Five Things I’ve Never Said to a Client

by | Mar 10, 2022 | Board, Capital Campaigns, Charitable Gifts, Donor Relations & Stewardship, Donor Stewardship, Fundraising

My consulting work offers a new challenge every week. In addition to leading my clients through capital, endowment, and planned giving campaigns, I conduct board education sessions about fundraising. I also coach CEOs and high-performing leaders so they can achieve even greater success for themselves and their team.

That means I get to see the work of nonprofits up close and personal. I hear a lot about their goals, strengths, and challenges.

Over the years, I’m pretty sure there are a few things I’ve never said to a client:

1 – Your gift acknowledgment process earns an A+. 

There is always room to improve. I can’t tell you how many mediocre thank-you letters I’ve personally received from great local nonprofits who are doing worthwhile work. Sometimes the letter takes weeks or months to arrive, and when it does arrive, it feels like a form letter. It’s not personal nor heartwarming. 

For the love of all things nonprofit, please review your entire gift acknowledgment process and your thank-you letter at least once a year, before you start your year-end fundraising push. Be your own secret shopper and make a small gift to your organization. See what happens, and what kind of letter you receive. And get some help, like these tips from nationally known fundraising expert Penelope Burk.

What kills me about this topic is that I know you know this. But so often, we allow excuses to get in our way. Someone is on vacation and that’s why we haven’t sent out the thank-you letters this week. Or, accounting hasn’t processed the check yet and we have to wait until they do to send out the thank you. Sound familiar? We have to do better! Donors expect more of us. The instant gratification of clicking on Amazon and something showing up on our doorstep in less than 24 hours has translated to donors who expect excellent, super-prompt gift acknowledgment. We in the nonprofit industry simply must do better and improve our process. If we don’t, we’re risking the loss of donors who stop giving.

2 – I think you should create another special event. 

Events are too time-consuming for the amount of money raised. Board members, I’m speaking directly to you. Your organization could reallocate that staff time to major gifts fundraising and you’d almost certainly raise more money. Maybe not in year one, but a good major gifts program trumps any golf tournament, 5K, or silent auction fundraising dinner. 

Fundraising events generally cost you 30-50% of the gross proceeds. Compared to other forms of fundraising, they are so expensive. It just costs a lot to put on a catered dinner at a nice hotel. And every dollar in cost for beautiful table décor, food, and wine is a dollar that’s not going directly into your organization the way a direct individual gift does. If you don’t believe me, see what expert fundraiser Gail Perry has to say.

3 – You have too many development staff. 

I don’t think I’ve ever uttered those words. Sometimes it can be the chicken-and-egg situation: “I need to hire more staff, but I need to raise more money to hire more staff. Which comes first?” 

Questions to ask yourself that may indicate you need more people power:

  • Are you missing grant deadlines?
  • Does it take you more than 72 hours to send out a thank-you letter?
  • Are you able to follow up with event attendees within 30 days of the event to thank them, get their feedback, and qualify them for your donor pipeline?
  • Are you raising less than 80% from your top 20% of donors?

If you find yourself answering “yes,” you may need to invest in growing your staff and your major gift program, and prioritizing individual donor meetings.

4 – Your board knows all they need to know about governance and fundraising. 

Even if you have a few people on the board who are great volunteer leaders and fundraisers (and let’s hope you do!), there are always new board members to recruit, orient, train, and support. It’s an ongoing process. Your board doesn’t have to raise half your budget by making personal solicitation calls, but everyone on the board should take on at least one task related to development each year, preferably two or more.

5 – Of course, you’ll get that grant funded. 

I’ve written a lot of grants in my life, and I’ve got a good winning percentage. But so often I hear about nonprofits, especially smaller and newer ones, that focus exclusively on grant fundraising. The competition is fierce and few grants are approved as a percentage of applicants. 

Yes, you might get $25,000 to $50,000 or more in funding from a single grant, but the grant application process usually moves very slowly. It might be three-six months or even close to a year after you apply that you hear a positive response to your application. 

Results from the 2021 Giving USA study show that giving from individuals and bequests makes up almost 80% of the giving in the U.S. If you focus primarily on grants, you’re aiming for the foundation-giving slice of the pie which represents only 19% of the total giving. What this means is that many organizations are aiming for the same small piece of the pie instead of focusing on the nearly 80% of giving that comes from individuals. Fish where the fish are! Aim for individuals.

Commit to getting off the grant pipeline over a three-year period and invest in the development of your individual giving program. It will take time, but you will find that growing your donor list and finding five donors who can give $5,000 or 10 who can give $2,500 will take you a lot less time than writing and winning grants for the same amounts.

Allison Bough

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What aspects of fundraising are you struggling with? What new efforts would you like to put in place for 2022? I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts. Reach out to me