Advice to a Young Fundraiser on His 23rd Birthday

The older I get the more grateful I am for the mentors I had when I started fundraising.

More and more, I find myself remembering their advice and understanding why we did things the way they did, lo, these many decades ago.

Those of us that have been doing this for awhile (remember 3 x 5 cards and carbon paper? Good times, good times) have, I think, a responsibility to pass on what we’ve learned and encourage young fundraisers as they advance in their career.

So, when a friend posted that all he wanted for his 23rd birthday was for people to share what they’d tell themselves at the same age, I had a few thoughts:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
— Samuel Beckett

The successes you have will inform how you do you work in the future, but you’ll learn more from your failures.  Embrace them.  Success makes you complacent.  Success leads to “This is the way we’ve always done it” because you just keep repeating the steps that made you successful.   Your failures hurt, but growth ALWAYS comes from pain.

chalkboard-1927332_1920

Read.  A lot.  Everything You Can.

There’s a lot of REALLY good information about fundraising in print.  Read it.  Learn from it.  Sure, I’m gonna offer my own list of favorite books as a starting point, but there’s a ton of great information out there.  Dig in.  Ground yourself in the solid principles of the profession – then break the molds that created them.

Learn The Alternatives

It’s not all about gala tables and silent auctions and grant writing.  It’s also not all about data sets and direct mail.  It’s about all of those and everything else.  It’s a big, beautiful, wonderful profession, full of great people doing amazing things in a million different ways.  Experiment.

Go Ahead and Do the Stupid Thing

If I could do anything over again, it would be to do the things I DIDN’T do because I was too scared, too conservative, too worried what people might think.  You won’t regret the things you did do – you’ll forgive yourself for those.  It’s the things you didn’t do that will keep you up at night in your 40s.

Love Wildly and With Abandon

Fundraising is about relationships.  To paraphrase RuPaul, if you haven’t learned how to love people how in the hell are you gonna learn how to love a donor?

” . . . love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.”
—Ronny Cammareri (Nicolas Cage), Moonstruck

Let your heart get broken, let friends disappoint you, be betrayed – but don’t let it make you hard and cold.  Let it open your capacity for love even further.

If You Love Something Else More and Can Do It Better, Go Do It

This is why I’m a RECOVERING actor.  Best advice I ever got.  I found something I could do better and loved more.  Is the thing you love ridiculous and doesn’t pay well?  Do it anyway.  You’ll be so much richer if your soul is happy.

youth-570881_1920

You Will Have Multiple Careers

Don’t pigeonhole yourself now.  Learn as many skills and gain as much experience in other things as you can.  Your values won’t change – unless they need to – but your interests and your passions might.  Be prepared.  I failed college math . . . twice.  Now I’m kind of a reluctant data geek.  What a world . . . .

Be Amazed

The world is an amazing, wonderful, messed up place.  We fundraisers get to see a lot of sides of it – some good, some bad, some ugly, some beautiful.  Never become complacent in your amazement of the world around you and the people you encounter.  Be a part OF it, don’t just observe it.

Call Your Family, Drink Lots of Water, Use Sunscreen, Eat Well

All that stuff they tell you to do like eat healthy and get lots of exercise and, whether or not they drive you crazy, love on your family?  Yeah.  Do that.  It’s high price to pay later on if you don’t.

Don’t Wait

You think you have time right now.  You don’t.  That thing you want to do but you’re putting off until you have a better job, more money, more time . . . you never will.  Do that thing now.  You’ll have PLENTY of time to find the perfect job, the better car, the dream home.  (You won’t have plenty of time to save for retirement — start doing that now.  Srsly.)

Dream

The world has plenty of people who punch the clock and get the job done.  What we need are dreamers, the big idea makers, the challengers, the rabble rousers, the ruckus-makers.  And the dreamers who aren’t afraid to fail.

With all of that said, if I could say ANYTHING to my twenty-three-year-old self — and what I say to you on your birthday?

You got this.  You’re awesome.  Stop worrying so much.  Go do the thing.

Happy Birthday, friend.  Here’s to many, many more.

 

Fundraising or Money-Raising?

Clerk:  Your total is $blahblahblah, would you like to add a dollar to support children puppies hungry old homeless high-school band?

Me:  Uhhh, no, not today.

Clerk:
aggressive-1748701_1920

Yeah, cheers, thanks, thanks a lot.  *sigh*

I know these kinds of programs raise a lot of critically-needed money for a lot of great organizations – and the beneficiaries who need them.  I totally get that.  But I think they detract from the profession of Fundraising & Development, create a false sense of “do-gooderism” and make it harder, ultimately, for us to do the real work of development and advancement.

Plus Ca Change . . . 

We live in an age where just about anybody can engage in any profession as long as they have a device and an internet connection.  You can diagnose your own illness on any number of health sites like WebMD, be your own accountant on TurboTax or TaxAct or act as your own travel agent on hundreds of different platforms.

My photographer friends tell me their jobs are much, much harder now that everyone carries a pretty decent camera in their pocket.  EVERYBODY’S got an artistic filter.

Fundraising is the same.

Fundraising has always been this way, though.  Bake sales, lemonade stands, change jars at checkout counters, taking up a collection for Sally Sue at work . . . . as long as we live in a money-based economy, somebody will always need to raise money for something.  It’s just now we have – like other professions – more sophisticated online tools to do it.  GoFundMe, Kickstarter, Indiegogo . . . . the list goes on.

Here’s where I get worried . . . more worried . . . when nonprofits (read: Board Members/CEOs, etc.) start saying, “We need more donors and more dollars; we should do a GoFundMe.”  And fundraisers do it. Because LOOK AT ALL THE MONEY COMING IN!

money-1428594_1920

Maybe we need to start differentiating now between Fundraising and Money-Raising.

Take a moment, sit down, pour yourself a nice cup of whatever relaxes you because I’m about to commit blasphemy:

Money-raising is easy.  Fundraising is hard.

What?  What’s that you say?  Raising money is easy?  If it’s so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?  If raising money is so easy why are we working so hard at it?

Getting money for something is pretty easy . . . put something out there that tells the world what the need is and SOMEBODY will give money to it.  And they might give a lot of money or they might give a little, but then they’ll got and give their spare change to someone else.

But what’s hard – really hard – is building sustainable, long-term relationships with people and organizations who are deeply committed and passionate enough to give of themselves to fund the causes they care about.  That’s hard.

That’s day-in, day-out.  That’s technique and experience and trial and error and great success and wild failure.  That’s strategic excellence vs. widespread mediocrity.

There are days when I think professional fundraisers should rail against the bake sale and the change jar and the GoFundMe for Baby Jimmy’s college fund.  And sometimes I think we should shake our fists to the heavens and decry the latest gift-wrap/car-wash/cupcake sale/give-a-dollar-at-the-register program.  But, no, they have their place.

And sometimes they have their place in a well-developed, comprehensive professional fundraising program.  Part of, not instead of.

But we should hold our heads up high and say what we know is fundraising.  We know Development and Advancement and we know how to be strategically excellent.  We know how to use an online giving tool in the context of the whole, not just a “if you code it, they will give.”

We know the difference between money-raising and fundraising.

 

 

 

Rant on Retention

I like to think that professionals in all fields get together and rant and complain about their profession.  I have to believe that there are forums for pipe fitters and physician’s assistants and marketers to get together and go, “They’re hiring people with no experience as experts! Nobody takes the profession seriously!  These CEOs think they can hire somebody with Fundraising experience and that’s as good as 25+ years in Marketing!”  Grumble grumble, rant rant, etc.

Because it can’t just be us.  Can it?

And every other rant lately is about Donor Retention.  It’s the most significant problem facing the profession today.

I agree.  It is.  Based on the data and reports we’ve all seen.

But . . . .

BUT . . . . . . .

First – can we just stop beating each other up?  Please?  “The worst fundraising mistake you can make!” OR “Fundraisers aren’t paying attention to the fundamentals!” or any other number of alarming headlines.

There’s a lot of fundraisers doing really great work, making great relationships and helping find the funding to tackle some of society’s toughest issues.  Should they be paying a little closer attention to their retention rates?  Sure.  But let’s praise what they ARE doing.

And just because a development officer is not measuring specific retention rate, doesn’t mean that they’re not conducting great donor stewardship, wonderful relationships and hitting goals.

Objection:  If development officers are doing great stewardship, why are renewal rates across the industry so low?!?

Me:  I haven’t seen the actual data those reports come from, but I do think they’re approached with pretty broad brushstrokes.

Second – some donors aren’t MEANT to be retained.  And most CRMs and reporting tools just take a straight, one-shot look at it on a year-to-year basis.  I have yet to see a report that said, “Retention rate was 47% for annual fund donors.”  Maybe there was a whole lot of campaign giving or specific project funding that went on last year and those donors very specifically gave a stretch gift and that CDO is already working the next gift for five years from now.  Some gifts, some giving just ISN’T multi-year.

Is a fundraiser a failure because they didn’t renew their capital campaign donors?  They are if you take a one-shot approach to measuring retention.

Third – and most important – measuring retention is not as straightforward as it seems.  The CRM that I use is possibly the #1 or #2 most popular.  It does not have an extant donor retention report, but recommends you compare the results of a query of last year’s donors to this year’s.  Just compare the counts in each query and you’ve got it.  Indeed, the instructions for this do not factor the fund/allocation of the gift – JUST the year it was given.

Another way to do it is to export the data into Excel and run a VLOOKUP (after pivot tables, the fundraiser’s most useful analysis tool, but I digress).  VLOOKUP will compare Unique IDs (or names or other fields) between two worksheets.

Hang on . . . . first is the time, here.  I’m pretty decent with Excel, but that takes me about an hour or so to do.  And so many shops don’t have a dba or analyst to run these kinds of reports, or the Excel skills to do it.

“But if you knew your retention rate and focused on retention, you wouldn’t have to work so hard acquiring new donors.”  True.  That’s truth.

But . . . let’s look at an example from real life (true story – names changed):

– In 2014, Jack Spratt made a personal $1,000 introductory gift, God love him;
– After some extended cultivation, Jack made an additional $10,000 gift from his family foundation, later in 2014;
– In early 2015, Jack’s wife Eileen leveraged a $5,000 gift from her company restricted to a specific program
– Later in 2015, Jack renewed his $10,000 and made it through a donor advised fund
– Eileen did not renew her $5,000; Jack, however, increased their support to $20,000 which he made through a mixture of soft-credit from a corporate gift and a gift from a different source . . . . .

Guess who doesn’t show up in a retention report?  Jack and Eileen, because they change the source every year and Accounting requires gift entry to be tied to the actual source of the gift and soft-credited to the donor.  Every year they look like new donors and would get “lost” in a direct unique identifier comparison.  But guess who was also the subject of intense stewardship and cultivation – isn’t that focusing on retention, too?

Unless the retention report recognizes soft-crediting OR the query/export combination you use appropriately designates soft-credited gifts to the donor . . .

Does this account for a lot of gifts?  No, not on the overall whole.  But I’ve seen situations like this be 5% – 6% of a database, so it has an impact.  And I’ve seen it – a lot – at lower levels.  One year one person in a household gives, the next it’s the spouse who writes the check.  (And householding (how a database looks at individuals in the same household, i.e. spouses, domestic partnerships, etc. ) is a massive problem in fundraising CRMs – that’s a whole other blog post.)

The point?  Donor Retention is incredibly important and we should be doing everything possible to hold on to the donors we have.  We DO need our Boards and Leadership to understand that keeping a donor is a far, far better investment than seeking new ones.  And, yes, that is our job to tell them.  More importantly, it’s our job to show them.

 

What we’re really saying is, “We – as a fundraising industry – NEED to take better care of our donors.  We need to thank them more, get our arms around them more and treat their giving with the respect and care and awe that it deserves.”  Like all things, if we focus on the metric and not the action, we miss the point.

So, yes, absolutely – focus on donor retention.  But spend less time tracking the number and more time loving on donors.

What I Won’t Do Is Subscribe to Fear

2016

My whole social media feed is FULL of comments about how awful 2016 has been.  It seems everyone is ready to kick this year to the curb and usher in a new one – “It can’t get worse, right?”

Personally, I’ve had a fantastic year – probably one of the best on a personal and professional level.  And I know that puts me in a fortunate position; I’m tremendously grateful. The world outlook?  Not so much.  I agree, it’s been a pretty wretched year.

In a moment of complete candor, I’ll express my abject terror over what could happen in our political landscape in the coming months and years.  Like many, I am still in shock and numb.  And I’m afraid.  For my family, for my community and for many who I am lucky to call friend.

But what I will not do is subscribe to fear.

I will not allow fear to control me or my actions.

Fear of failure.  Fear of rejection.  Fear of what may be.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of taking a risk.  Fear of standing up and saying, “NO! This is unacceptable.”  Fear of standing up and shouting, “YES! This is wonderful!”

I will not subscribe to fear.

What I will do is champion change.  What I will do is my best.  I will be relentlessly passionate and I will commit.  If there was ever a time to not sit on the sidelines, this is it.

What I will do is love and acknowledge the people who are creating change, who are making a difference.

What I will do is own that our profession, the profession of fundraising, enables people who care deeply to be engaged with their passions.  I will own that we, fundraisers, have one of the greatest responsibilities in the world – how awesome is the charge that we have been given?

And I don’t mean in a “Dude, that’s awesome” way. I mean in a, “We should stand back in awe” of what we get to do.

There’s no room for fear in that responsibility.

 

 

Why Candace, the Chewbacca Mask woman, is the best fundraiser in the world

A week or so ago I posted the blog below – Candace Payne, “Chewbacca Mom,” the best fundraiser in the world.  Now watch this:

“It is not lost on me that it is because of you guys.  I love you.”

She is NAILING this thing!  She just pours joy and gratitude into each post and, then, BAM!, turns it back to us.

That’s how it’s done, folks.

 

 

ORIGINAL POST:

Have you seen this video?

Hilarious.  Her name is Candace Payne and she’s the best fundraiser in the world right now.

Why?

She invited us in to her joy.  She shared a simple story and posted it online and it went from there.  It’s been seen more than 64 million times and I’m willing to bet you can’t find a Chewbacca mask anywhere.

She invited us in to her joy.

I have no idea who Candace Payne is but I totally want to hang out with her.  I had no desire for a Chewbacca mask but I DO NOW!!!

She is genuine and effusive and authentic and joyful.  She’s the best fundraiser in the world.

UPDATE: 5/24/2016

Since I first posted this over the weekend, Candace Payne is now a household name and has been on just about every morning show there is.  The video is into the hundreds of millions of views and you really, truly can’t find a Chewbacca mask anywhere.

Then this:

corden-chewie

“Chewbacca Mom Takes James Corden to Work”

Other people – celebrities, even – are joining in.

Because she invited them into her joy.  That’s fundraising. That’s the best fundraising there is.

Philanthropic Culture in the Annual Fund

human-1375474_1920

Building A Culture of Philanthropy! Does Your Organization Have a Culture of Philanthropy?  What’s Your Philanthropic Culture?  GET YOUR BOARD ON BOARD!

I dunno, sometimes I think the only culture I get is from yogurt.

yogurt-1039309_1920

Ba dum bum. *cymbal*

Discussing the development of a culture of philanthropy is absolutely the right thing to do.  Working towards a culture of philanthropy should be a high priority.  Tirelessly working towards it should be Job #1 in an NPO.

But it’s very hard to do when there are so many non-fundraisers who have negative views of fundraising.  Say “fundraising” to a non-fundraiser and they immediately think the multiple emails and hundreds of letters and tons of phone calls – i.e., primarily annual fund techniques.

Developing a culture of philanthropy begins with how we talk to our donors and prospects about giving in our acquisition and renewal process.

And how we talk to our colleagues and leadership about what the Annual Fund is.

The Annual Fund isn’t annual.

When you say “fundraising” to most people, even those in the nonprofit sector, they hear “being pestered for money.”  Rarely is the immediate impression that lovely lunch they had where someone asked their opinion and then they felt compelled to support an organization because they believed in it so much.

And, so, we get “focus on major gifts” and “let’s have more events” and “we should really be going after more grants.”  Because nobody wants to be a pest.

An “annual fund that isn’t annual” is about inviting people to be a part of something.  It’s about the donor’s interest and passions and it’s about embracing them where they are and opening the opportunity to them to be part of our mission.

This is what storytelling is all about.  It’s where donor-centered and data-driven intersect.  It’s creating a sense that we aren’t pestering the donor for money, but, instead telling the donor the incredible impact they can have.

And it’s about doing that through direct mail and e-solicitation and phone-a-thon and thank yous and a whole lot of transactional stuff that we have the obligation, the requirement, to make about them.  The Donor.  The Philanthropist.

It’s scale.  It’s doing everything possible to make that massive mailing sound like it’s written from one person to another.  It’s mimicking the best practices of major gift, one-on-one conversation in massive quantities (and massive is relative – 100 or 100,000, they’re still individual communications from one person to another).

It’s about me and you.  Mine and yours.  And what we can accomplish together.

Like any good journey, the development of culture starts with one step, one person and a passion to change the world.

 

 

What’s the Big Deal about Fundraising?

About five years ago, as I was transitioning responsibilities to a new colleague, I was asked the fundamental question, “So, really, what is the big deal about Fundraising?  I just don’t see what’s so special about it.  You just call and ask for money.”

And it stopped me in my tracks, because I couldn’t answer the question.

At this point, I had been in fundraising right at 20 years and considered myself a pretty strong expert.  I’d worked with over 200 different clients of all shapes, sizes and focus.  I had run annual funds, capital and endowment campaigns, helped build boards and crossed over the tens of millions in dollars raised.

And I could not answer the question, “What’s the big deal about fundraising”?

I could list techniques and process and best practices.  I could cite Si Seymour, Penelope Burk and Jerold Panas on a whim.  I could rant about retention rates and donor-centered acquisition and moves management.  But I couldn’t answer the question:

What is the Big Deal About Fundraising?

And I was indignant that this . . . this . . . this . . . neophyte, this marketer, this direct response-type person would even ask.

I’m an easy mark.  Once I’ve been challenged to do something – or told something can’t be done – I have to go and find the answer.  I had to prove that fundraising was not just about asking for money.  And I had to prove it to myself.

So began a quest – one that I am still on and that I hope continues for many years to come – to answer that very simple question.

One thing I have discovered in the process is that I love the $50 donor.  Or the $100, or the $1,000 or the $25.  These generous souls give what they can and without them, the house of the nonprofit doesn’t stand.  They are the base of the donor pyramid.  They are the foundation and the entry point of (almost) all support.

So, what’s the big deal about fundraising in the annual fund?

The big deal is that the annual fund – regardless of size, focus, goal or strategy – is about building strong, sustainable relationships with people who have the passion and commitment to fulfill your organization’s mission.

The big deal about fundraising is that it’s about relationships. And telling wonderful stories that build relationships.