Fundraising and Triage

Sometimes I wonder if we are somehow wired together.  I don’t imagine I’m important enough that they first read my blog then rush to write about something similar.  But I am surprised at how often that happens.  I post a blog about fundraising as relationship building; within hours, there are several others.  I talk about keeping your donors front and center…and there are half a dozen other saying much the same thing.  Which probably only goes to show that this stuff is not rocket science; nor is there much new. I’ve been in this field for a long time now—and before that I was in sales—and what was true then, is certainly true now.  Your donor/client/customer is at the center of it all; and yes, it is all about relationships.

It’s also a lot about consistency.  Whatever you do, do it well and do it again.  The biggest barrier to fundraising is starting and stopping.  You can’t build relationships that way and you can’t raise serious money.

Being too busy to follow through does not cut it.  You should never be too busy to follow up with a prospect, thank a donor, produce the 14th annual whatever.  Being there for our supporters is what gets us their support.

But how do you keep from being too busy?  There is so much on all of our plates; so many things to do, people to deal with and respond to.

I’ve always been a fan of triage (, where you rank things in order of priority or importance.  And, because it IS triage, I have three rankings:

  1. This I have to do
  2. This I should do, and will make a real attempt to do
  3. Things that would be nice, but….these things I am going to let die on the vine

Figuring out what goes into each bucket is the difficulty.  For me, it starts with paying clients.  If they want it done, it has to be done.  No excuses.  Somehow, some way, I always manage to find time for it.  Unless…hmmm, dare I say this in public?  Oh heck, why not.  Unless it is something that I really, truly, honestly know they will never use, remember that they told me, isn’t important.

Years ago, I was a development director at a university during their first big capital campaign.

As the campaign moved forward, the Foundation Board (who paid my salary) wanted ever more reports from the development staff.  Most of these reports were simply iterations of other reports we were required to do.  And it became rapidly clear that these additional reports did not add anything to the campaign or the Board members’ lives, so I opted not to do them.

Never was I called on the carpet.  Never, in fact, was I asked where the additional reports were.  Rather, I was called out (in a very positive way) for having more appointments and raising more money than the other development directors who were very busy writing all the requested reports.

Things you should do, but maybe can’t get around to are difficult.  If you should, then shouldn’t you, really do them?  Well…maybe.  But not at the cost of not doing the have to items.

Another story—I was in a very senior role at a college, where development was one of my too many departments.  I use that word very lightly—I was the development department, which mean, given all my other tasks and responsibilities, development didn’t happen there very often.  We were a public institution, heavily dependent on state support and government relations was another area of responsibility.  Both the elected trustees and the president of the college agreed that lobbying was more important than starting a fundraising program.  In the scheme of things, and at the time, I could see their point.  Millions of dollars versus the hope of one or two…it was no contest.  I felt then and feel now that fundraising should have happened.  But it wasn’t going to happen given the resources I had.  And the one thing I wasn’t going to do was to spend what little time I did have worrying about it.

As for the third area, I find that too often those are the things that people end up doing.  It’s so much more comfortable to enter names in a database, noddle over the menu for an event, take time to design just the most exquisite invitation.  Honestly, these are things that are easily delegated or ignored.

I’d tell you another story about that, but this is getting way too long, and reading it is taking you away from what you should be doing.   So before you jump back into it, take a minute.  Think about the things you do and consider which should be done always and immediately, what might not be as important, and what you can take off your to-do list with little consequence.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and being never too busy to fundraise.  Learn more at While there, sign up for her free monthly newsletter.