The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy projects total giving will grow by an estimated 4.1% in 2021. So you can’t use the pandemic as an excuse for raising less money in the year ahead.
Nor should you ever adopt a sky-is-falling stance of “we can’t compete in this environment, so let’s lower expectations and cut back.”
Did your organization cut back on development expenses last year? Did you lay off fundraising and marketing staff? Did you send fewer appeals?
If you did, chances are you didn’t tell, and sell, your case for support.
At least not as effectively as possible.
That’s a sure-fire recipe for raising less money than you could or should.
Here are three evergreen, fundamental fundraising truths:
1. It Costs Money to Make Money
Philanthropy doesn’t fall from trees; you have to expend some resources, both time and money.
If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Some organizations get exceptionally lucky; most don’t. I worked at the San Francisco Food Bank during the 2009 recession, and businesses and foundations called us without us needing to call them. I’d never had that experience before, and my mind was blown. But I soon came to appreciate that was the exception to the rule. Need was greater then, and we could have been doing even more. Even the lucky ones would raise more if they spent more.
Fundraising is not a cost center; it’s a revenue center.
Too few nonprofits understand. They come from a mindset of scarcity rather than abundance. And that’s a shame. Because the world’s problems are too pressing to give them short shrift.
A finely-tuned, well-oiled fundraising program should be a money-sucking machine.
Don’t be stingy with fundraising expenditures.
If you’re professional about it, and put in place tried-and-true strategies, you’ll come out ahead. This has been my lifelong professional experience, ever since I began in fundraising in 1981 and had the true good fortune to attend The Fundraising School week-long “Principles and Techniques of Fundraising” course. Founded by Hank Rosso, who became a personal mentor, I was introduced to the fundamentals of good fundraising practice. I learned there are right, and wrong, ways to do things. And you won’t succeed until all the pre-conditions are in place. These conditions, which have grounded my practice ever since, include institutional readiness, dynamic functions, management, human resources, markets and multi-channel fundraising vehicles (you’ll find these fleshed out on the “Fundraising Cube” all students receive, and to which I find myself referring with surprising frequency. Its truths are still foundational and fundamental!)
Prove your positive ROI by tracking your cost/benefit ratio.
I tracked fundraising return on investment every year of the 30 years I served as a director of development. I worked at Jewish Family and Children’s Services long enough to chart this for five and ten-year periods. Here’s an example:
For-profit companies would kill to get this type of financial ROI! So the notion nonprofits should keep overhead, including fundraising expenses, below 10% or 20% is ludicrous. If you spent 25% and raised enough more money to increase programs by 50% — the social ROI — wouldn’t that be a smart investment?
In fact, a study by United Kingdom fundraising guru Giles Pegram found organizations investing in fundraising rather than financial markets yielded a return of 3:1 over 0.5:1 – a remarkably dramatic result. When you fail to invest fundraising, you fail to reap rewards.
Build a development team.
Philanthropy facilitation is a team sport, with everyone pulling together towards the same goal with a shared esprit de corps. This is what we call a culture of philanthropy. Everyone is on board; there are no siloes. This is why hiring a single development staffer, with no additional support, is not a recipe for success. Revenue centers must be recognized by all stakeholders as central to the mission.
2. Raising Money Requires a Lively Case for Support
“Lively” means a case that’s relevant in today’s world. The definition of the word reads: “full or suggestive of life or vital energy; active, vigorous, or brisk.” Antonyms would include “dull,” “apathetic,” “lethargic,” and “inactive.” Do any of those words describe your organization’s current case for support?
When’s the last time you really revisited your mission statement? Or your annual fundraising campaign case for support? Maybe you did it a little bit during the pandemic, but only of necessity and on an emergency (e.g. one or two “crisis appeals”) basis?
Review your during-pandemic fundraising appeals, emails and newsletters/blog posts.
Maybe you thought you didn’t merit as much support last year because you were offering less programming? Or maybe you stopped asking as much because you thought you couldn’t justify development expenses? Maybe because you were responding to expanded needs, you believed you couldn’t afford money for such “luxuries” as development?
Unless you think your mission doesn’t really matter, it should be incumbent on you to always be innovating to reach out to current and new constituencies with your best, most relevant case for support.
This case may vary as external circumstances require and needs subside or emerge, but variety is the spice of life. Just because your case for support today is different than six months ago – or 18 months ago – that doesn’t mean you don’t have a strong raison d’etre.
Whether you successfully pivoted during the pandemic or not, now you’re at a new crossroads.
Maybe you were intending to go right back to your old case for support as soon as you, and the world, were out of the woods?
That might not be such a good idea.
Take a look at your pre-pandemic fundraising appeals. Do they seem definitionally lively? Are they energetic, animated, fresh, buoyant and attuned to today’s realities? Daniel Pink, in “To Sell is Human,” notes the new marketer’s ABC (“Always Be Selling”) has transformed into a mantra of “Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity.”
Example of a lively (attuned, buoyant and clear) case for support.
Can you imagine if the March of Dimes were still trying to raise money solely to eradicate child polio? That was their founding mission; one that resonated during and after W.W.II., when little was known about the disease and a polio pandemic was upon the world. With the advent of the Salk vaccine (he was a March of Dimes grantee), polio declined rapidly from tens of thousands of new cases per year to a mere handful. In 1958 the organization announced birth defects prevention as their new mission. They broadened their focus in the late 1970s to healthy pregnancies; then in the 1990s to healthy babies. Today they sum up their mission as: “March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies.” With a nod to what’s going on in the current moment, their donation landing page states simply:
“Even without a global pandemic, motherhood is hard. But through it all, moms’ strength, resilience and hope always persist.
Make a donation today so March of Dimes can help moms and moms-to-be become their own best health advocates and get the latest information and resources for every stage of pregnancy. Because we know, It Starts With Mom.”
3. People Give Emotionally, Not Rationally
Find the emotional life in your ‘today’ case for support.
That’s the story – or stories — you need to tell. Stories draw people in like nothing else. Not data. The more emotional, the better. People act on emotion. And scientifically speaking, emotion is a chemical reaction.
- 581,000 deaths is impersonal. A story about one person or one family who suffered, especially if they are described in a manner to which the donor can personally relate, can bring a lump to their throat.
- Percentages of people in one racial or ethnic group who are disproportionately affected by a problem is impersonal. A story about one person who was unfairly or cruelly treated, especially if the donor can imagine they or someone they know being in that situation, will bring a tear to their eye.
Likely, your emotionally compelling case will incorporate elements of your: (1) Before pandemic case for support (B.P.); (2) During pandemic case for support (D.P.), and (3) After pandemic case for support (A.P.).
(1) Before pandemic case for support (B.P.)
What was your historic vision, mission and values statement –some call this your brand – BP? It may still be up on your website. Or maybe it’s buried on a page you hid during the pandemic, substituting in a statement more relevant to pandemic times. Go back to that hidden version and check it out.
Thoughtfully review your B.P. messaging. Does it still speak to you? Or if you never tweaked it, does your case for support need to be re-invented? Is it a bit dull, or bright and shiny? Ask some folks not associated with your organization for some honest feedback.
(2) During pandemic case for support (D.P.)
In March of 2020, suddenly lots of organizations began to think their missions were on life support. If they weren’t health, wellness or direct human services organizations, they struggled to figure out how to breathe vitality into what had previously seemed a perfectly compelling case for support. How, for example, could arts organizations, camps and after-school programs imagine donors would want to support them now, especially when they couldn’t offer on-site experiences? Or how could predominantly white organizations compete with BIPOC or causes specifically devoted to justice, diversity, equity and inclusion?
Be careful you didn’t inadvertently lose sight of your core mission. One arts organization I know got so focused on highlighting all they were doing to accommodate visitors virtually, and showcase their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, they entirely stripped their navigation menu off their home page. This meant it wasn’t clear they were supported by philanthropy, and would-be donors searching to make a contribution couldn’t easily support them.
Take some thoughtful time to review D.P. era messaging. Is it still relevant? Does it require further tweaking? Is it more emotional, less rational, than your B.P. case for support? If so, what can you keep as you transition to a new zeitgeist?
(3) After pandemic case for support (A.P.)
What’s it going to be? How can you take the best of your B.P. and D.P. messages and stories and formulate a lively, relevant case for support in 2021 and beyond? At a bare minimum, you want to show:
- You’re not going away.
- The problem(s) you address. Today.
- Your solution(s) to the problem. Today.
- The values you enact. Today.
- How donors can help. Today.
- What donor gifts can accomplish. Today.
- What will happen to those who rely on you, absent philanthropy. Today and tomorrow.
Continue to showcase the parts of your mission people have always cared about and supported, even though some of the ways you’re implementing programs and services may be evolving.
While you’re at it, take some thoughtful time to consider how you’re going to sell your emotionally resonant A.P. message.
This seems obvious, but… I’ve witnessed countless organizations go through extensive planning processes to reframe their vision, mission, and values statements and campaign cases for support. Much dialogue and editing ensues. Ultimately, when everyone is exhausted by the process, a final draft emerges, is quickly approved, and is then filed away.
No one’s emotions will be aroused by a mission or case statement stuffed in a drawer or stuck on your hard drive. Just like no one will buy what a retailer’s got if they’re not obviously open for business. Part of “readiness” to succeed in business is a marketing and sales plan. Part of “institutional readiness” for fundraising is a communications plan. If you’re not willing to walk the talk, then what’s the point of preparing your speech?
Want to Learn More Fundraising Truths?
Check out the 7 Clairification Keys To Unlock Your Nonprofit’s Fundraising Potential. This Guide includes a wealth of materials to help you take some time to develop the necessary mindset, and supporting infrastructure, to show donor-investors what’s in it for them to affiliate with you. What value do you offer? And why is it better than what anyone else is offering?
As with all Clairification products, this comes with my 30-day, no-questions-asked, 100% money back guarantee. So you really can’t lose.
To your success!
Image by PDPics from Pixabay