Being All You Say You Will Be

I spent much of the other day listening to complaints about development staff. Not any particular staff, just fundraisers in general. It was discomforting because there was so much truth in the generalizations that the complainers made.

”At the interview,” one person said, “we’re told that the person will help us to raise a lot more money. But once they get here, what we actually get are excuses as to why they aren’t raising money.”

He then went on to enumerate those excuses:
1. There isn’t enough buzz about this organization. First I have to improve our communications.
2. The board isn’t stepping up to the plate.
3. The database—it’s either a mess or it’s nonexistent. In either case, the emperor has—er, the fundraiser can’t raise dough.
4. I’m not the person who raises money. You are.
5. I have no time to raise money. I’m focusing on communications.
6. I can’t talk to you right now, I’ve got a lunch date.

Are you wincing? I was. These are excuses I hear every day and somehow it doesn’t matter that there is some truth to every last one of them.

Fundraising does depend on message. Communications are important. So is the involvement of senior management and the Board. I agree that in an ideal situation, the development staff’s role is to coordinate and facilitate fundraising efforts of the Board and senior staff. However, few of us live or work in an ideal world. And given that fundraising is all about relationships, databases do matter and so does lunch. But all these things are parts of what we need to do, and we can’t get lost in one to the expense of actually getting out there and coming back with financial commitments.

What’s a fundraiser to do? For starters, understand your job (and make sure that your bosses and the Board understand it also). Some of you are not going to like this, but the definition of fundraising includes variations on these words from Wikipedia: “…by requesting donations from individuals, businesses, charitable foundations, or governmental agencies. “ In other words, whatever else we do, we ask others to support our mission.

In order to make sure you are asking, you really must have a plan and that plan should focus its outcomes on how many requests you will be making. To figure out what that number must be, you must first know how much you need to raise, what the fundraising history of your organization is and how you are going to go about raising funds.

Once you have your outcomes, you can work backward to figure out how best to get there. I like calendars. First you block out all things that will prevent you from fundraising at those times. Holidays, vacations, doctor’s appointments all should be put in this calendar.

Next, put in dates for events, grant deadlines, direct mail, etc. Make sure you are blocking out not just the endgame, but the steps you have to take to get there. Put in times when you will be on the phone, trying to get appointments. Add those appointments. Needless to say, much of this will be changing on a regular basis, but you have to remember that you must control it.

If you want to see three major donor prospects a week, you will probably have to block out several hours a week making those appointments. Try to get into the habit of blocking out those hours a week or two in advance and then treat those as if they were meetings with the President. Only change those times if there is no other option. If you must, practice saying “Gee, I’m sorry. That’s not a good time. How about...” and then fill in with a blank time on your calendar.

But what about that communication plan? And, really, the database is a mess. Well, fine. Calendar in the times you need to spend in those areas. But be realistic. If you are spending 6 hours a day working on a communication plan or fixing the database you are not doing the job that is expected of you. Which brings me to my final piece of advice (well, for this posting): Manage expectations.

Fundraisers have a tendency to oversell what we can do. And those who don’t fundraise rarely understand what it takes to raise funds. A realistic plan with clear outcomes and a calendar which visually shows what is required will go a long way to turning those complaints into compliments.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at