Fundraising is Paper Towels

Thanksgiving was wonderful and I hope yours was, too.  So many things to be thankful for – like making new friends!

We met a lovely couple who are both donors and volunteers at various local nonprofits, so of course the conversation turned to stories from the trenches.

Our new friend spends some time volunteering at a local homeless service agency and went in recently to serve lunch.  Here’s how she put it:

I was asked to make sandwiches for bagged lunches they distribute, so I gloved up and headed into the kitchen.  In the process of preparing to make sandwiches, I spilled something on the counter.  “Where would I find paper towels?” I asked and the response I got was, “We are out of paper towels and they won’t be delivered until next Tuesday, so just use one of these kitchen towels.”  And, with that, she handed me a kitchen towel that had clearly been used before and, even with anti-bacterial cleaner, I didn’t think was very sanitary.  I was just so shocked they didn’t have paper towels.”

So, instead of making sandwiches, she hopped in her car and went to a bulk supply store and bought paper towels.  Great!  Thanks to a great volunteer and donor!

When she asked, though, why they didn’t just order more, the response she got was, “We just can’t afford them – it’s not in the budget.  We can only get x amount per year and we can only get what’s in our standing bi-weekly shipment.”

What potentially stood between a hungry person and lunch was a lack of paper towels.

Paper towels.

Because buying more wasn’t in the budget.

This is the Overhead Myth in action.  This is a highly reputable, well-respected, tightly run organization.  And yet one of their front-line people knows that sometimes what stands between a hungry person and a meal is a paper towel.

There is no metric in the world that measures Paper Towel ROI (PTROI).  There’s no report that indicates the ratio of paper towel to less food insecurity.  But I’m willing to bet Paper Towels never show up in any program budget or case statement.

Paper Towels are the Annual Fund.  (Which is not Annual and not a Fund, I know, I know.)

Paper Towels are operations, they’re overhead, they’re not sexy, they don’t generate results.

And yet . . . sometimes the lack of a Paper Towel stands between a hungry person and a meal.

And if that isn’t the most powerful case for general operational support, I don’t know what it is.  Fundraising is (very often) paper towels.

How to Write a Thank You Note

I’ve just finished signing 617 Thanksgiving cards.


My own name has taken on semantic satiation.  BUT, I really became aware of the phrases we use to express gratitude:

“Thank You”

“We are grateful”


Those are all first-person statements.  “Thank You” is a truncation of “I/We Thank You.”  So even gratitude becomes about me and not you.  It’s about how I feel.

When, really, especially in a donor-centered annual fund (which isn’t annual at all), our gratitude needs to be about them . . . about the donor . . .

That’s tougher than it sounds when it’s a note on a card, but here’s a few to try:

“You’re Wonderful.”

“You are the best.”

“You made it happen.”

“We are grateful for you.”  (Still a first-person statement, but it’s about them).

“You are so thoughtful/generous/kind”

Don’t tell me how you feel, tell me about me.  It’s my favorite story.



National Philanthropy Day


Here in Las Vegas we’re technically a day late – National Philanthropy Day is officially celebrated on November 15th.  Hey, the space wasn’t available – Blessed are the Flexible.

Feels like it couldn’t come at a better time.  We are looking forward to pausing for a couple of hours and honoring the great work in our community and those who give of themselves so freely, generously and tirelessly.

I have Wordsworth in my head lately:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth

The world IS too much with us – too much news, too much election, too much divisiveness, too much to do . . .

It’s good to pause, stop, look around and see that there IS good in the world.  Great, wonderful, powerful good – people who make a difference in their little corner of the world, people who are showing kindness, patience, love.

Find those people and honor them.  Philanthropy literally means “the love of humankind.”

Maybe we need more than a Philanthropy Day?  Maybe we need a Philanthropy Year?

Or maybe we need to cling to and honor those little philanthropic acts we see every day, every moment.  And recognize ourselves for those times when love of humankind far outweighs “the winds that will be howling at all hours.”philanthropy-jobs.jpg

Implementing Inspiration (Or How to Keep that Post-Conference High)

I attend a fair number of webinars, training sessions and conferences.  I find them rejuvenating, encouraging, stimulating and I always walk away with something I can use or put into practice.  And I really get a lot of energy from being around other fundraisers, annual fund people and smart, energetic, passionate people.

The Nonprofit Storytelling Conference is, wow, an incredible one.  It’s less of a conference and more of a Two-Day Master Class on Steroids and I learned a ton on both Day 1 and Day 2.  I came home with pages of notes and ideas and inspirations.


During one of our sessions, a fellow attendee asked the presenter, “This is all great, but won’t our donors start to recognize these techniques?  If all of us start implementing all of these ideas, won’t we see donor fatigue because everyone’s using the same tactics.”

There was quiet for a minute.

The presenter (I really think it was Tom Ahern), very professionally, replied, “Let’s be honest.  MOST of you aren’t going to go home and change anything.  And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just the reality. You still have boards and CEOs who want to write by committee.  And you still have brand managers that you have to convince.  And you still have 1,000,000 things to do and not enough time or resources to get them done and despite your best intentions, you won’t change a thing.  Some of you will.  But most of you won’t.”

He’s right.

How many GREAT conferences, meetings, webinars, classes, training sessions have you been to that you were all inspired and didn’t actually change a thing?

I’m totally guilty of that.

But that post-conference high is SO GOOD and you REALLY believe you can have the happiest donors on the planet!

And AS SOON AS YOU GET BACK you’re going to get it in gear and MAKE IT HAPPEN!


Then life happens and Boards and CEOS and Committees and TIME and . . . we all know this story.

But you really want to implement all that great stuff.

So . . . . pick one.  Just one.  Do one thing you learned.  Implement one inspiration.  Change one process.  Add one habit.  Just one.

And commit to doing that one thing every day (or week or whatever makes sense for that one thing).

At the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Conference in Boston this year there was a lot of emphasis on saying Thank You – on exhibiting gratitude. T o donors, volunteers, colleagues – all over.

I can’t remember now what session or speaker it was, but I came away with the idea to spend one hour a day in gratitude.  DO SOMETHING that exhibits gratitude for one hour a day.  Whether that’s writing thank you notes, sending thank you letters, making calls – SOMETHING.

Fortunately, thanking donors is part of my job function, so it worked well for me to implement that one thing.

I get to work, have coffee (because if there’s anything I’m grateful for it’s coffee), review the day’s calendar/to do list, and then spend the first 30 minutes on Thank You.  Sometimes its email, sometimes its written notes, sometimes its letters/receipts.  And if there are calls to be made, I do those either mid-day for 30 minutes or at the end of the day.

It’s now become (almost) habitual.  Do I do it every single day?  Nope.  Not perfect.  But now 7 months on, do I do it MOST days?  Yup.

So, pick one thing that you want to implement and DO THAT THING.

This is from Glennon Doyle Melton, the “Love Warrior” and she’s right.  Go do that one thing and keep your high.



What I Learned at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference – Day 2

No preamble, right to the list on this one . . . 

  • This really is the best conference out there.  Other conferences look at it and go, “Dang, that’s the conference I want to go to;
  • A human brain can only handle so much Tom Ahern in one day because it just cannot process that much information
  • To wit:  “It is criminally inefficient to suck at Thank You because it’s all you have to offer”  damn
  • What is your SMIT – Single Most Important Thing (to say, tell a donor, etc.).  From Tom Ahern quoting Sean Triner
  • I had a whole mini coaching session with Sean Triner before I knew Who He Is and when I found out it left me a little gobsmacked.  He told me I bored him to tears. It’s true, I did.
  • Sean Triner should absolutely be on your ‘Run, Do Not Walk’ list 
  • The nonprofit space is full of brilliant, caring, compassionate, kind people who are doing great work and are an inspiration. I spent two days with 600 of them
  • We all have very similar challeng . . . er, opportunities . . . And if we tackled them, really tackled them, we could elevate the NPO/fundraising space to incredible levels
  • We all struggle with a lack of respect and understanding of what fundraising is – by our communities, our colleagues, our leadership.  And we have a responsibility to own that fundraising is a specific skill that is learned, trained and honed.  And we have to get much, much better at speaking truth to power on that and claiming our space.  #hallwayconversations
  • FUNDRAISING IS NOT MARKETING AND MARKETING IS NOT FUNDRAISING.  Didn’t actually learn this, just reinforced it
  • I probably “ConferenceTweet” too much, but I get excited.
  • “If you’re not making friends, you’re doing it wrong.” – Andy Crestodina.   Made some friends this week.
  • Andy Crestodina – online strategy.  Seriously incredible.
  • Marc Pitman says, to extroverts, that people won’t think you’re mad if you close s sentence with a period and not an exclamation point.  I do not believe this.
  • I miss my dogs, now, so that’s the sign of a good trip and it’s time to go home.  
  • Oh, and #FundraisingDogs needs to be a thing – the dogs of fundraisers and a virtual conference for them when all their moms and dads are at conferences.  Who’s in?

What I’ve Learned At the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference – Day 1

First and foremost, I should really walk a lot more – especially before coming to these things.  And that I’m 20 years older than I was when I lived in Chicago and 10 city blocks are a lot longer than they used to be.  But I digress . . . 

In no particular order:

  • “Data isn’t numbers; its information” – Peter Drury
  • “Organizational IQ – how much do your donors know abou your org?  Most donors have low Oranizational IQ.” – Jim Shapiro
  • If you get the chance to hear Peter Drury or Jim Shapiro speak – run, do not walk.  But build stamina first and wear comfy shoes for the walking/running bit. #rookiemistake
  • “You have to be sold out – to you BENEFICIARIES, your cause and your donors.” – Jim Shapiro again
  • I want to be a sell out.
  • Harvey McKinnon is as good in person as his books make you think he will be
  • “Organizational Narcicism is the enemy of good fundraising.”  – Harvey McKinnon. 
  • “Our donors want to be in the huddle, not on the sidelines cheering.” – Beth Ann Locke
  • There are powerful stories out there and I’ve met hundreds of people who are out solving major problems every day.
  • Fundraising in the arts is hard. 
  • There is NO one size fits all approach to fundraising.  Everyone’s story is different and all are worth telling well.
  • There are amazing people in this profession
  • Believe the hype about the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference – it’s as good as you’ve heard
  • Harrison Ford was here
  • Chicago is still an amazing city.
  • When you’re feeling a bit hopeless, being surrounded by 600 fellow fundraisers is the BEST place to be. 

And there’s far more than could be fit in a blog and still be ready for Day 2 tomorrow.

2016 Election Fundraising Results

Yes, exactly what you needed right now was one more article/post/blog/reference to the election.  We’re all sick of it.

I don’t care if You’re With Her or you want to Make the Country Great Again, as fundraisers – as annual fund-type folks – we have to pay attention to something very critical, here.

Go visit the Federal Election Commission website and their reporting on campaign contributions.  Check out this screen grab:


Now, let that sink in a minute . . . .

Contributions of $200 and Under are responsible for $721 MILLION dollars in contributions.

What could your NPO accomplish with $721M?

I pulled the data for the state of Nevada, where I live, and here’s what I found for contributions less than $500:

  • 51,200 donations (that’s not unique entities, that’s all transactions)
  • $3,150,000 total
  • Average Gift – $62
  • 26-month period

It was impossible to get a true de-dupe to see how many individual entities that represents, but even so this represents significant dollars from what we would typically consider low or mid-range donors.

“Yeah, but it’s political fundraising – it’s different. It’s the running of our country and really impacts every aspect of life and major national and international thingies.”


What is it about political campaigns that motivates giving of this volume and at this level?

I’ll tell you – it’s the story they make us tell ourselves.

It’s the story about what kind of people we want to be, how we see ourselves and what we want to accomplish in the world – told through the people we elect and how we support them.


“Make America Great Again” – you have to believe America isn’t what you want it to be and that this guy is going to get it there.

“I’m With Her” – you have to believe that it’s time for a female president and that her plan is the right one.

Listen, it’s not about tag lines, it’s about the whole story.  You have to believe that this campaign, this person, is going to bring about the image you have in your mind of what could – or should – be.

And when we believe.  Really believe.  REAAAALLLLLY BELIEVE, we will throw money at it.

Isn’t that what we’re doing in fundraising?

Isn’t that what we should be doing in fundraising?

Telling a story that people REEEEAAAAALLLLLLLYYYYY BELIEVE in?

“You can cure cancer.”

“You can save them all.”

“You can teach them.”

“You can _________________.”

OK, sure, but the infrastructure of these campaigns is so huge they can AFFORD to raise big dollars.  They can AFFORD huge campaigns and they call all the time and they text and they post and they have ad campaigns and . . . .

Do you think that anybody gave because Sheldon Adelson did?

Or because Mark Cuban did?

Or because they call 3 times a day and you get 20 emails a week?  And, hey, many of – if not most of – those callers are volunteers, so that’s a double-whammy of engagement.  Imagine if your cause was SO IMPORTANT to people, not only did they give, but they got on the phones and encouraged others to give, too.

No, they gave because they believe the story.

And that’s what we have to learn from these political campaigns.  That’s what we have to learn from $721M worth of gifts less than $200.

Tell a story people really believe in.  Tell them the story of the world they will bring about that is free of cancer and all kids are educated and people don’t go hungry at night and every dog has a home.  Tell them that story.  Give them hope and they’ll make the story come true.