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5 Big Facts That Fundraisers Ignore at Year-End (That Got Me Fired)

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facts that fundraisers ignore

For all of the content available to us this time of year, all the how-to guides and webinars about #GivingTuesday and year-end giving, none of them generally address the most important planning element to an effective fundraising campaign: A financial goal.

Beyond the obvious, a goal aligns resources – people, budget and time – and without it you are simply relying on the gut, or what I call, “hunchery,” to drive results, let alone success. That’s really hard, even for the most experienced fundraiser. To be sure, a goal is derivative of a line item in your budget that in the best circumstances, is based upon historical data (or results). That is, “What did I raise in this campaign over the last few years and what’s reasonable to assume will renew, upgrade, or lapse?” Often times, our honest answer produces a number that’s less than what our budget requires, so we quantify hope.

Very early in my career, I was terminated after a spectacular overestimation of my abilities. Armed with a tone-deaf, supreme confidence that I could make great things happen, but for a new tagline and a new brochure, I not only created barriers for 2,000 donors who gave a combined $400,000 each year to give again, but I spent $55,000 more than budgeted to produce the worst possible results during the best possible time for fundraising: Calendar year-end giving.

Consequently, and without much warning nor surprise, I got fired. I was certain, though, I was leaving an organization that didn’t understand me or fundraising, but at the time (and as a young, early 20-something), neither did I. Like many new-to-fundraising professionals, I had more passion than expertise; I had more hubris than self-awareness; and had more I tried to say than I tried to understand.

Since that time, I have learned a great deal, but see many, talented fundraising professionals making the same unnecessary mistakes I did. While I do have genuine empathy for passionate people who try to help and fail (or succeed too slowly), I also see the great cost it has for each nonprofit organization, most of whom could not sustain a mistake of $5,000, let alone $55,000. As such, the importance of fusing data and a goal, even before you get to channel, calendar, and segment, begins with an awareness of the facts, not the ideas, that will help you establish a realistic goal. With that in mind, here are 5 big facts that fundraisers ignore at year-end: 

1. We can’t know all the answers, but we should know the questions.

Let’s assume you are more self-aware, deferential, and mature than I once was and if you are, you already know you can’t have all the answers, but you should know how to effectively ask the questions before you accept the job because there are things you can fix after you’re hired, but there are things you can’t — things that are more paradigmatic of the nonprofit and leadership. A few questions you should ask to determine if the organization is committed to fundraising success:

  • After you joined the organization did you see the executive director and/or board increasing or decreasing their time commitment to fundraising?
  • In addition to salary for this position, what expenses are in the current operating budget that can be allocated to fundraising, and what type of expenses do you feel are/not necessary?
  • How were the fundraising goals in the current operating budget created? Are they more based upon what’s needed to balance the budget or on what has historically been raised?

2. We can’t credibly say “yes” or “no” if you’re not leveraging data

Well-meaning board members have ideas to raise money that you know won’t work, but they don’t. Full-page ads in the Sunday newspaper asking readers for just $1, proof-by-pictures in the society section of local periodicals of people in tuxes at a gala raising over $1 million, or creating a crowdfunding page seem like silly ideas when in their time-to-result context, but you need to understand the origin of the suggestions: Your board and your boss don’t see a plan guiding your activities, so they are making suggestions that are borne for a lack of understanding of what they can do to help, help you, or worse yet, desperation for results. That said, you need a plan to create focus, foster transparency, and inspire confidence. If you are simply describing how many grants you wrote or how many letters were stuffed and sent each month, you’re only inviting more questions – not answering them.

3. We can’t raise a net of our salaries just because we have to

While many private and community foundations want to help organizations develop the capacity to sustain the programs they fund, the reality is they hope you have a plan for fundraising success other than finding someone who can work for what you can pay. Securing funding for the organization’s first development director feels like a huge win, but that venture-based grant oftentimes falls short of the desired outcomes. The primary reason: a fundraiser needs more resources than a salary to raise money. Further, netting $40-$60,000 in new contributed revenue within the same fiscal year is difficult, generally, and becomes unrealistic when there are no systems in place or donors to renew and upgrade – and you have to build them simultaneously.

4. We are the least effective solicitor, but the most effective quarterback.

Relationships created and stewarded by a fundraiser are not portable. The idea that a donor gives to a professional fundraiser because of a relationship is both naive and demeans the great work and promise of your mission. The best fundraisers have an experienced familiarity or mastery of how to compel people to support their mission, not personally curate a network of donors in perpetuity. You want your development director to provide leadership, strategy, and execution, functionally serving as your “fundraising chief of staff” to make sure you ask the right donor for the first amount of money at the right time. Donors don’t give to staff, they give through staff.

5. We need mentorship, even though you don’t have fundraising experience

In most cases, fundraisers take the job you offered because they love the mission and embrace the challenge of successfully resourcing it. However, you should not discount their construct that you are not just their boss, but their manager and mentor. Everyone knows you care deeply about the mission, programs and impact your nonprofit makes in your communities – and fundraising is just the thing you need to happen to get it all done — but hiring a development professional does not absolve you or your board from fundraising. Just because you’ve never run an annual fund (or don’t want to) does not mean you cannot be of help and counsel to your development director. And just because you’ve hired a fundraiser doesn’t mean you’re done with fundraising, either. Donors want to talk to the strategic visionary for your nonprofit’s mission and impact, not the professional fundraiser.

That all said, before you commit to a goal, do some due diligence and at the very least, don’t rely on assumptions.  Fundraising isn’t just about the message, channel, and segment. It’s about an honest, transparent, and shared understanding of past results and existing resources.

Do you have other facts that fundraisers ignore to include in this list?

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  • Patrick Belcher

    nice wisdom. I am a firm believer in goals that have a relationship, not just a number that fills a gap
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