nonprofit virtue

The late Jerold Panas, fundraising guru and author of Born to Raise: What Makes a Great Fundraiser Great, wrote about traits (he calls them “verities” or truths) that distinguish consummate fundraisers from those who, I presume, just dial it in.

Today I’d like to talk about one of these important traits.

I’ll wager it’s not one you’ll be able to come up with on your own. Nor is it one you’re likely to look for when you interview candidates for fundraising jobs. It may even strike a sour note with you when I first reveal it.

I hope, if you read through this article, by the end you’re convinced that this trait is a nonprofit virtue.

The trait is the opposite of what we’ve all been taught.

As Panas writes:

Most of us grew up with the aphorism ‘Patience is a virtue.’ But in fundraising, impatience is equally virtuous. The successful professionals are itchy by nature. They don’t suffer easily standing still or treading water. They have a low tolerance with the pace of their program and its progress.

Panas is claiming ‘impatience’ is a fundraising or nonprofit virtue. In fact, he asserts “You need impatience to stay relevant and effective.

Personally, I don’t love that particular word (because we tend to ascribe ‘impatience’ with a negative quality), but I do embrace the concept.

So let’s use a synonym.


Edginess Sustains Relevance and Effectiveness

This particular word connotes having a bold, provocative, or unconventional quality. If you want a leader, this is a quality you need. 

  • Edgy people aren’t comfortable with the status quo.  
  • Edgy people constantly seek to be the best they can be.
  • Edgy people bend towards innovation
  • Edgy people do the right things, rather than what’s always been done (even if they do that the right way). 

Doing things the right way is good. But is it good enough? Doing what’s always been done seems safe. But… is it really?

In our fast-moving society, being on the cutting edge can be a huge competitive advantage. Conversely, fall too far behind the curve and you’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. 

Change happens, whether you pay attention or not. It’s better to pay attention. Ten years ago I began telling folks fundraising and nonprofit marketing had changed more in the past 5 to 7 years than in the preceding 50. This rate of change continues. Not only do you have different ways to encounter and communicate with your audiences; they have different ways to encounter and communicate with you.  

Today, you have your own data as a reference point, as well as shared data compiled from other sources against which you can benchmark your success. (e.g., Fundraising Effectiveness Project; M+R benchmarks; Blackbaud Online Benchmark Report; NextAfter Online Fundraising Research Lab; Giving USA). Some of these reports differentiate results based on size and cause, so be sure to pay attention to results that most align with your organization.

There’s really no good excuse for doing things the way you did them five, ten or even further years ago.

Are You at Least Close to the Cutting Edge?

If you don’t know what’s going on – both within the sector as a whole and within your own nonprofit – how can you possibly improve?

I was fortunate in my career as a development director to work for executive directors who valued edginess. Every time I read and shared a terrific article, or returned from a course or conference and reported on what was new in the industry and what I thought we should do to embrace new opportunities, I was given the rope I needed. Yes, I ‘hung myself’ a couple of times. But for the most part, edginess helped the organizations for whom I worked deploy new strategies to take us from good to great.

Here’s a list of fundraising strategies where keeping abreast of best practices and benchmarks will help you work smarter. Take a look, and consider whether your own organization might have room for strategic improvement in one or more areas.

  • Planned legacy giving program
  • Major individual gifts program
  • Direct mail acquisition program
  • Online acquisition program
  • Donor retention and loyalty-building programs
  • Mid-level donor program
  • Monthly giving program
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising program
  • Board and volunteer development program
  • Donor engagement opportunities
  • Foundation grants program
  • Business sponsors program
  • Enhanced fundraising at events (e.g., ‘fund a need;’ silent auction; raffle)
  • Marketing integration with fundraising
  • Donor/customer management systems
  • Donor analytics
  • Donor-centric website
  • Donor-centric social media
  • Culture of donor service

“If I Know it I Want You to Know it.”

This has long been my motto, and remains so to this day. It’s why I share absolutely everything I know, and continue to learn, with my community of Clairification School students. [Join us and get your edge on!]

Do you want improvement?

  • Were I an executive director, I’d want my development director to alert me to emerging trends and areas for enhancement and progress.
  • Were I a director of development, I’d want my development associate to alert me to new opportunities to increase donor retention and upgrading.
  • Were I a director of marketing, I’d want my marketing associate to inform me of new listening and communication tools to make us more effective and competitive.

I would want an edgy seeker.

I would not want someone who sits – patiently — waiting to be told what to do.

What about you?

Do You Model the Qualities of Edginess?

Here’s how Jerold Panas describes this virtue of a nonprofit leader: 


Sometimes things look okay on the surface. But if you dig a bit you may find you’re edging towards a slow death. 

How do you approach your daily work? Do you ever take the time to check the roots of your problems? 

Ask yourself these five questions to assess where you may have a problem:

1. Do You Find Yourself Standing Still?

It’s easy to get stuck bringing in roughly the same number of donors and dollars annually. Or making just incremental progress. Especially when there’s so much to get done every day just to prevent your organization from falling backwards. But treading water is no way to excel in fundraising.

Sadly, this is the state of affairs with the lion’s share of nonprofit fundraising departments. Donor retention has been abysmal over the past decade, per the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. A lot of three steps forward, two steps back. 

If you feel you’re on a treadmill, you’re not alone. But the excuse that “everyone else is doing it” didn’t work for your mother; it shouldn’t work for your organization either.

Time to get edgy! If you want to improve donor and dollar retention, read this.

2. Are You Guilty of Complacency?

When no one holds your feet to the fire to innovate, experiment, or take risks, it’s easy to rest on your laurels. Why? It’s comfortable. Or is it?

When I talk to fundraisers unhappy in their jobs, inevitably it’s because their jobs have lost a sense of accomplishment. They’re no longer excited about their work. There are no highs and lows. No occasions for big celebration. Just a daily grind.

Complacency in business is a silent killer. It prevents individuals and organizations from pushing beyond the status quo to achieve exceptional successes. Ultimately, it impedes longevity.

Time to get edgy! If you want to thrive, not just survive, read this.

3. Do You Adapt to Evolving Technologies and New Practices?

Too many nonprofit boards, CEOs, and chief development officers are afraid of change. Perhaps it’s because they, personally, lack emerging skills. They don’t want to be seen as dinosaurs, so they persist in professing they know best. Only they can do it. As a result, these so-called ‘leaders’ ignore problems and avoid the difficult challenges of investigating how they might be addressed. But these problems can’t simply be swept under the table.

You need to adapt to the elephants in the room! And one huge woolly mammal is the digital revolution. Digital engagement is now the norm for nonprofit communications. It’s not enough to have made some changes five years ago, and nothing really since then. Just because you slapped up a Facebook and Twitter account does not mean you’re up to date with how people communicate, access information, or conduct financial transactions today. We live in an era of constant disruption.  

Communication channels today are layered. It can take up to 18-20 touchpoints to reach a customer for the first time per Nonprofit Source. This means a single mailed letter is no longer sufficient. The world of today is a multi-channel world – website; social media; digital advertising; telephone; text; email and mail.

Today’s successful fundraiser understands “that’s not how we’ve always done things” is a red flag, and seeks to make dynamic changes to adapt to changing times. 

Time to get edgy! If you’ve got old dogs who need to learn new tricks, read this

4. Are You Becoming Irrelevant?

Sometimes your purpose must evolve. 

  • One classic nonprofit example of success is the March of Dimes. They began as an organization built to end polio. They did it! They could have gone out of business. Instead, they adapted. Today they fight for the health and welfare of all moms and babies and remain relevant.
  • A classic business example of failure is Toys R Us. For 70 years it was king of toy sales. But then e-commerce came along, and it failed to adapt. It didn’t make a good case for why folks needed to come into a store, so people simply ordered online from other companies and stopped coming in. Lack of initiative and attention to how Toys R Us could still matter to the world sent it into bankruptcy. Of course, Toys R Us is hardly the only retailer or industry to suffer this fate. Look at bookstores and video stores, just to name a couple.

Make sure the way you present your case for support falls squarely within that which your constituents find relevant. Stay on top of things! This means regularly asking folks what they care about most. If you’re primarily talking about the program that’s of least interest to the majority of your supporters, it’s likely you’ll raise a diminishing stream of dollars. Similarly, if you base your marketing communications on what donors told you most concerned them five years ago, you’ll risk being completely off the mark today.

Time to get edgy! If you want to sustain relevancy, read this

5. How Do You Balance the Old and New to Stay Fresh?

We used to talk about work/life balance; today we’re grappling with work/work balance. The old work and the new work. What yielded results in the past and what has potential to yield results in the future. 

They’re not mutually exclusive. Just because old strategies no longer yield the same results they once did (when I entered the profession a 2% return was standard for direct mail; now we’re over-the-moon delighted with .05%) is not a reason to ditch them. Yes, direct mail is less cost-effective than in the past. Frankly, everything is. I wish there was an easy solution. Yet just because the solution isn’t easy doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

Time to get edgy! If you want to improve your balance of fundraising strategies, read this and this.

Edginess Keeps Your Mission Fresh

If you don’t stay fresh you become stale. So … how do you stay fresh? You do it by taking as objective a look as possible at what you’re currently doing. You step back and ask some hard questions. 

Ask yourself the five questions above and think about your areas for improvement. Once you’ve assessed potential problem areas, brainstorm ways you might tweak what you’re doing to move forward into the future.

And remember this sage advice from Seth Godin:

Again and again and again

Ruts don’t dig themselves.

Most of the time, we’re in a rut because that’s precisely where we put ourselves.

Actions become habits, and habits get repeated because they feel safe.

The easiest way to make things more interesting is to simply stop repeating your habitual behavior.

And that often comes from reacting to triggers. Remove the triggers and you can alter the habits.

Tiny changes. Different ways to keep score.

Tomorrow comes daily. But we don’t have to take the same route to get there.

Check your habits at the door, and use edginess as a springboard into the future.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.