Running on Air

Remember Wile E. Coyote? He’s that character in the Roadrunner cartoons who is always running off the edge of the cliff. As long as he keeps his eye straight ahead, he seems to be able to run on air. But once he looks down, watch out.

A lot of nonprofits are like Wile E. As long as they don’t look too carefully at their financials, everything seems copacetic. They keep truckin’ on, not paying attention to the need to bring in more revenue, cut back on programs that have grown too large or extras that are really not necessary.

I once worked at an organization which had a serious structural deficit. But the CEO liked his food, which meant that every meeting we had—and there were lots of them—were catered events. So Monday morning staff meetings turned into full blown breakfasts. Mid-day gatherings had hors d’ouevers to die for. It cost the organization a ton of money we didn’t have. Worse, it impacted our mission negatively.

Most of the organizations I know aren’t doing that sort of thing, but they also aren’t taking care of business. In a survey just released by the Bridgespan Group, 93% of charity leaders said that their organizations were feeling the impact of the economic downturn. That’s up from 75% who were feeling the impact a year ago.

All indicators point to an even more difficult year in 2010 for the sector. Organizations that relied heavily on grants, are finding they are needing to look elsewhere for financial support. I get a lot of calls now from organizations looking to start an individual giving program.

But while individual giving makes up about 80% of the charitable pie, it takes a long time to build up a strong donor pool. I think it’s good that these organizations are looking to diversify, but I also want them to understand it probably won’t solve their current funding problems.

Nor, alas, will social networking. I know, we’ve all read about the huge increases in online giving and the wild success of this or that twitter/cellphone/facebook campaign. But to make any of those successful takes the same type of prospect pool needed to for any individual campaign and then getting those prospects to the site so they can make a gift. And that is often something smaller nonprofits just don’t have the juice to do. And yes, I know all about viral marketing, but unless you have a large number of “hosts”—i.e., people who are looking at what you want them to look at—there is no one to pass on the virus.

So okay, gloom and doom. What do we do? I think for starters, making sure you are covering your basics. Have you appropriately thanked every donor who made a gift of time or treasure this year? Even if yes, perhaps in the waning days of 2009 you should send a personal note to those who could make your new year a bit brighter.

What about those folks who have given in the past but haven’t made a gift this year? Perhaps they can’t, or don’t want to make a smaller gift. But if you contact them directly, odds are they will meet you part way. So if in the past I made $1,000 gift each year this year it may be only $100, but that’s a $100 you didn’t have before. More importantly, you will have touched a donor who will remain a donor.

This may also be the time to start thinking about how you can bring down your fundraising costs while increasing the value of making a gift to your donors. I don’t think it can be said often enough that fundraising is essentially about relationships.

I was thinking a lot about this the other day. One of my alma maters is in the midst of a year end phonathon. Students from the university call me—but I keep refusing to take the call. Why? They can’t get my name right. I don’t mind if they pronounce it Leveen or Levine, that seems to be a coastal thing, but I do care if they ask for Janice Levay or, as the person did last night, “Jane Lee—lee, er, is Jane there?” Not knowing my name is no way to solidify a relationship. I mean please. Read the name. If the pronunciation isn’t clear, ask! “Hi, may I speak to Janet…and I apologize, I’m not sure how to pronounce the last name,” shows that you at least care.

Beyond knowing my name, think about what your donors really want. Don’t know? Well, heck, ask them. And what a wonderful way to connect with prospects. While you are asking, don’t forget about your Board. Ask them what they want, and then ask them to ask their contacts what would make them happy donors. Your Board may not want to ask for a gift, but they may be very willing to broach this subject with their friends.

Speaking of Boards, how about an end-of-the year meeting asking every Board member to come with a revenue generating idea that will not stretch the limits of your financial or other resources? Make it a brainstorming session, with the understanding that brainstorming means no idea is dumb and everything should be brought to the table.

Think outside of your normal constituencies. Who are the people you haven’t been targeting? Why? What might be a way to get them interested in what you do? Who are the folks who are already interested but you’ve not asked them to support you for one reason or another—often because they “are poor” or because “they already give so much of their time.” Think about those issues differently.

When I first got into sales, a very successful salesperson told me that I should understand that I wasn’t selling something to someone but, rather, giving that person an opportunity to get what he or she wanted or needed. That is even more true when we are talking about fundraising.

Instead of focusing on why people won’t be giving this year or next, consider what opportunities you can offer. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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