No Magic Wands
These are dark and difficult times for fundraisers. In October 2008, the stock market began to die, and along with it went the investment accounts not only of numerous non-profits, but also of many of the foundations and individual donors those non-profits counted on for support. During the past eight months, every fundraiser I know has seen the sorry results. If you have approached a new foundation in the past few months, chances are you have been told that, in effect, there is no room at the inn for you. Most foundations are not taking on new projects, and many are reducing their support for projects they are funding. It’s ugly out there, and the economic indicators are not encouraging.
In good times, but even more so in bad times, it is important for you, as your organization’s fundraiser, to become the voice of reason. There is more than enough negativity out there to go around, so don’t add to it. But, at the same time, you don’t want to be the distributor of false hopes and promises that can’t be fulfilled. If we could, every one of us would take out our magic wands, wave them and make it all better. But the simple fact is that there never is a magic wand in fundraising. Even when the economy is flush and donors have plenty of cash on hand to give away, fundraising success is not achieved via magic. Fundraising is not supernatural and it’s not a mystery; it is a basic and fundamental process.
What is the process?
First, you look at your organization and see what it does and what it doesn’t do. You determine if your programs work, if they have some unique quality, if they are replicable and if they are fundable. By the latter, I mean very simply, is your program something that a foundation would fund? If it is, you are in business. If it isn’t, you may still be able to fund funding for it, but you may need to consider approaching an individual donors rather than an institutional one. Many organizations run excellent programs that serve populations in need, but these same programs may not represent the priorities of foundations, or your numbers may be too small, or your service too local. In bad economic times, in particular, foundations may be more focused on “big picture” items so you may need to rethink your development strategy.
Once you have determined that you have a program that is fundable (by a foundation or an individual or a group of individuals), your next step is to determine how to make contact with your potential funder. If you are dealing with a foundation that tells you not to telephone them, don’t telephone them. If your foundation asks for an initial letter, don’t send a full proposal. If your foundation has a deadline, meet it. All of this may seem incredibly simple-minded if you are an experienced fundraiser, but the plain fact is, many people do not follow directions. Don’t get yourself eliminated from consideration because you didn’t read the entire RFP or entry in the Foundation Directory.
If you are dealing with individual donors, you have many questions to answer and your answers will depend on your knowledge of the individual. Is this a person who is open to phone calls or someone who prefers to be contacted by letter or by email? How much cultivation does this person need before you actually ask for funding? Is this someone who should be approached by a Board member or your Executive Director, rather than you? What is this person’s capacity to give and what is his/her inclination to give? Has this person given a donation to any organization or program similar to yours in the past and if so, what was the amount of the gift? I will never forget one organization with which I worked that had pegged a major part of its capital campaign on receiving a huge gift from a donor who did have strong ties to the institution. The problem was that this individual had never made a gift of comparable size to any organization and, in fact, his interests very obviously lay elsewhere. Certain fundraisers in that Development Office pursued this phantom donor for many months, but no gift ever materialized.
Another mistake that people will make in bad times is to chase money.
What is chasing money? It is, very simply, putting the cart before the horse. You need funding. You do your research and you find that there is a foundation out there with money for a project that is not what you do, but perhaps, something you could do. So you create a program (on paper, at least) and apply for a seed grant. Maybe you even get it. But what have you actually accomplished? You have not alleviated your former budgetary problems; instead, you have created new ones. Now you have a project you didn’t have before and sooner or later, your seed grant will end and you will need to find more funding for a project you created only to get a grant in the first place. Chasing after money can sometimes make your bottom line look better (if you get the grants), but in the long run, it does not help you reach your goals and may even make your goals harder to reach.
So, what is a fundraiser to do in bad times?
- Stick to the basics. Get your reports in on time and work hard to get grants you already have renewed.
- Research constantly. Even in bad times, some money is still out there. You can find it. When you do find it, make sure you follow all directions and meet all deadlines.
- Don’t initiate new projects. Hunker down and preserve what you have.
- Don’t chase money.
- Think about ways to expand the funding resources you have now. Stay in touch with your individual donors through email blasts and ListServs. Electronic communications cost very little and can be very effective. Use your website and any publications you already have, such as newsletters, to let your supporters know how much you need them and how much they mean to you. Don’t be afraid to ask them for support again and again. Don’t decide for them – let them make their own decisions. And make sure you thank them – again and again. There is no such thing as thanking a donor too many times.
- When you do write proposals, be honest and clear. Don’t exaggerate your need (Without this program, the world will end next Tuesday) but don’t be afraid to make your case forcefully (Without this program, the progress that has been made is likely to suffer).
- Use your contacts, but don’t expect miracles. Contacts are a wonderful thing and can make a difference, but almost every non-profit approaching a foundation for a grant is going to try to present a Board member as a contact, and Board members and others often overestimate their influence.
- Talk to your colleagues in fundraising. Your difficulties are not just yours alone. Sometimes it can be very helpful to know that organizations much larger and better-known than yours are having the same difficulties you are experiencing. You might also pick up an idea or two. In my career, I always have found that while fundraisers may not easily share their donor lists, they are very generous with their advice.
- All things are relative.
- All things must pass.
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