From Fundraising

Your nonprofit has problems? Watch Mozart in the Jungle

Jon and I just finished binge watching the first two seasons of Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon. violin-1085606_640

The cast includes Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal who just won a Golden Globe for best TV actor in a comedy or musical.

It’s rare that any TV show brings us into the wacky and soul-fulfilling world in which we spend our days and many nights. This charming romantic comedy touches so many themes many of us have confronted.

Spoiler Alert — sharing some content

What’s not to love:

  • Crazy charismatic but unpredictable new artistic director
  • New artistic director succeeds long time and beloved director
  • Board infighting
  • An Interim Managing Director who is also the Board Chair
  • Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising challenges
  • Nurturing wealthy donors
  • Traditional classical arts program grappling with cultural changes
  • Staff-management relations (and relationships! not advised)
  • Vision/mission/ values conflicts
  • And many more

You’ve heard me preach that you need to create transforming emotional experiences for your donors and your board members. Without getting into the details, the fundraising scene in Episode 4, Season 1 is priceless.

It’s worth dissecting that one scene with your fundraising staff and board volunteers. For what works, and what doesn’t.

While I’m not recommending that your nonprofit conduct itself as the NY Symphony does in this show, I think you’ll find yourself relating to some of the challenges they face.

Are you already a fan? Why?

If not, let me know what you think.

P.S. My musical friends tell me not to get all crazy about whether the musicians are playing their instruments correctly. And for those who abstain from watching  shows with some nudity and drug use, not for you.

Your donor database: get a real one now!

OK, fundraisers and nonprofit people: you gotta have a real donor database. Seriously.

Not Excel. Not some do-it-yourself database patched together in Filemaker by your cousin Vinny. Not your Quickbooks accounting software. Not your Outlook address book or your MailChimp subscriber list. And I’m going to ruffle some feathers and suggest that you avoid Salesforce, even though it’s free for nonprofits.

These are all wonderful software tools. But….

These are not donor databases

Let me ask you this: would you try to build your own vacuum cleaner? Would you try to adapt your leaf-blower or hair dryer to clean your floors? Heck, no! It would cost too much, take too long and you’d have a lousy vacuum cleaner at the end.

never build your own donor database or vacuum cleaner

Gayle makes fun of our vintage vacuum cleaner. But it’s still the right tool for the job.

You can plunk down anywhere from $45 to $600 dollars for a vacuum cleaner at Target today and start sucking up dirt this afternoon. You can buy parts and get repairs almost anywhere or anytime.

It’s the same with dedicated donor management systems. Why use do-it-yourself solutions to a problem that professionals solved long ago? Anthony Bakker created the Blackbaud company (which sells Raiser’s Edge) in 1981. For the last 35 years, Blackbaud and its dozens of competitors have been refining, perfecting and adapting their donor database softwares. Every day they strive to meet the evolving real-life needs of frontline fundraisers at the world’s large and small nonprofit organizations.

There is no reason you should use anything but a dedicated, professionally developed, off-the-shelf system specifically created to manage nonprofit donor programs. A good fundraiser will have this tool open nearly all the time. It’s the system that organizes a fundraiser’s day, recording new gifts, taking notes on donor contacts, assigning tasks to staff and volunteers, setting campaign and donor targets, launching segmented emails, mailing and other appeals. And much more.

The more difficult question is which one to get. There are dozens if not hundreds of products described as donor management software. Costs range from free to thousands of dollars per month and the feature sets vary at least as widely. Some of them won’t work well for you. Some of them don’t work well for anyone.

No one can stay current on all the donor databases out there. These roundups at Idealware and TechSoup are years old. We can’t keep up either. And we’re not primarily database professionals. But we’ve worked with several of the most-used systems. In a next post, we’ll look at some ways you can zero in on the right donor database system for your nonprofit. But if you want to save time, here’s our current top pick for most smaller nonprofits: Little Green Light. We love Little Green Light. Tell you why soon.

Yes, relationships matter in grant seeking

Relationships,relationships, relationships. That was the refrain of the “Meet the Funders” AFP  panel I moderated Thursday.

The panelists included the Managing Director of Community Relations for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, the Community Affairs Manager of Textron, Inc. and Communications Manager for the Global Brand Relations Division of ALEX AND ANI.

This panel of funders encouraged grant seekers to make contact in almost all cases before sending a gift request. They wanted to know about the organizations they were considering. Not knowing anything about the sending organization or having any prior contact pushed many a grant request deeper into the pile.

Our panel was very generous about their willingness to talk to donation seekers. They wanted to help the caller determine if their programs fit within their giving strategy. And they wanted to save organizations the time of applying for a grant for which they would never be eligible.

Whether to pick up the phone or make the first connection via email  was largely a personal preference.

They also welcomed conversations with those who were turned down to provide feedback.

Of course, there are institutional funders out there who don’t want contact beyond their online forms or letters of intent. They’ll say so.

Otherwise, try a call and have a conversation with a real person before investing all of your time and energy in sending a blind proposal.


If donor services won’t answer email, then why promote it?

I’ve been a donor-member of Amnesty International USA for about 40 years.

Last year I decided to set myself up on monthly payments via my checking account bill pay system. Since then, every month I get a receipt mailed to me. I file it away, without really looking at it.

Today I read through the receipt and noticed that it had a check box that said I could “go green” by having my monthly support debited from my checking account. Well, I want to “go green.” And I’m already having my support debited from my checking account.

So I thought I’d contact Member Services, which the receipt tells me I can do if I have any questions regarding my account.


It says I could email them at So I did.

I got a very rapid automated response.

Here is what it said: Read more

Special millennial needs or just good fundraising?

I just received an enewsletter from Museum Hack (which sounds like a ton of fun) sharing advice on ways that millennials are different from the generations of donors before them.

Here are two of the differences they cited:

    • ” Millennials want to feel like they are a part of something and making a difference, but if the only time the XYZ contacts the donor is for money, they will not feel like they are a part of the bigger picture.”
    • When the person who asks for money and the person who thanks them knows absolutely nothing about the donor, it turns them off.  Millennials feel like it is a very personal thing to give, but when they are met with no reciprocation, the engagement drops off.”

Am I missing something here? Doesn’t every donor, regardless of their age, expect the same?


Strategically crafting your Letter of Inquiry (LOI)

ABCI recently revived a training on basic grant seeking. I thought I’d share some of the components with you as they are useful not just for grant seeking, but also apply to other aspects of your fund raising.

Let’s start with the Letter of Inquiry.

Crafting your Letter of Inquiry (LOI) for a foundation or other institutional funder is good practice for developing your case for support.

The LOI is a preliminary, shorter version of a grant application. In one to three pages, you need to convince the funder that your proposed project is important and worthy of a more thorough review.

In the LOI, you need to make your case against strong competition (hundreds or even thousands of proposals) in order to advance to the next round of consideration.

In a very short document, you need to answer these questions:

  • What good this will accomplish (problem/need) and for whom (target audience) in keeping with the objectives of the grant guidelines
  • How it accomplishes the funder’s goals
  • Who you are and why you are the best organization to solve this problem/address this need
  • What you plan to do, when you plan to do it, who will do it and why you believe it will be effective
  • What will have changed/improved as a result of this project
  • How much the project will cost, how much you want from the funder, and how you will pay for the other costs

And up the ante by also ensuring that your LOI is:

  • Well-crafted
  • Evidence-based
  • Reasonable on its face, likely to succeed
  • Extraordinarily compelling
  • Logical
  • Competitive
  • Using language that resonates with the funders theory of change
  • Complete (includes everything the funder requested)
  • Compliant with the length and space limitations of the funder

While we aren’t in the proposal writing business (at least not recently), we can help you develop your case for support and assess your readiness for grants funding.  Just give Jon a call at 401-331-2272 or email Jon

See also:

10 grant seeking tips from a program officer

How we got the grant


Event fundraising lessons from

Valley Street riders 2I’m not a great events fundraiser. I strongly encourage nonprofits to put their time and energy into cultivating donors directly rather than spending huge amounts of time on logistics for events that too often raise very little money.

But I’m far from doctrinaire about events, unlike some colleagues who poo poo their value. When done well — and that’s the caveat —  events can raise significant money at a good return on investment and excite supporters and build community energy and interest in your organization and it’s mission. 

Special events come “naturally” to some fundraisers who are really talented at raising money this way.  I’m not, but I admire them. My take is that the backdrop of an event provides a comforting rationale to raise major individual and corporate gifts which are the secret sauce for successful events. And there are some donors who would just rather give through events. Events can be the hook for young donors or those new to philanthropy.

Online giving platforms have become a critical part of event fundraising. Today I’m sharing a guest post from Maureen Peine of DoJiggy. on what they’ve learned from their clients.

— Gayle

Effective Fundraising : 5 Things Our Customers Have Taught Us

By Maureen Peine, DoJiggy

Our best teachers are our customers. They use our software every day, creatively, to raise funds for the noblest of causes from hunger to education to the environment. Of these diverse organizations, there are those who stand out among the crowd for their dedication, success and effectiveness.

Ride4resaon1. Get Personal with Your Crowdfunding Audience

Crowdfunding events have become quite popular given their inherent ability to reach the audience of each constituent. Reaching constituents emotionally was done with a great degree of effectiveness by an event participant during a recent bike-a-thon to support education in California. Julia is one of the event’s top fundraisers, and from her personal fundraising page, it is easy to see why. Even the scrolling comments from her supporters reflect her commitment to education given the emotional investment shown by each supporter — “Besides the donation, sending a million blessings!”….. Literacy lives! Love, Mom”. Julia has included some touching photos of the kids she teaches and their artwork as opposed to pictures of herself, speaking loudly of her mission. Read more

When thank-a-thons go bad

Two weeks ago I received a thank you call from a board member of an organization of which I have been a long-time supporter.

It kind of went like this:

Hi, How are you.

I’m making my thank you calls to supporters. I wanted to thank you for your support.

Okay, that’s all.

Here I am two weeks later and this is what I remember:

  • I’m scratching my head trying to remember what organization it was and who called me. And I knew the person who called me. (Of course, this can just be my own bad memory).
  • I remember that the call felt forced and kind of painful. I felt uncomfortable for the caller.

I don’t think this is exactly what the organization was trying to accomplish.

Here’s what Penelope Burk, researcher and author of Donor Centered Fundraising,  advises around thank you calls:

” A true gesture of thanks is one that happens immediately after the gift has been received…. Calling donors to thank them for their continuing loyalty long after their most recent gift has been received can also be effective, but it requires more careful scripting and timing.” [emphasis added]

What would have made this more satisfying for me:

  • A bit of news. What’s up that I might be interested in hearing about? I’ve been the board chair, an event supporter, connected into a focus group, and lots of other stuff. I’d be interested.
  • Maybe a question for me.  Say, it’s been almost 10 years since you rotated off the board. Yet, you’ve been such a loyal supporter of ours in all that time. What keeps you connected?
  • Or maybe just a more personal thank you message. Haven’t seen you since that really engaging event that Susie led. But I still remember how great it was to have you there contributing your perspective. I’m just calling today because I’m remembering how fortunate our organization has been to have you with us all these years. Thank you.

Saying “thank you” to a donor definitely matters. Organizational indifference is one of the leading reasons people stop giving.

But perhaps put a little more thought into the strategy behind your next thank-a-thon?


A grant seeker’s wish list

Boneyard StarsI prepared this grant seeker’s wish list for a foundation that had recently spun off from its corporate parent.

What is it that nonprofits want or need from grant makers?

At the very top, I put:

 # 1: Flexible, unrestricted operating funds.

According to the most recent data from The Foundation Center, only 23% of foundation grants go to general support.

 #2: Long-term donor investment

Every organization has to re-raise every dollar it receives each year. Having a reliable source of funding can improve stability and planning (though for some nonprofits, it can make them very lazy).

 #3: Other wants/needs

  • Larger donations that make a significant difference.
  • Gifts that deliver a high return on investment in time and direct costs.
  • Response to rapid change or emergency community needs.
  • Leadership development: A mismatch between organization needs and its people can sink an organization. Sometimes, changes need to be made. Other times, investment in leadership development can make a different. Areas for investment on my list include self-knowledge, managerial and leadership skills,  technical expertise in administration, human resources, fund development, program development, etc. (This is an investment in the whole sector as leaders switch organizations).

Read more

10 grant seeking tips from a program officer

Daniel Kertzner, Vice President for Grant Programs at the Rhode Island Foundation, provided grant seeking tips to a crowd of development directors at the annual meeting of the RI Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals on February 6, 2015. Here are a few highlights:

  1. Grantwriting = Relationships. Daniel stressed that grant seekers need to treat their work with any foundation as they would with any other donor. Building relationships is critically important.
  2. Tell your story from the perspective of the funder. Put yourself into the head of the grants program officer. You need to understand how they talk and think and speak in a language that resonates with them.
  3. Be precise. Answer all the questions asked. Provide the information requested.
  4. Be clear. Program officers have lots of grants to read. Tell your story clearly and concisely.
  5. Carefully craft your budget. Your budget and your narrative should tell the same story. Your budget should make sense for what you are asking to accomplish.
  6. Evaluate. Measuring your impact is critically important.
  7. Cross your Ts and dot your Is. Get someone else to proofread your grant. Make sure your budget adds up. Don’t forget any part of the application or requested materials.
  8. Learn from rejection. Ask for feedback if you get turned down. Listen to that feedback.
  9. Say thank you.
  10. See #1.

For more advice, take a look at:
How we got the grant, Part I and How we got the grant, Part II