Breaking Out of a Fundraising Plateau

March 30, 2011

It happens to every development professional at some point in their career. Things are going well… you’re meeting with prospects, cultivating contacts, making asks. The days seem to be humming along, and then: nothing. No calls being returned. No pledges being made. No progress… nothing.

You’ve plateaued.

Sometimes, a fundraising plateau lasts for days, sometimes it lasts for weeks. Fear not! These occasional ruts happen to every fundraiser. Occasionally, they are just a result of bad luck, when you happen to strike out on asks an inordinate amount of times in a single week or month. Other times, they are the result of an unforeseeable event, or a bit of bad PR for your non-profit. Most often though, they are the result of some planning missteps on your part. Luckily, these missteps can usually be easily rectified. If you find yourself in a fundraising plateau, use these tips to help jump start your efforts:

For Immediate Action
If you’re in a rut, reaching your goals (and restoring your confidence) will require that you take immediate action to start seeing positive results. One great way to generate “yes’s” is by taking a break from prospecting to start soliciting from current and lapsed donors. They are far more likely to say yes, and the positive reinforcement will do wonders for your self-esteem. Taking a week off of cultivation / prospecting to focus on making asks to current donors may be just the jump start you need to get back in to the game.

Another great way to immediately see positive results is to take a break from your current solicitations / prospects to work on some low hanging fruit that others on your team have been cultivating. For instance, if you are a director of development that works closely with your board, take a week to set up meetings with contacts your board members have been cultivating. Ask the board member to go with you to see these warm contacts. As with current donors, these warm leads may be far more likely to want to get involved than your standard prospect list.

For Long Term Planning
Once you’ve reignited your efforts, be sure to put a plan in place to help you avoid fundraising plateaus in the future. The most important thing you can do to avoid plateaus is to make sure you have enough prospects in the pipeline at each different level to supply a steady stream of asks. By balancing out the number of new prospects, warm cultivations, and current asks you are working on, you can be sure to have a ready supply of asks teed up at any one time.

Similarly, keep your board, development committee, and volunteers constantly networking. They provide a great source of leads, but generally require constant handholding and motivation. Be sure to supply it to them.
Finally, if you’re not already integrating all of your fundraising campaigns into your individual ask program, now is the time to do so. For example: do you have a plan in place for meeting, cultivating, and doing an individual solicitation with your direct mail donors? How about your online donors? What about your event guests? Have a funnel in place for building longer-term relationships with these donors.

Don’t Wait — Do!

Every fundraiser gets into a rut once in a while. They key to getting back on you feet is to DO something about it. If you just stay the course, often, you’ll find it harder to break out of the rut. Be active, develop a plan for reigniting your efforts, then get out there and make it happen!
Joe Garecht is the creator of The Fundraising Authority, a free source of fundraising advice and tutorials for non-profits of all sizes.


Featured Fundraiser: Justyna Jonca

March 23, 2011

What kind of fundraising do you do and who do you do it for?

Justyna PictureI am the Manager of Major Gifts and Stewardship at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) is Canada’s only national foundation dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. The foundation works to end violence against women, move low-income women out of poverty and empower girls with confidence, courage and critical thinking skills. CWF is ranked as one of ten largest women’s foundations in the world and it has supported over 1000 programs in every province and territory since 1991. I manage the Major Gifts campaign at the foundation. My role includes securing donations and cultivating a base of major donor prospects ($2,500+) nationally. I develop cultivation and solicitation strategies for current donors and assigned prospects, conduct prospect research, attend major donor fundraising events throughout the year, and correspond monthly with visits, e-mails, phone calls other means of communication. All of this is done toward the ultimate goal of securing individual major gifts.

What keeps you going? Why do you keep working in development?

It’s an amazing foundation to work for; the work that we do is important and rewarding at the same time. I also work with an amazing group of volunteers. The world of philanthropy is changing. There is a transformation in the way society’s problems are solved. No longer able to be reliant and wholly dependent on government funds for support, organizations and foundations have turned to the private sector and individual givers. I work with an amazing group of volunteers that have the ability to give money, raise money, attract media, attract other wealthy individuals, and single-handedly draw attention to issues at a level previously unknown. Unencumbered by excessive red tape, political cycles, or demanding shareholders, these philanthropists can think long term and act quickly. Together we are affecting significant, widespread and lasting change in our society.

What tips/advice do you have to other fundraisers in your field?

Have fun and don’t take it too seriously. It’s easy to get bogged down by the small details of fundraising. Excel lists, fundraising databases and daily correspondence can get frustrating at the best of times. Remember why you’re there and what your work is helping to accomplish. Don’t be afraid to talk to your donors and individuals involved; it is the main part of a fundraiser’s job. More importantly, don’t forget to listen. Part of your research should include listening to the people who benefit from this work. Understanding the problems you are trying to address cannot be done effectively without seeing them through the eyes of those who feel them most. Also, the best ideas and campaigns come from the engagement of volunteers and staff. Create a positive environment where ideas are shared, knowledge is deciphered and everyone is part of the overall goal, strategy and success.

What is the most frustrating or difficult thing about fund development?

No matter how big your goal is, how hard you work or how successful you are it seems there is never enough money to address all the needs. You have to focus on the positive stories, the lives you did change and what you did accomplish. Also, the world of philanthropy and the number of nonprofits and charities has really grown recently. There are 161,000 registered non profits and voluntary organizations in Canada. The charitable sector has become highly competitive. Donors, regulators, the media, and others have increasingly high standards for charities and their operations. This is of course a good thing. It has however made fundraising a little more competitive and leading edge. You have to be constantly evolving in a manner that is engaging and compelling in order to retain and secure current and new donors and volunteers over and over again.

Do you have any memorable donor visits or solicitations that you’d like to share?

All I can say about any of my donor visits or solicitations is to keep your enthusiasm and passion about the work you do. These are fundamental key points and requirements of fundraising and a fundraiser. When your donor senses the commitment, energy and excitement in you you’re half way there. Also, be sure to encourage your donors to commit their time, energy, and insight, and not just their dollars, to the initiatives they support. The deeper and individual is invested in a campaign or initiative, the greater becomes the probability that they will provide long term support and aid in expanding the fundraising base of the non-profit.

Is the Donor First?

March 21, 2011

You heard from a great guest author Leo Notenboom earlier this month. He made some really bold statements about the way we talk about potential and existing donors. What did you think? Do we spend too much time thinking and creating relationships between people and their wallets? This thought is echoed in my recent book review. Relationships are paramount in development work. The more we treat our donors as partners and friends of the organization, the more tightly connected to the mission of the organization they become.

Nonprofits are often at the forefront of recognizing people as human through working with the poor, civil rights, and other types of advocacy. Do we really need to change our development strategies to match our mission? Do we need to take a broader view of who the client that we serve is?

Waiting In Line

March 16, 2011

Meeting with a donor or new potential supporter while buying a cup of coffee or immediately after the meeting has finished is my favorite time. When starting new relationships, so much of the conversation is about superficial things. One person tests the other out. You talk a little about your organization, he or she talks a little about the business. The bulk of the conversation is spent discussing the business of the meeting.

What I love about buying a cup of coffee or waiting in line with a donor is that you have a totally different conversation. You often talk about more personal things that are going on in his or her life. You talk about whatever is most priority– from a new business deal to something with his or her family. It is a time where people are a little bit more honest and willing to talk personally. I think some of it may even have to do with doing an activity together. There is power in a shared experience.

“If you continue to focus on the major gift sale,
You will never move up the relationship scale.”
– Marshall Howard

In the fundraising style referenced in Let’s Have Lunch Together, this would be considered taking time to build a solid relational foundation. Marshall would likely encourage us not to just stop in the coffee line. Make time to personally connect with your donors for an entire meeting or multiple meetings and they will show a deeper interest in you and in the organization.

We all have busy work weeks and are trying to maximize the time that we have in the most efficient way. I’ve found that my favorite part of each meeting is often waiting in line for a cup of coffee. How do you break the ice in a conversation? Have you found waiting in line with a donor to be a good time to learn more about them personally?

Changing Our Terminology

March 14, 2011

I’ve skated around this topic in some different capacities in the past. Much of my thinking in the All Donors As Major Donors section connects with the philosophy that every donor has value. Upon reflection, I’m not sure if I’ve taken things far enough. It almost sounds like we need a new mantra–something like “Everyone’s a Potential Partner.”

Do you think it would be valuable for us to change some of our terminology? Do you think the word prospect is dehumanizing? What bothers me about the word is that it places the value of one type of interaction with an individual above all of the rest of the potential interactions. It points to them as a potential gift not as a potential friend and partner of the organization.

Do we need to throw out words like prospect which focus on the contribution side of fundraising? What about words like donor, solicitation, acquisition, and major gifts? Maybe that upsets the coffee cart too much, but I am curious what you think.

What We Say Matters

March 9, 2011

Most of the individuals that regularly read my blog are not individuals that I see on a daily basis. I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who also happens to be a donor. He also happens to be one of those individuals that knows me personally, professionally, and as a blogger. You can read his guest post earlier this month, “I Am Not A Prospect.”

He really challenged me to think carefully about what our terminology really means and how it impacts our thinking.

I like to think of fundraising as an opportunity for an organization to link with an individual who has similar interests and passions as the organization. Using the word prospect can dehumanize that interaction and make it only transactional, regardless of whether the word is being used publicly or privately. Maybe a better phrase is a “potential partner” to the organization.

I want to promote a conversation around nonprofits doing a better job creating authentic relationships with individuals (and businesses) who care about the issues they believe in. That means that I need to write using terminology that supports that perspective. That also means we, as a Foundation or Development Office, need to increase the kinds of partnerships we can create beyond a simply financial focus. We need to develop advocates, opportunities for in-kind gifts, and take time to engage community members as thinking consultants. A few weeks ago, I brokered a meeting between a vice- president at the hospital where I work and a potential supporter who is an executive at a technology/business intelligence consultant business. The outcome was that this potential supporter will provide perspective on some of the upcoming business intelligence software decisions we are making. This is a great example of engaging potential supporters as partners.

My friend justifiably challenged a perspective that I did not realize I was perpetuating. There is a need for a paradigm shift in the way fundraising and development is approached (fund is in the word fundraising, that’s a great example of how engrained that thinking really is). It is going to take a long time to right the way we think and talk about development. But, it is important that we do.

Let’s Have Lunch Together

March 7, 2011

I just finished reading, Let’s Have Lunch Together: How to Reach Out and Build More Powerful Relationships, by Marshall Howard. It was probably the best fundraising book that I’ve read in the last couple of years. The book is written in such a way that it benefits both the beginning and seasoned fundraisers. It isn’t a long read—183 pages; it is written as a story about an executive director named Oscar, whose board chair, Victoria, challenges him to think differently. Victoria walks Oscar through a transformation in relationship engagement with his donors and board members.

The book has some really great and easy-to-use tips on how to build solid relationships with your volunteers, donors, and other stakeholders. The focus is about taking time to make a personal connection and to recognize that the relationship should be more important than the money. The connections that many of our major donors bring into an organization and their long-term partnerships are more valuable than monetary contributions. If a strong relationship is built, then a byproduct is often money and relationships.

The core mantra of the book is…

  • Be more curious
  • Put the other person first, your needs second
  • Uncover common interests, values, and goals

I am a big fan of checklists that I need to do to be successful. Marshall has done a great job creating some great checklists with tools we can use to build relationships. As I was reading this book I thought it fit really well with the theme this month of putting the donor first.

“If you want to be shocked, amazed, and aghast,
look at a stakeholder as a person at last.”
Marshall Howard

I would love to leave you with more of Marshall’s tips and tell you more about the story between Oscar & Victoria. But I know I’ll be quoting it in some future posts and will use it as an inspiration for much of what I will be focusing on over the next couple of weeks… plus, I don’t want to spoil the excitement of reading it yourself. Howard thank you for a great book!