4. Calling the queston of fundraising

Here's a story I've heard from three different EDs:

I was doing everything I could with grant writing and it still wasn't enough and I thought maybe some major donors might help fill in our budget gap and I was exhausted and so at the Board meeting I said...

I really need your help with fundraising.

One Board member responded instantly...

When was the last time we evaluated this ED? Let's put a committee together and get going.

Which was followed by a murmuring of consensus.

Now, why would a Board respond so perversely?

I think it's simply because Boards hate fundraising so much that if you push them on it, it can get their backs up. They'll look around for any excuse to get busy doing something else instead.

And in the three cases above I think there was an element of payback. Calling for an evaluation was like saying, "This will teach you to ask us for help."

It's not that these Board members were bad people. Not at all. They were just being pushed to do something they didn't want to do, and I bet...

They believed they would fail at fundraising if they tried to do it,

So they were trying to save face.

Here's another story. I've heard this one about a zillion times. The ED says, "I need help with fundraising." And the Board says...

"Let's do a special event!"

Which might sound encouraging, unless the translation reads...

We're punting this. The staff will have to throw the event and we'll show up for the fun that night. If money doesn't get raised, then we can say, Well, we tried our best.

Or money does come in, we'll acknowledge the proceeds, say $500, but ignore what it took in staff time to produce the event, say $5,000.

What's going on here?

My best guess is that Board members think a special event absolves them from asking for money. Of course, most special events succeed only if a whole lot of asking is going on, because how else are you going to get people to buy tickets or show up or do whatever you need them to do?

But an event is a global responsibility, which is a lot easier to slick out of than an individual responsibility. The accountability gets much more slippery.

Here's something I've learned over the years...

Most nonprofit Boards will do almost anything not to have to go out and ask for money.

And I don't really blame them—

If they hate fundraising,

And didn't sign up for it in the first place.

So I recommend that you...

Never ever push your Board to ask for money.


Negotiate with them.

If you push, they might get tangled up in twisted feelings and turn snappish...

We know we should do fundraising and we're not doing it, so we must be bad people. But we don't know how to ask which makes us feel like failures as well as a bad people. And meanwhile the ED's pushing all this in our faces, so we don't like him anymore.

Of course if you push, it might also happen that a couple Board members will go out and ask—driven by guilt and resisting it every step of the way. So they're likely to fail and where will that leave them?


Stop pressuring and start negotiating
I remember a guy on a Board who kept making promises to call all these VIP contacts he had, but it never happened...

"Well, it's tax season, so it's not a good time.

"Well, it's summer, they're probably all on vacation.

"Well, the kids are going back to school, so everybody's probably busy with that.

"Well, it's getting on toward the holidays, maybe we should wait till the new year."

The ED called him at home, so the conversation could be confidential, and said,

"Why do I keep getting the feeling that you really don't like fundraising?"

"Oh, God, that's true! Thanks for bringing it up. I hate it but I don't want to admit it. I don't know why. I guess it doesn't fit my image of myself. I'm supposed to be the guy who can do anything."

"I appreciate you telling me that. And listen, I'd be glad to work with you if you want, so you can find a way of asking for money that works for you.

"But with this caveat. If you find your own best asking approach and you try it out and you still don't like fundraising, then you don't have to do it. How would that be?"

"Okay, I'm willing to try it. I don't like being blocked by some dumb thing like this."

I happened to be at the Board meeting when he came back with a $5,000 donation. He was exultant. And suddenly he was the expert. Other Board members said...

"How did you do that?"

"Will you teach me?"

"God, we all have to learn this."

A Chair (or an ED) could have a conversation with the whole Board with the same flavor of compassionate truth telling...

"We're in a stuck place and it's not fun. We talk a lot about fundraising, but we're not doing it. So let's take a moment and just get real.

"How many of us don't like fundraising and wish it would just go away? Let's see hands.

"Okay, that's all of us except two who are not sure how they feel.

"So here's the deal. Let's play with a radical perspective. Let's say that as Board members we don't necessarily have to do the fundraising ourselves. But as Board members it's our job to solve the fundraising problem.

"Do you see the difference?

"There's a range of possible solutions. Here are some I can think of...

"1.  We work together to find the true asking voice for each Board member. They we go out and ask when we're at our best, and anyone who still hates fundraising doesn't ever have to do it again.

"2.  We have some open seats, so we recruit new Board members who like asking.

"3.  We set up a Board committee fundraising committee and recruit a bunch of non-Board members to be on it.

"4.  We adopt a group strategy for fundraising. For example, I find it easier to do an ask if someone is going with me. I hate doing it alone. And if we did fundraising as a group, that might be even easier.

"Perhaps we might do a cheap one-hour event, designed to touch people's hearts, something we can feel really proud of so we'll feel happy about inviting our friends and colleagues to it.

"Only one person will get up and do the ask for the whole group. A beautifully written ask delivered by whoever among us can do it the best.

"And the rest of us as table captains will, in a sense, be seconding the ask. We're still involved in it, but without the full weight of it on our shoulders."

"Those are the things I can think of. Any other ideas?

"What if we think this through together? Do you have faith that we can come up with an answer that really works for us?"

Now, let's take those options and look at them in turn:


1.  Finding your asking voice.
There are people who turn into great askers if they can only find a way to do it that's in alignment with their values and their personality.

And for them it's a wonderful breakthrough, not just as a Board member, but at home and at work, too, because when they get good at asking all kinds of doors open for them.

I have a page about doing what I call the Advocacy Ask. You stay in alignment with yourself while you advocate for your prospect. You want him to stay true to himself in deciding whether to give or not to give. You can check it out, and your Board members can check it out for themselves. Some people might decide to go for it.

And many won't, so tell them to let it go and focus on the other options.


2.  Recruiting people who like to ask
If you need people on your Board who will go out and ask for money, then negotiate that with them in advance.

And I mean really negotiate. Be explicit, be direct, don't leave any wiggle room for any doubt or any mistaken assumptions.

Please don't throw a Fundraising Surprise Party...

"You're on the Board now, and surprise! That means you're a fundraiser!"

Once upon a time, I believed that when people said "I do" and joined the Board, they would automatically do all the things on the list of Board duties. I mean you made the commitment, so why wouldn't you follow through?

I guess that means I could have won the National Nonprofit Championship for Naiveté.

If you want fundraisers, you have to recruit fundraisers. And there are people who sincerely enjoy asking for money for a mission they believe in. Not tons of them, but there are some, so go after them.

And it's competitive because, as you can imagine, they're in demand. So you have to convince them that your organization is worth their time, which is why you want to have...

A staff that's performing at the top of their game, and

A Board that's focused on the mission not personality antics.

I've got more about this on my page about recruiting.

And if you do recruit people who love to ask, they might, by example, or through mentoring, ignite some of your other Board members. And it's a thrill to see Board members achieving success with something they thought they would never be able to do.


3.  Bringing in non-Board members
You don't have to wait till you have Board openings. You don't have to hand out a Board seat every time you ask someone to do something for you. The point of giving to a nonprofit is that the person has a need to make a difference for the mission.

Being on the Board is not a perk or a reward. It's a matter of service.

And in fact, you might find people who are glad to give to your organization but who would never want to be on the Board. They just don't have the interest in that kind of responsibility or the meetings that go with it.

Some Boards have found it works very well to have a fundraising committee, headed up by one or two Board members and filled out with a bunch of volunteer askers.


4.  Group fundraising
I'm a fan of the Benevon system, because it's a way for your Board members (and other supporters) to work together to bring in donations.

And if you're...

Doing social change work,

Why not...

Do social fundraising?

Now the Benevon program is expensive, but you get ongoing coaching when you sign up for it, so you have an excellent chance at succeeding. And this makes the price worth it for lots of groups.

They also have a self-implementation program which is quite cheap. You order a collection of their materials from their website and then put them into practice.

My only caution with self-implementation, however, is that as you adapt the program to your own context, make very, very sure that you keep all the core principles in place. The program is conceptually very simple, but what powers it, what makes it work is that there is a vigorous ask at the heart of it, and everything is organized around the ask.

I've seen people cheat on the ask part and the results are disappointing. It's really amazing how being just a couple degrees off can make a huge difference in income.

There's a discipline to this system. And a feel. And that's what you want to make sure you understand if you're going to do this yourself.

And of course there are fundraising consultants and organizations, such as GIFT, who you can work with who have been using the same principles for years that Benevon is based on.

And here are some of those principles:

You put together a free one-hour point of entry event, where there's no ask. This makes it so much easier for Board members and supporters to invite their friends, relatives, and colleagues. This event initiates the connection. Some people will be impressed and write checks, but that's not the point.

You do a follow up free one-hour ask event. You do a compelling program that starts right on time and ends right on time. You put serious time into developing a beautiful, moving, powerful ask.

Everything is so well thought through and so well produced that it's like a super ask. If a Board member is uncertain about asking, I'd rather he brought his contacts to an event instead of winging the ask himself in a few minutes at someone's home or at the water cooler at work.

There's social proofing going on the whole time. Your credibility rises significantly when you can draw a crowd of interesting folks. And as some of the attendees get excited about what you do, they inspire others to get excited, too.

There's no pressure to give. Encouragement, yes. When you ask you really ask. But you give people the complete freedom to say no, too.

These are simple events. They don't count as special events.

These are cheap events. Once you've designed them and put them together, they take very little staff time. You can easily do them again and again anytime you can gather a group of people.


A special note about special events
There are plenty of nonprofits which have come up with special events that work for them year after year and more power to them.

Sometimes an ED or Board member has a natural talent for events and can produce the most amazing things seemingly off the cuff.

But I like to warn nonprofit leaders not to get into event fundraising unless...

You know what you're doing.

You have a dynamite idea for the design of the event.

You test the idea thoroughly.

You have professional event planners to work with or to handle the event

And this is an important message to get across to your Board, too. They should never order the staff to do a special event if what they're really doing is dumping the ask.

Most nonprofits don't have event expertise. And to make matters worse, when we do an event we're usually bootlegging it. We're trying to run it on the fly along with keeping the program going and doing all the zillions of things we've got to do every day.

I remember once at my old organization we did a casino night up in the hills where we had a couple famous football and baseball greats to greet people as they came in. Our attendees had stars in their eyes. We had dollar signs. And the next morning when we counted the money, we found we had broken even.

But that was not including weeks of staff time. We simply didn't know how to turn celebrity power into ticket sales.

So we would have done better...

If we had just gotten a list of names and gone out asking, or

If we had taken a can out on the street and spare-changed the public.

It's so bad for the morale of an organization to put time they can't afford and energy they don't have to spare into an event that fails.

I've seen way too many nonprofits jump into events out of...


Or, again, as a way...

To avoid doing direct asks.

Special events often feel like indirect asks. You're saying, If you give me a donation, I'll give you a ticket. You'll get something for your donation.

But as I say on many pages on this site: The number one reason you want people to give you money is that...

They have a clear and compelling need to make a difference for your mission.

That's what they get. They get to meet that need.

So often nonprofits emphasize the secondary things—a newsletter, a dinner, an entertainment—and miss out on the power of the primary reason.

I think the default sacrificial nonprofit mindset makes a jabolix of fundraising. If we think we're asking someone to make a sacrificial donation then we're not going to feel good about it and we'll want to make it up to them with some compensating gift or perk.

There are, of course, highly-successful events that some nonprofits run which are not about the mission and are purely money makers and there's nothing wrong with that. Like raffling off a house. People engage for the sport of it or the dream of winning big.

And for a big-time event like this you really need a professional who knows that business because it's complex and it's easy for amateurs to make fatal mistakes.

But for your core donors, your inner circle, I would wish you a group of stellar people who give because they want to give to your mission and that's enough for them. That by itself makes them happy.


© 2009 Rich Snowdon