Much of what I am attempting to remedy at my own organization as well as those that I am assisting with their fundraising efforts is to reduce donor attrition. According to the 2012 Fundraising Effectiveness Project report, every $100 gained in 2011 was offset by $100 in losses through gift attrition. The report also indicates that the smaller an organization is the more pronounced the results. Smaller organizations struggle with donor retention at a much higher rate than larger organizations.

Among the organizations that I have worked for or assisted over the years, donor attrition has always been overshadowed by a preference for new donor acquistion. Time and time again, I encounter organizations that completely ignore what I consider the most significant barrier to real fundraising success- the ultimate measure of fundraising effectiveness. I can look at one single measure, an organizations renewal rate, and accurately assess their fundraising competency.

I am not convinced that fundraising is all that difficult or that even the smallest, most inexperienced organization can’t raise some serious cash. What I am convinced of is that even these small organizations that have had some measure of success rarely can sustain the same support from the same donors. My dashboard is designed to shift organizations away from new donor acquistion in order to focus on renewing their existing donors.

For more information, email me at

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the process of universe creation is all that complicated- it really isn’t. It means overcoming the fear of engaging individuals all around us.


How much to ask for

August 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

Fundraising professionals are notorious for overcomplicating the question of how much to ask for. Sometimes even before an initial contact is made or with little or no awareness of the donors interest in the organization, fundraising professionals begin strategizing an ask amount. Using greedy and naïve assumptions, fundraising professionals stamp invisible dollar amounts on their unsuspecting donor’s foreheads.

Very rarely have I found that a pre-determined request is particular helpful in the fundraising process. Only after a series of conversations with an individual donor can the fundraising professional be informed enough to ask for a specific gift. Relying on a hunch or an amount given to another organization doesn’t work.

In order to arrive at a specific ask amount, we begin by asking for same commitment that informs all our solicitations- that of a long-term commitment and a priority in the individual’s giving. First and foremost, we want our constituents to commit themselves to our organizations long-term vision and therefore ask for a long-term financial commitment. Furthermore, we believe that in order to ensure an individual’s long-term commitment that we must also ask that our organization be a priority among those organizations they support.

The most effective fundraising professionals are an extraordinary complement to an organization’s senior leaders. Effective fundraisers know very well how to leverage a leader’s influence among the organizations constituency in order to achieve fundraising objectives. However, what I often observe in nonprofit organizations is an unfortunate disconnect between the development office and the executive office that is only frustrating and confusing for everyone involved. The outcomes are often a disregard for existing relationships and an eventual loss of support.

The consequences for fundraisers being insistive to exisiting relationships and CEO’s prioritizing relationships over income often means trouble for non-profit organizations.

There is an alternative- even for small shops.

With my dashboard as the centerpiece of a development plan, the dynamic between a development officer, CEO, and an individual donor becomes clear – this is accomplished by what I refer to as stage-managing. In short, the development officer remains behind-the-scenes in those instances where a stronger relationship exists between to the donor and an organizations leader. This approach ensures that the existing relationship is honored while also ensuring that an organization’s fundraising goals are not overlooked.

For example, many organizations are the beneficiaries of long-standing relationships with key donors who are closely linked the CEO, founder, and/or past and present board members. Rather than holding these organizational leaders solely responsible for the fundraising process, the key donors are added to a development officer’s universe. Without interfering, the development officer assumes a posture similar to that of a stage-manager- content behind-the-scenes, indirectly orchestrating the fundraising experience and stewarding from a distance. In a stage-managing scenario, performance is measured based on the interaction between the leader and the key donor. The development officer’s responsibility is to ensure that lunch meetings happen regardless of whether he or she is present. The rest of the process works the same way- solicitations are made, proposals are drafted, income is received, and renewal happens. In some instances, the development officer never directly interacts with the key donor.

Stage-managing acknowledges several things that another approach may overlook and addresses some of the weaknesses I have consistently observed in small-shop fundraising. Instead of seeing themselves as having to be everywhere all the time, the development officer learns to sees themselves as a facilitator of relationships- a key characteristic often overlooked during an interview or in professional development for fundraising professionals. As a facilitator, the development officer is positioned behind-the-scenes in order to honor the stronger relationship between leader and donor. In this facilitative role, the development officer becomes an accountability partner with the CEO. The development officer strategically assists the CEO in interacting with key donors while not interfering with relationship.

While this approach may seem like shifting fundraising responsibilities away from the CEO, I believe stage-managing actually creates a heightened level of accountability and commitment for the organization’s key relationships in addition to its fundraising outcomes. And frankly, the CEO maintains accountablity for fundraising regardless of his or her posture in the process. For non-profit CEO’s who have no intentions of participating in fundraising, stage-managing is not a justification. In fact, stage-managing will actually place the CEO more often at the center of fundraising activity instead of on the sidelines. If a CEO is fearful of fundraising, stage-managing will not help.

At its best, stage-managing aligns the CEO and development officer as a means to honoring both priorities as opposed to one being given precedence over another. The most positive outcomes are achieved when the development officer and the CEO synchronize all communications with key donors and remain accountable to each other for doing so. The CEO becomes more accountable for interaction with key donors and the development officer remains accountable for dashboard performance.

If you would like to learn more about using my dashboard and/or the concept of stage-managing, please email me.

A Big Mistake

July 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

Several years ago I made a big mistake. At the time, I was raising lots of money at a large national health charity in Washington DC. I arrived there having only previously worked in smaller faith-based organizations. My boss had a great deal of confidence in me and therefore gave me the opportunity to increase my breadth of experiences very quickly. The job was not unlike most major gift roles– almost like clock-work, we travelled the country asking high-capacity individuals for very generous checks. We raised a lot of money for a cause that we were both very passionate about.

Unfortunately, my time was cut short when I impulsively accepted a position with a bogus consulting company. My ambition got the best of me when I accepted a job with a company that I had never heard of, for a man I had never met, and headquartered in Reno of all places. What was I thinking- apparently I wasn’t.

My new employer provided full-service fundraising counsel, primarily grant-writing services, to small faith-based organizations. Most of the organizations we worked with were grassroots, parachurch organizations that relied heavily on charitable support. Our offers included training, coaching, proposal-writing, and an occasional direct solicitation. My prior experience in similar organizations made it relatively easy to connect and my recent track-record of asking for big checks was certainly intriguing.

I remember presenting to meager audiences in hotel conference rooms in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, pitching hope to people who apparently feared fundraising more than anything else. They were intelligent people and wise enough to know that I couldn’t offer them any secret formulas or magic tricks. Yet they wanted to hear that effective fundraising was the result of more than just big vision, hard work, persistence, audacity, and lot of thick skin.

Given my rather short tenure, I wasn’t able to convince too many people that we were really capable of making all their fundraising worries go away. It was soon clear to me that this bogus consulting shop had made some promises to me, my colleagues and its clients that it couldn’t follow-through on. As father of four living just outside of Washington DC, life without a paycheck wasn’t an option. Humbled and embarrassed by my mistake, I found myself collecting unemployment for the first time.

Those six-months on the road confirmed for me much what I had observed for a long time. Every conversation in every workshop confirmed for me that non-profit organizations, in particular smaller, community-based organizations struggle tremendously with this thing we are afraid to just call fundraising. I discovered that these mission-driven organizations rely heavily on some of the most ineffective methods of raising support. Highly-optimistic and believers in people and purpose, they routinely hire the wrong people for the wrong reasons. On the rare occasion that they hire an individual who has the potential to be a high-capacity fundraiser, these organizations lack the culture to keep them longer than 18-months.Those who have the potential to be fundraising rock stars leave in search for adequate support, constructive feedback and the necessary supervision that even the best of us require.

I have developed my fundraising dashboard for organizations that find improving fundraising performance difficult. For those fundraising professionals and their supervisors who desire adaquate suppor, contructive feedback and oversight, this is your opportunity.

Go ahead, email me - I am not a consultant and nothing is for sale.

According to the Urban Institute, nearly every organization that depends on donor support could give more attention to people who gave money in the past.

It’s not sufficient to look only at gains in giving or the number of donors. To understand what is really happening in your organization, it is necessary to analyze both the fundraising gains and the fundraising losses from one year to the next so that you and your organization’s leadership can make growth-oriented decisions about both fundraising budgets and strategies. Bill Levis & Cathlene Williams

This week I introduced my dashboard to a group of educators during a conference breakout. One of the questions posed to me was that of creating a universe and how an organization goes about identifying new prospective donors. The question is a familiar one and one that I believe we complicate more than we have to. What universe-creation really comes down to is identifying and pursuing individuals for whom your mission and vision will resonate and having the audacity to pursue that relationship far enough to involve financial support. Identification doesn’t have to be particularly difficult however it is humorous how disconnected our initial prospects in our efforts to avoid approaching someone we really know. Do we really think that Bill Gates or Oprah will resonate with our mission or do they simply represent the most disconnected individuals we can think of and therefore offer the least risk? Are we more afraid of sharing our passions with our friends and neighbors than we would be absolute strangers? Most assuredly- fear is a powerful thing. Pursuit of individuals within arms-reach certainly takes the most of out of us- it forces us to have a conversation, speak openly about our passions, attempt to align these passions with our friends, all in hopes that when we muster up the courage to present the opportunity they will respond positively.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the process of universe-creation is all that complicated- it really isn’t. It means overcoming the fear of engaging individuals all around us. I have heard some refer to an exercise called constitute-mapping- a process that identifies the circles of influence that we as individuals and groups can reach out to. The end result is again quite simple yet revealing – a chalk board full of circles, names, and assignments. The exercise is a first step in strategically created a universe of prospective donors for your organization.

If you would like to learn more about my dashboard, overcoming fundraising fears, or creating a universe, feel free to email me.

I am not the only one who has an issue with special events. Gail Perry recognizes that special events are the foundation for many nonprofit fundraising programs and yet they are the most inefficient way of raising money. Gail has discovered that those who champion special events only do so because they don’t know what the more effective alternatives are.

You can raise more money with other fundraising strategies. The ROI you get from an event is far less than other fundraising options… the most efficient way to raise money of all is face-to-face solicitations focusing on major gift donors – that’s only $.05 -.10 on the dollar. Source

Most executive directors and development officers don’t have the courage to follow Gail Perry’s advice and ditch their next event. And believe it or not, the risk in cancelling an event isn’t in the monies to be raised. In fact, I would venture to say that most organizations could review the history of their events and identify every measurable gift ever received. Get the names of those individuals on a list, schedule some lunch meetings and raise some real money.