares about regarding the environment (this is a kind of content marketing).

My number one advice: don’t just answer these questions in your head. If your non-profit has plans to grow, try drafting a marketing plan that identifies at least one quantifiable growth goal.

Start today.  What is one goal for your non-profit’s growth? Leave a comment below.

Natalie Henry Bennon’s consulting firm Springtale Strategies specializes in non-profit marketing, media relations, and grant writing. You can email her at

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Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who made his living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to him requesting his work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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Building your donor prospect list

November 15, 2013

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:46 pm

One of the biggest mistakes I see made by both nonprofit staff and board members (and political candidates) is to underestimate their own personal list for who to ask for donations.

Invariably, when you push them, more names emerge.

So how do you “push” yourself if you’re the one needing the list.

Most importantly, don’t build your list purely by asking out loud: “who do I know?”

Instead, run through an exercise like the following:

Go through Your Rolodex: old fashioned, your email address book, your Facebook or LinkedIn connections, etc. Who among these are prospects?

Then ask a series of questions design to bring to the forefront of your mind people who might not have already been captured. Questions can include:

Do you attend any religious institution?
Do you socialize with others from the institution?
Are you involved in it beyond attending services?

Are you in any clubs or organized activities?
What is it?
Who’s in it?

Who do you hang out with socially?
Social networks
Outdoor activities
Watching/playing sports
Book Clubs

What’s Your Professional background prior to your current role?
Do you have co-workers from previous jobs who believed in you?
Were you part of a professional association?
Who are your past employers?
For each, what’s your relationship like with the employer?

For each, list the 5-10 people with whom you most closely worked? What are they doing now/where are they?

Do you have any friends or colleagues from your higher education?
Social Clubs
Honor Societies
Extra-Curricular Activities

Odds are overwhelming that an exercise along these lines will yield a significantly more robust list from whom to fundraise!

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Don’t make this membership fundraising mistake

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:19 pm

I recently was speaking with an organization that had gone to great lengths to identify different levels of membership benefits that would be received by their members based on the level of dollars donated as part of their membership.

Donate $40 and get X.

Donate $75 and get X and Y.

Donate $120 and get X, Y, and Z.


They wanted my advice on how to further boost up the X, Y, and Z to make membership more attractive.

My advice — start over and ditch the concept entirely.

This wasn’t  a professional association — it was an organization that could be loosely described as progressive and ideological.  People aren’t joining the organization to gain “benefits.”

They are joining to advance the mission.

The difference between larger and smaller membership gifts isn’t about offering them more benefits.  It’s about (a) the donor’s capacity, (b) the donor’s  understanding of the organization and the impact it’s generating, (c) the donor’s emotional connection to the organization and/or the people involved, and last but not least, (d) whether the donor was asked to give more.

Instead of saying your $75 gets you X where X is something the donor gets, you should say $75 will help us make impact X — by framing it as part of a larger campaign.

And make them feel part of a larger community of like-minded donors so they’ll feel emotionally connected.

If you get them thinking analytically about the size of their donation as one of costs/benefits to them, my guess is you’ll almost always depress the size o their donation, not increase it.

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