Fundraising Front and Center

Sometimes, when I read The Chronicle of Philanthropy I think that I live in an alternate universe.  Here is an article about the problems one couple faced when making 6 figure online gifts; there is another one about the leaders of huge, national nonprofits.  My world is largely made up of nonprofits with budgets under $5 million—often way under—where a $100,000 gift is unusual and where the attention is on programs, not fundraising. As a consultant who focuses a lot on fundraising, I find that can be frustrating.  Fundraising, I often fume, is what allows the programs to prosper.  I think it short sighted to do without a professional fundraising staff in order to put as much as possible into those programs and wonder why the obvious—if they raise more money, the programs will be more sustainable and might even grow—eludes both the board and the Executive Director.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it is helpful when mega-gifts are what get all the press.

Large and well-known nonprofits and educational organizations generally have the financial wherewithal to do what they are in business to do.  Fundraising often works around the edges—allowing them to branch off in new and frequently exciting ways.  Smaller nonprofits tend to need charitable giving to bridge the gap between what it costs to run the operation and what is coming in from regular streams of revenue.  Different picture.

Instead of chasing that one large gift that gets big headlines and causes most nonprofit professionals and volunteers to drool, the emphasis really does need to be on those recurring gifts.  For these nonprofits (and they are by a large margin the majority) “sustainable” is more than a buzz word; it is a necessary way of life.  And yet, for too many of these organizations, comprehensive, ongoing fundraising is at best an afterthought.

Over the years, I’ve seen so many development plans, most of which start with something specific about the organization and then go on to the most generalized description of ways to raise money.  “The Annual Fund” reads one plucked at random from a pile on my bookshelf, “comprises all regular fundraising activities of the current year.”  Presumably, that is why it is called “Annual.”

Major gifts in these plans are almost always called “transformational.”

These plans describe the various ways these gifts can be raised (direct mail, special events, one on one meetings, naming opportunities), and then the plan goes on to vaguely describe how.

So Planned Giving will start, says another plan, “by actively encouraging our donors and friends to include [the organization] in their estate planning.” Grants, this plan (which alas, is all too typical) will be “sought out to support specific areas of programs and services.”

Some of these plans have actual dollar goals, but even those that do too often don’t relate them to the budgets and needs of the organization.  These plans are interchangeable.   Substitute another organization’s name and most of these plans would be equally viable (and equally useless).

Fundraising needs to be brought into the center of your organization.  It must be as important as your programs, and it should be considered as thoughtfully.  You would never hire an untrained person to teach your special need students, or work with those who are homeless, victims of domestic violence, or clients who want to learn to play the oboe.  You wouldn’t decide that “our community needs a mental health center” and expect it to happen without thoughtful (and arduous) work.  So why do you expect fundraising to simply happen if you say the words and then tell your board it is their responsibility?

Fundraising is much more of a science than is commonly believed.  It’s not the glib who raise the funds, but the passionate, obstinate and thorough who dot all those I’s and cross all those T’s who actually make it happen.  And a fundraising plan must be more than a description of ways to raise money.  It must become a clear roadmap, with timelines, clarity on who is responsible for what, and most of all, an understanding of why fundraising is needed and what—precisely—it is needed for.

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  You can buy the book directly at