Ensuring Fundraising Success

After six weeks away, coming home was a bit of a downer.  Our housesitters were lovely, but I should have had a maid service come in and clean.  It took me two days to find where I had left my car keys, and if my computer files had been in disarray before I left, now that they were distributed across two computers, dropbox, a flash drive and iDisk—don’t ask. My dogs, however, were happy to see me.  And my clients were unimpressed—we had been working fine while I was abroad, what was the big deal that I was home. Existing clients are one thing.  New clients are another.  And so my calendar,  is jammed—mostly networking and prospecting, because just as it was when I was a fundraiser looking for donors, finding new or repeat clients takes up a good deal of my time.

I figured out recently that 40-60% of what I do isn’t billable.  I could lower that, by hiring someone to do a lot of that work, but then I’d have to have more billable hours to net out the same income.  It’s a conundrum and one that nonprofits face all the time.

Do you hire more staff in the hopes that you become efficient?  That seems a no brainer to me if the staff you are considering is one that is revenue generating.  Ironically, that is precisely the staff that many nonprofits balk at.  Indeed, at the height of the most recent economic crisis, development staff was often the first group to be let go.

That seemed and seems counterproductive to me.  But it also seems counterintuitive to hire development staff without having clarity about your expectations and a sense of how you want those expectations to be met.

Too often, nonprofits hire a development director (or whatever title they chose to bestow) and feel as if their part is now done.  The new hiree will go forth and bring in money.  Of course, at the same time, he or she will be entering data, coming to meetings, doing all sorts of unrelated activities.  And then, in a few months, when new funds aren’t pouring through the doors, disenchantment will set in.

Most of these people won’t get fired—at least not then.  In most cases, no conversation with them will take place.  Everything will go on as usual, with frustration building on all sides.

There is, of course, a better way.

Before your organization sets out to hire a fundraiser, think realistically about your expectations—in the first three months, the second, and on into the third year of hire.  There is no magic about the number three, but most professionals will tell you that it takes at least three years to build a program.  And unless your fundraiser is coming in to a robust development program, you will need time to see positive results.

That doesn’t mean you ignore the situation until some years have past.  Have metrics in place—measurements by which you can see if the person is performing to your expectations.  I firmly believe that amount of money raised is not a good metric.  Gifts can often be random.  I’ve had jobs where I’ve brought in several large gifts in my first three months.  In most cases, those gifts were actually the result of great cultivation that had gone on before I came on the scene.  My skill was in doggedly following up.

No, far better to measure actions for from the right activities will come gifts.

The first step in all fundraising is identifying prospects.  How many new prospects should your new development director be finding each month?  What percentage of those should be absolutely new (what I call “outside prospects”) and how many should be prospects who are supporting your organization albeit at a lower level than the one you think they belong?

The next step is cultivation—the things you do to engage people and make them want to be a part of your success.  What are your expectations in this important arena (and how will you ensure that the necessary resources are there so the development director can perform)?

Asking for the gift, of course, is key.  If you don’t ask, they won’t give.  How many solicitation meetings should the development director be involved over the course of a year?

In a sector where we lose more donors than we gain every year, stewardship is vital.  A strong stewardship program is a must—as is the recognition that for many prospects (and remember that the best prospect is always an existing donor) stewardship is another name for cultivation.

Finally, there must be the understanding that fundraising is not the sole responsibility of the development director and the rest of you—board and staff alike—can now wash your  hands of this chore.  The most important jobs for the development director are coordinating and facilitating the development process.  So how well is that person interacting with the board?  How effective is she at ensuring that development is a team effort and that the team is working toward a common goal?  And how effective is your leadership at providing that development director the proper podium from which to conduct and ensure that everyone is playing in tune?


Janet Levine is a consultant, trainer, coach and writer who works with nonprofits and educational organizations helping to ensure their ability to forward their mission.  Learn more about her at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, don’t forget to sign up for her monthly newsletter.