By Janeal Ford, MPA, CFRE
Ah, the allure and mystery of fundraising. It seems to be full of secrets and a topic that can evoke feelings ranging from disdain to bliss. After two decades of working in the field, my impression is most executive and board leaders are anxious about fundraising. One board member went so far as to tell me she would rather chew on glass than fundraise. I can still remember the thick tension her comment created in the boardroom as she dared say out loud what most everyone else was thinking. At the time, I remember feeling gratitude for her bravery to put her feelings on the table. Awareness is the first step to change.
The honest truth is that most executive and board leaders have never received any training in fundraising. The big fundraising secret that no one is talking about is the fact that fundraising is a major responsibility and yet leaders have never been provided any instruction or training. Imagine serving on a climbing team that hopes to scale a vertical rock face but no one has been shown what to do. This would create more than a little anxiety, and it is exactly how many nonprofit leaders and boards feel about fundraising.
Churn and Burn
Rather than shine the light on this secret, leaders will displace feelings of discomfort and buy into one of two solutions. The first is what I call the “myth of a big shot fundraiser,” where leaders attempt to hire their way out of fundraising. The data on turnover in fundraising is clear: Study after study have confirmed this is what is occurring in nonprofits everywhere.
So, what is a big shot fundraiser? A big shot fundraiser is a mythical human who, regardless of the cause, can bring in significant funding to the organization. They come with a bevy of wealthy contacts — friends, family and neighbors — all poised and ready to give with little effort on the part of the charity. These fundraisers are happy to accept a lower-than-average salary. Many will have little to no training or experience in fundraising and they will not mind 60-hour weeks that include nights and weekends.
With an 18-month churn rate for the fundraising positions, the reality is this approach ends in disaster for one or both sides. Often, the hands-off board members expect a strong return and when the fundraising goal isn’t met, these “big shots” become the perfect scapegoats. Churn and burn. Churn and burn.
The second solution leaders buy into is to plan an event with the primary purpose of raising money. Someone on the board says, “Hey, how about we plan a gala or a golf tournament?” The passionate but untrained board heartily agrees that this is the best approach to raising money. The truth of the matter is, event fundraising is one the most expensive ways to raise money.
Don’t get me wrong; events do play a role in fundraising, but only when harnessed for their awareness-building super power. This awareness factor is precisely why untrained leaders think they are a viable solution. They don’t understand the principles of fundraising; they have simply attended events in the past and think it is the best way to raise money.
Wake Up Call
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a major wake up call for the nonprofits dependent on income from fundraising events. It was never a good model and these organizations are really scrambling to figure out how to change their ways and sustain mission services.
Here is how this solution typically plays out: A ton of time and money is spent organizing the event with the board, staff and volunteers giving it everything they got, spending hundreds of hours in the planning. In the end, the event may raise a few bucks or take a loss. The team is drained of all their energy and frustrated by the lack of fundraising success. A few new donors and friends may have been identified along the way, but everyone was so busy planning the event, they forgot to include plans on how to capture contact information and no one even considered how to follow up for additional cultivation and stewardship.
These misinformed solutions are all too common and are holding back our ability to create a better world for current and future generations. More than ever, our world needs organizations to achieve greater mission impact. Fundraising is a team sport and an ongoing process; it can’t be relegated to one person or sustained through an event.
Fundraising Fundamentals for Everyone
To raise more money, shine a light on your team’s need for education in fundraising principles. It is with training and education that we improve our competence and confidence. As these qualities grow, so too will the potential for a greater balance in your organization’s bank account.