Is there a best way to raise money?
That question is really at the heart of what most nonprofits want to know.
And recently I was reminded of this when asked a question for a Virtual Summit for Nonprofit Changemakers in which I’m participating in the early Fall. [There will be a ton of useful content presented in this online conference – by 20 of well-respected experts over two days – so please check it out.]
Here’s what I was asked:
What is the best advice you can give to a fundraiser… and does it hold true in times of crisis?
I thought about this long and hard. Because I’ve lots and lots of advice!
But… my best advice? Hmmn…
And then it came to me.
I recalled a favorite quote.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend fifty-five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.”
— Albert Einstein
That’s the advice!
You see, one can’t really pick a best fundraising strategy without first fully describing the reason money is not already flowing in. In other words…
You must identify and define your problem before attempting to solve it.
The time you spend doing so will be well spent. And when it comes to fundraising, worth its weight in gold.
I like to go through an iterative process of asking why, why, why, why…. until I’ve exhausted every question. It looks something like this:
1. Why don’t we have more major donors?
A. Because no one on our board identifies or refers anyone
B. Because our cause isn’t sexy or popular
C. Because no one really knows how to ask for major gifts
D. Because not enough people are willing to ask
E. Because we don’t have research capability
F. Because we don’t have a major gift officer
G. Because, because, because…
Now you ask a question related to each of these ‘becauses.’ We’ll start with the first one by way of example.
A. Why doesn’t anyone on our board identify or refer anyone?
1). Because we haven’t recruited board members willing to tap their networks
2). Because board members have exhausted their contacts
Now you ask a question related to each of these secondary ‘becauses’…
1). Why haven’t we recruited board members willing to tap their networks?
a. Because we don’t have a nominating committee; the founder asks her friends
b. Because we don’t make it clear when we invite members to join we want them to connect us to their friends and colleagues
c. Because we don’t explicitly ask for referrals
2). Why have board exhausted their contacts?
a. Because we don’t have term limits
b. Because the group is homogenous; everyone knows the same people
When you’ve completed answers to all your secondary ‘becauses,’ you then answer your tertiary ‘becauses’ (e.g., Why don’t you have a nominating committee? Why don’t you let board recruits know you expect them to open up their rolodexes? Why don’t you have a process in place for asking for board referrals?).
Keep this process going until you’ve no more questions to ask related to the first reason you believed you have insufficient major donors.
Now move back to your first question and ask questions related to your second reason (and then your third, fourth, fifth and so on).
B. Why isn’t our cause sexy or popular?
1. Because we don’t have a written communications plan
2. Because we don’t have a compelling case for support
3. Because we don’t use social media
4. Because we don’t have marketing staff
Now, again, ask questions related to each of these secondary ‘becauses’ (e.g., Why don’t you have a written communications plan? Why don’t you have a compelling case for support? Why don’t you use social media? Why don’t you have marketing staff?). Once completed, you move on to asking questions related to your tertiary ‘becauses.’ And so forth. Until you – finally – come to the end of the road.
It may seem unending, but pretty soon you’ll have a good sense of why you don’t have more major donors and you’ll be able to develop a realistic strategy to get to a better place.
Folks often come to me for help with a specific ‘problem’ they’ve misidentified.
It’s a bit like a family identifying their daughter as ‘out of control’ and asking a therapist to fix this problem. But why is she out of control? Is that the root problem, or is it the fact the parents are constantly fighting? In which case, the appropriate solution might be different.
Nonprofits similarly ask me to fix problems that won’t get to the bottom of the reasons they’re failing to generate the philanthropic support they need. For example, they may tell me not enough people know they exist (thinking they need an awareness building campaign, or a branding initiative, or a social media strategist). But why don’t enough people know they exist? It could be because they have a larger, well-established competitor who dominates the space. That’s the real problem, and their best solution might be to collaborate or merge.
Sometimes folks take another leap towards ‘fixing’ the problem by asking for a specific solution.
Such as a new fundraising letter (which won’t help you if you’ve got old addresses, an unsegmented mailing list, poorly designed donation pages, and so forth). Or a newsletter template (which won’t help if your case for support is not current and compelling). Or a major donor plan (which won’t help if no one is willing to ask for money).
When you define the ‘this’ that needs addressing incorrectly, you’ll fail.
In every case, people ask me:
- What are we doing wrong with this?
- How should we do this differently?
- What should we be doing more of/less of as it relates to this?
This defining failure makes finding a ‘best’ strategy to inform next steps next to impossible.
For example, there are two basic ways to define the largest problem most nonprofits face during an economic recession:
- Expenses are too high.
- Revenues are too low.
If you select the former definition, you’re apt to cut expenses. If you cut program expenses, you let down those who rely on you. You also have less of a ‘case for support’ fundraisers and marketers can promote in order to generate contributions. If you cut fundraising and marketing expenses, you’ve got no one to sell the programs that will generate income – earned or contributed.
However if you frame the problem as a paucity of income, you’ll begin to brainstorm ways to drive new revenues. And you’ll do this without sacrificing the types of programs and services on which your constituents rely.
When you incorrectly define the problem, you may inadvertently end up with a much larger problem.
One that costs you more in terms of human and financial resources. And one that lasts longer. Sometimes, much longer. In the 2008-2009 recession I worked somewhere that, under the direction of the board of directors, sharpened their red pencils and proceeded to diligently cut much of the heart out of the programs. All that was left were the biggest money-makers and the programs serving those who couldn’t afford to pay full fees were pretty much kicked to the curb. This balanced the budget for the short-term. But the organization began hemorrhaging donors because the programs they’d been supporting no longer existed. Plus they cut fundraising staff, so there were less folks to sustain donor relationships. The result? Much ill will was created. It took many years to restore programs supporters cared about and win donors back to the fold. Some losses were never recouped.
Alas, poor problem definition results in simply attacking a symptom rather than the root cause.
Sometimes the symptom addressed is just one of many. It’s like trying to cure pneumonia with a Kleenex. You’ll end up going through boxes and boxes of tissues, and still be sick. And no closer to a real fix for the problem.
Problems often boil down to perceptions.
Whose problem is it? Ever stop a children’s fight and ask them what it was about? Generally you’ll get something like: “He hit me and I fought back.” “No, she started calling me names,” etc.
Don’t jump to conclusions! Most problems are like the story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk.
Know where you’re going. In the elephant story, the place they wanted to get to was a holistic view of the entire elephant. They weren’t going to get there by only looking at little, isolated pieces of the view. To use another metaphor, even a good GPS or road map is useless unless you know where you’re going. All the roads can be correctly drawn, but they still won’t get you to where you want to be. The same holds true for a fundraising strategy. For example, you can have the most well-written, best-designed email appeal in the world, but it still won’t raise money if your donation landing page is generic and/or difficult to use.
The best approach to problem definition is a collaborative one that incorporates multiple perceptions.
The objective in collaborative problem solving is to get to agreement on the common statement of the problem. Here’s my best advice to assure you’re headed in the right direction, and solving the right problem.
1. Stipulate that problems aren’t ‘bad’.
They’re a fact of life. Change occurs and change requires responses. Don’t be afraid of problems, don’t ignore them and don’t try to gussy them up by calling them something else. One technique is the “best, worst and most probable’ scenario”. When folks are resistant to addressing a problem, ask them what’s the best, worst and most probable thing that will happen as a result of solving/not solving the issue. The perceived upsides, and sometimes terrible downsides, will often persuade folks to get the ball rolling. Since the elephant in the room is real, it’s wise to deal with it!
2. Legitimize problem perceptions.
Ask everyone to state their personal view. Don’t judge at this point. If there’s a lot of dissonance, try discussing how folks feel about their perception of the problem. If Anita says “There’s a problem with productivity,” Donny may feel threatened he’s going to have to work longer hours. If Anita understands how Donny feels, she can rephrase the problem. Once everyone has stated their viewpoint folks can begin to see the commonalities, or lack thereof.
3. Rephrase the problem.
This can be super helpful. In the example above, let’s say Anita instead asks the group to figure out “ways to make people’s jobs easier.” She’s likely to get a lot more suggestions. Similarly “How can we increase donations?” is very different than “In what ways can we provide more benefits to our donors?” They are phrased from different perspectives. Also, the latter phrasing suggests there are a multitude of possibilities, rather than one right answer. Words carry meaning and play a major role in how we perceive a problem.
4. Get a working definition of your problem.
Once you’ve clarified perceptions the next step is to say what it is and what it isn’t. If your car stalls, you can’t jump to the conclusion it’s an engine problem. Similarly, if you start working on “What new programs can we offer” you’ll rule out possibilities you might have explored if you’d defined the problem as “Which existing programs lend themselves to tweaking into a virtual experience.” Building a completely new program excludes the possibility of converting existing in-person programs into online ones. Maybe nothing can be successfully tweaked, but you don’t want to narrow the problem prematurely.
5. Make the problem engaging.
If it’s fun, it’s like a game and folks will want to play. “Increasing donations” is boring. “How can we wow our donors” is challenging. “How to create a Facebook page” is boring. “How can we engage meaningfully with our constituents is exciting. Plus, it doesn’t close off other solutions (maybe Facebook is not the only answer).
6. Reverse the problem.
If you’re really struggling with defining your problem, try turning it on its head. Whatever you want to win, try figuring out what would make you lose. For example, if you want more donors to increase their donations ask yourself what would cause them to not give. “Not asking donors to increase their gifts” may seem obvious as a reason folks wouldn’t do so, but sometimes the obvious answer only emerges when you approach it from a different direction.
Einstein understood before you can solve a problem you must first define it. Otherwise, you’re apt to solve the wrong problem! Sadly, this happens all the time. Please don’t let it happen to you. You’ll spin your wheels, waste resources and generally frustrate yourself.
Take the time to clarify and understand the problem(s) you face. The root problems, not the symptoms. Then you can move forward with confidence to find your best money-raising strategy.
That’s my best advice, crisis or no crisis.
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