When Planning is Beside the Point

During the hiring process, the prospective development director was told over and over again that the organization was in financial crisis.  “We don’t have enough to cover our operating costs,” the candidate was told.  “We need someone to come in and raise money.” Would that this were unusual.  But of course, it is not.  Oftentimes, the search committee is not quite so open.  But a careful reading of the organization’s financials would give a careful candidate the goods.

And if for some reason you accepted this job, what should be your immediate action?

While I am a big believer in planning, sometimes it is not the right thing to do.  Certainly, crisis is not when you can afford the luxury of the long view.  In these cases, you need to get somewhere fast—and to do that you need to map out the most direct line from where you are to where you need to get.  And then you must immediately get on the road.

In the above-described (true) story, the candidate accepted the job…and then spent the next 4 months writing a development plan and shopping around for donor tracking software.  What he didn’t do was take the data that was on hand and organize it—getting it ready for that database and, not so incidentally, using the data he had to start fundraising.  Note, fundraising, not writing a development plan and certainly not worrying about what software you will eventually use.  While data is critical for building a sustainable fund development plan, it is important to recognize that software is a tool that helps you use the data, but people have been successful fundraisers using 3” x 5” cards or even excel if that was all that was to hand.

Having accepted the challenge, the development director needed to get off go as quickly as possible.  That meant:

  • Identifying past large donors and re-connecting them to the organization.  Cultivation for these folks would take a while, so action needed to happen now.
  • Looking at long-time donors—those who had made a gift or attended a gala three out of the past five years—and setting up appointments to thank them for their support and to qualify whether they were ready to move up the pyramid.
  • Connecting with current larger donors to ensure continuity.
  • Using this window of opportunity to introduce himself to every donor—via phone, email, letter—past and present, large and small, so that there was an initial touch before the first fundraising appeal.  And that appeal needed to go out within the first three months he was on board.

Instead, five or six months went by and a pretty but generic development plan was presented and the crisis deepened.  Now all those donors with whom he had not connected need to be asked for gifts.  And unsurprisingly, the respond is not terrific.

Anyone who has ever done any fundraising knows that the least effective ask is the one you do without cultivation.  Donors who feel that you only contact them when you are asking for money will not remain donors for long.

But you don’t have to be a new hire, nor does your organization have to be in financial meltdown, for this story to resonate.

If you are not reaching out to your donors and prospects on a regular basis, start doing so now.  Even if you’ve been in your job for 10 years, if there are people on your donor lists who you have never personally introduced yourself to, take 30 minutes each day to handwrite some personal notes or invite someone to take a tour of your facility.

If the lack of a database is holding you back, take a close look at the data you do have.  If a board member suddenly gave you the money to purchase any database you desired, would you be able to populate it with good, clean information?  If not, start spending another 30 minutes a day profiling your data and organizing it in such a way that it could easily be uploaded.  While you are at it, you’ll probably start noticing some important trends:  Donors who regularly give at a certain time of the year; who give in a certain way; who have given over a long period of time.  How might you better approach these segments to move them along?  What new ways might you cultivate them in order to tie them more closely to your organization?

Not all financial crises can be avoided, but many can.  But while planning has its place, action does speak louder than words.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to build their resource development capacity.  To learn more about her, her online grantwriting class and Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants the only grantwriting book you really need, check out http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  You can buy the book directly at http://tinyurl.com/2996pqg