During even the best of times, fundraising can be a complex endeavor requiring perseverance, persistence, and adaptability. As organizations and individuals continue to assess new information daily from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and others on the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the need for successful fundraising efforts has become even more critical. Successful fundraising campaigns not only provide organizations with the funds to support critical programs and activities; they also foster affinity towards, relationships with, and awareness of important nonprofit organizations.
To discover how organizations can become more agile and responsive in their fundraising efforts, I reached out to Theresa Lee, a principal consultant at Responsive Fundraising. Theresa was also one of my instructors in the Professional Fundraising Certificate Program, which I completed last fall at Boston University, so she both teaches and practices the principles of effective fundraising.
What is responsive fundraising, and why is it important?
Responsive nonprofits are those where the organizational leaders share a common understanding of highly effective fundraising practices and where fundraising is not simply something bolted on to the organization to be merely tolerated in good times and heavily relied upon in bad times. It means creating a culture where fundraising can be holistic, meaningful, and sustainable; — where fundraising can thrive. Responsive means aligning the board, volunteers, and leadership team with an understanding of their roles and responsibilities in fundraising, where and how they can make the greatest contributions, and where they can complement the strengths of others.
Responsive fundraising is important because meaningful engagement of prospects and donors leads to movement from trivial to meaningful to significant levels of giving. The organization’s fundraising philosophy must be informed by a commitment to meaningful engagement and direct solicitation. When an organization commits to this, then they will attract and retain top fundraising talent, clearly articulating their working goals and objectives, and provide consistent and constructive feedback. Without this organizational commitment, neither fundraising nor the development staff will thrive, there will be significant turnover, and lost opportunities.
Any organization, whether operating as a nonprofit, for-profit, or government agency, must navigate the tension between operating efficiently and being responsive to the needs of their donors, customers, or citizens. When it comes to most nonprofits, I believe that fundraising practices have swung so far toward efficiency that being responsive to our donors is hard to do. And now nonprofits dependency on inexpensive fundraising is really beginning to catch up with them. To run most efficiently, most organizations have attached onto their organization whatever made the most sense at the time instead of thinking critically about how fundraising should be carried out and according to what metrics.
Why are most fundraising plans designed to fail?
In the extreme, nonprofit leaders expect fundraising to behave like a machine; flip on the switch when times get tough, then overlook and ignore it until we are in trouble again. They don’t take the time to ensure that fundraising has become an essential part of their identity from the very beginning. That’s because it’s messy – people and relationships are messy. They don’t behave like machines and are not predictable. It’s also because there is pressure to deliver results now and long-term relationships are not built to deliver results immediately. Leaders feel pressure, pressure flows down, and fundraisers are forced to ask sooner than they should, providing short term gains, but not ultimate results. Fundraisers get burnt out, disillusioned and leave. Once they leave, relationships they built take a backward step.
Technology has become the substitute for real relationships and arms-length fundraising is the result. While this will help acquire donors of trivial gifts, rarely are meaningful and significant gifts received from people who do not have a deep and abiding relationship with the people of the non-profit. We are stuck in an efficiency loop and have a hard time letting it go to take the time to build a meaningful culture with real relationships. It’s not hopeless; it’s just broken.
How can associations or nonprofits with small staffs be more effective at building and executing fundraising campaigns?
They can prioritize people and build relationships. Hire good fundraisers, be clear with expectations, and keep them from being mired in the trivial and yet urgent tasks that derail them, while jealously guarding the time they spend with donors. This often means a complete culture shift and it’s not easily gained. It takes commitment to the long-term health of the non-profit. It takes everyone agreeing on the cultural norms, expectations, and a timeline to achieve a significant shift in fundraising otherwise known as a campaign. It means that we are truly having meaningful conversations with our donors, treating them like valued partners, not cash machines. All non-profits, but particularly smaller nonprofits where the margin for failure is narrow, must prioritize building long-term, healthy and meaningful relationships with people who care about their mission, feel valued as collaborators in helping to carry out the mission, and understand that their philanthropic investment has an impact on others.