Pay Attention--Planning Matters

The best thing in the world is when you are working with someone or some group and—suddenly it seems—the lights go on.  The worst is when, after a long time of working with them, they still appear to be clueless. In my practice, I’ve had both situations.  And as exciting and wonderful as the former is, the latter can be equally frustrating.  Or it can be the impetus to try something different.

A lot of what my clients don’t get is the need for a plan.  They don’t want to write one, fill in the blanks on the one I’ve written, tell me the information I need to know.  They just want that magic bullet that will make it all happen, without any pain on their part.

I know, from long experience, the more they engage in the process, bring their volunteers to participate, do the things we identify as the right things to do, the more successful they are. And—no kidding—the more success they have, the more success they have.  No, that’s not a typo.  That is exactly what I meant to say.

So I try, and I push, and I nudge and, finally, I nag.  And then I have to resort to other tactics.

With one client, unable to move them forward or to get them to set up a meeting, I drew up a list of programs and staff and, in an email asked them which of these they were planning on cutting.  That got their attention.

Another one of my clients was convinced that, despite the fact that they had hired me to help move them from solely transactional fundraising to having a comprehensive program that included relational development, their was “no way” they had the time to build those relationships.

So we did a very simple cost analysis of what it was costing to raise the money they were raising.   We looked very broadly at the direct fundraising costs (salaries of development staff, a percent based on what they thought of the executive director’s salary, other hard costs such as printing, mailing, etc).  We didn’t get into indirect costs, though I did talk about it—a lot.  Then  we subtracted that number from their gross fundraising revenue.  That gave us sort of, kind of net fundraising revenue.

And they were pretty happy with that.  Cool, they said, we netted at this money.

But what did it cost to raise that?  Take your costs and divide it by your net revenue.  For this organization, even counting only part of their expenses (we didn’t include benefits, for example, or any indirect costs), it cost them over $4.00 to raise one.  That wasn’t so exciting.  But it did get them to listen.

And then to begin working on that plan that will help them to spend less to raise more; cut nothing and actually build their programs.  And generally be better nonprofits.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and better meet their mission.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the free newsletter