From 100 Things We’ve Learned

#32 of 100 Things We’ve Learned: Tips for business people joining a nonprofit board

Nonprofits are valued for their prudence, commitment to service and fiscal restraint, yet are expected to produce significant community benefits.
In the for-profit world, business owners are rewarded for taking risks – usually with other people’s money (venture capital). Under-capitalization is warned against. And a personality like Donald Trump is lionized for his opulent lifestyle and forgiven for past business failures.

Not so in the nonprofit world. Here, individuals are expected to make sacrifices for the common good in the name of service. Making do with less is a familiar mantra. Pick up a business publication, and the virtuous charities are the ones with the lowest overhead.

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Seven tips for seeing new fundraising opportunities. (#28 of 100 Things We’ve Learned)

What do kaleidoscopes and successful fundraisers have in common?

I hadn’t thought about kaleidoscopes in years until I received one as a gift for presenting a workshop at a fundraising conference. Instead of creating designs from shapes embedded in the kaleidoscope itself, this one made fascinating patterns out of whatever you were looking at.

So what do kaleidoscopes and great fundraisers have in common?

Both are really good at creating many beautiful new designs from one starting point.

In this challenging economic climate, nonprofit fundraisers have to be as resourcesful as they possibly can be to make better and stronger connections with donors. As fundraisers, we are always on the lookout for donors whose dreams and desires are a perfect match with our organization.

Sometimes that match is pretty straightforward, as when a loved one is stricken by a disease and family members give to the organization that is working to find a cure. Or the guidelines of a foundation are a perfect fit with our programs.

Often, however, the match isn’t immediately obvious and requires us to do some mental stretching. A very philanthropic individual I knew gave money to a figure skating association, a community service organization, a library, and other seemingly unrelated institutions. Was there a common thread? Yes, he loved young people and gave to programs that helped them flourish.

Resourceful development professionals have the uncanny talent of making lots of successful matches – from the easy fits to the mental stretches. The ability to see the many facets of our organization and our donor’s interests – like looking through a kaleidoscope – can open many more donor checkbooks.

Here are a few tips for developing your own kaleidoscope vision.

1. Listen to see what your donors care about.

I can’t say enough about listening. When we get too wrapped up in pitching our organization, we can’t hear what a donor wants.

The executive director of a youth service organization wanted to upgrade a corporate donor from a modest in-kind gift to a major sponsorship. At an exploratory meeting with the CEO, the executive director spent the better part of five minutes pitching the organization and one particular sponsorship opportunity.

He wasn’t igniting any interest.

The development director then asked this corporate CEO a simple question: “What community projects are you working on?”

The CEO opened up. He explained how his company was exploring the idea of building playgrounds in inner city neighborhoods – something the youth service organization had a history of doing, but hadn’t mentioned. Suddenly, a match seemed inevitable. The company was excited to provide a corporate sponsorship that included building a city playground – and eventually went on to become one of the organization’s biggest supporters.

2. Look deep into your existing programs.

Just like a prospective donor, you’ll be more passionate about your organization if you see the work first hand. You’ll be better informed too. It’s hard to comprehend the complexity of your organization if you don’t get up close and personal with your program staff, your projects, and especially the people you serve.

A successful fundraiser I know recently took a position as the major gifts director for a hospital. In her first few weeks on the job, she arranged an intensive training program for herself:

“I wanted to meet everyone and see EVERYTHING: operations, autopsies, the emergency room, even the kitchen. I asked hundreds of questions so I could know how we made a difference and what our needs were. Not only did I feel more confident I could explain our work to a prospective donor, but I also knew I’d be better at finding giving matches. An added benefit — because I showed that I cared, I made lots of friends on our staff who are now willing to help in fundraising when I need them.”

3. Look beyond the usual funding suspects.

Arts groups look for arts funders. Senior groups for donors to the elderly. But sometimes it makes sense to look beyond the category in which your organization falls.

A small neighborhood organization heard that the Environmental Protection Agency had funding available for urban environmental projects. As they weren’t an environmental group, they easily might have dismissed this particular funder.

But with some research, the group discovered the EPA had funded vacant lot clean-ups similar to the programs they were already running. With a bit more detective work they discovered that garbage dumped in vacant lots frequently contained materials that the EPA would consider pollutants or even hazardous waste.

By understanding that vacant lot dumping was as much an environmental problem as it was a community development one, they were able to get funding from EPA to develop a more comprehensive program to prevent illegal dumping and clean up vacant lots.

4. Be creative about seeing the connections.

If your vision is too narrow, it’s easy to overlook opportunities.

A statewide organization located in the capital city ran a number of fee-based education programs for school kids. A prospective business donor only funded projects in the northern town in which it was located.

At first glance, there didn’t seem to be the opportunity for a match. But with a little more exploration, the business was pleased to donate the program fee and busing costs of a local school so that three fifth-grade classrooms were able to participate in this education program.

5. See where you fit in the big picture.

Locally-based organizations and nonprofits in small population states often have a hard time attracting regional or national funders. But if you can put your work into a much bigger framework, you may open doors that looked closed at first.

For example, an AIDS service organization from a small east coast city was alerted to a request for proposals from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Five grants would be awarded nationwide for prevention work with young people in minority communities.

At first this organization didn’t think they had a chance competing with major population centers like San Francisco or New York. But they knew they had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the U.S. and that many immigrants from countries with high incidences of AIDS settled there first before heading to big cities like NYC. By articulating their connection to the bigger picture, they were able to win one of the five grants.

6. Look at yourself through someone else’s eyes.

Have you seen the optical illusion of two faces and the vase? If you look at the image in black, it forms two profiles looking at one another. But if you look at the white space between the faces, you can see a vase. Some people see the faces right away but have a hard time seeing the vase. For others, it’s just the opposite.

A senior center had a small, drab thrift shop that didn’t raise much money. While it was located in a college town, the center never really considered it would be of interest to college students so it never bothered to connect.

When a new director was hired, she was able to see the possibilities in the thrift shop. She approached the fashion merchandising program at a local college and offered the thrift shop as a class project. The students were excited at the chance to gain some real merchandising experience and volunteered their time to design attractive new window and floor displays for the shop. (And of course, college students love second hand bargains.)

Not only did the thrift shop start raising a lot more money, but the students recruited their friends for other volunteer work at the senior center.

7. But don’t make it up.

While I urge you to be creative about finding new connections between potential donors and your organization, don’t try to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear. It never benefits your organization, your donor or philanthropy to misrepresent the work you do. Don’t try to pass a program off as something it is not.

Your success in fundraising ultimately depends on your reputation as being worthy and trustworthy of support.

So get out those kaleidoscopes to start finding the possibility in your organization.

We invite you to share you stories of how you successfully reimagined your giving opportunities.


You can find an email or  printer ready version of this post in the Articles Section of our Tools for Change library. Just click here.

A version of this article first appeared in Contributions Magazine.

27/100 Things we’ve learned: Engage the power of story, ritual and symbol in fundraising

If I were to ask any professional to describe the components of a well-run fund development program, most would readily cite elements from the structural frame (e.g. a fund development plan, donor management software) or the human resource frame (“people give to people”). But, they might feel at a loss and perhaps even uncomfortable if asked to describe the elements of their symbolic strategy.

Whether you realize it or not, your organization already uses stories, rituals and symbols in fundraising. You need only look to your fund appeals, newsletters, special events, donor cultivation programs, giving societies, recognition events to find many examples of the symbolic.

The question for fundraisers isn’t how, but how effectively you infuse these rituals and symbols with the meaning and significance that will motivate donor giving and loyalty.

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10 terrible reasons for hiring your development director

As a cautionary service, I thought I’d share with you my top ten list of tempting, but ill-advised reasons for selecting your director of development. Reason #3. They know people with money.

Wow, this one is really tempting. Keep reminding yourself that just because someone has access to individuals of wealth, that still doesn’t mean they have the skills and competencies to do the job successfully. If they’ve worked in another development job and tell you that they will bring their donor list with them — drop that candidate as fast as you can. Donor lists are confidential property — they are not transportable from one organization to another. In any case, even if there are no ethical problems, a good thing to know would be if they’ve leveraged their personal contacts in other circumstances. Chances are if they haven’t been a rainmaker before, they are unlikely to start now.

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25/100 Things we’ve learned: The ideal job fuses mind, hands, and heart.

” Mind. Hands. Heart.”  “Learning. Work. Service.”

This triad is the foundation of the Warren Wilson College experience. One of my sons transferred into WWC this year and we had the good fortune a few weeks ago to attend one of the better convocations welcoming new students that we’ve been to — and we’ve experienced four now.

I kept pulling out my pad and pencil to jot down quotes like this one from Ian Robertson, the Dean of Work:

“Always exceed the expectations of your supervisor because then you will always work for yourself.”

You’ve got to love a college that has a Dean of Work.

Every student on campus works 15 hours a week with a work crew, regardless of family income. Students perform 80% of the campus jobs and their work enables the college to offer a tuition that, while still pricey, is much more reasonable than many private liberal arts colleges. Work experiences include the usual suspects like dining services and library, but students might also care for the farm animals, or work in the garden, drive a tractor, serve as plumbers and carpenters, or perform a myriad of communications, office or other administrative functions . WWC considers the learning that comes from doing a job well, carrying your fair share of the community load, and recognizing the value of every job as a critical part of its college experience.

WWC also expects each student to complete 100 hours of service over four years (pro rated for transfers). Service Learning takes students into the world, gives them a fresh perspective on classroom topics and enables students to become active players in creating social change and social justice.

What struck me particularly about this triad is that it is an apt description of our jobs here at Cause & Effect Inc. We are extremely fortunate to be able to have jobs that integrate work with service to our community. We never lose sight of the mission of our clients, because that’s the whole reason for our being. To help you create the change you want to see in the world.

There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t learning something new about our community, our nation, our world, our sector or even about ourselves.

A heartfelt thank you to all of our clients, our colleagues and everyone we’ve met along the way. We receive so much in return. Mind. Hands. and Heart.

24/100 Things we’ve learned: “Take no more than your fair share”

“Take no more than your fair share.”

That was one definition of sustainability offered by Margo Flood, Executive Director of the Environmenal Leadership Center and Chief Sustainability Official at the new student plenary at Warren Wilson College last week. (One of our sons transferred there this year).

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that one of my great concerns is the concentration of the resources of the nonprofit sector in the hands of so few organizations. Fewer than 6% of US institutions hold more than 80% of the income and assets of the sector.

I’ve asked the question before “How much is enough? Philanthropic greed

That’s why Ms. Flood’s definition resonated so strongly with me. What would happen if all philanthropic institutions held themselves to the standard of taking no more than their fair share. Perhaps more philanthropy, bequests, grants and government funding would flow to organizations that are just as worthy (maybe even more so) but without the class connections and fund development capacity that accrue to many of the largest institutions.