Getting Real About Fundraising

Article ReadingI spent much of yesterday catching up on work reading.  You know, those reports, articles, ebooks and blogs mainly on fundraising and issues surrounding it.  And I noticed two things:

1.  Most of what being said and especially that which was touted as “new thinking” is what I and my colleagues have been saying for year.  And I mean years—I started working in the nonprofit sector in the 1980’s.

2.   Regardless of who was writing or the provenance of the material, there is a handful of people who are quoted, referred to, called experts. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with what they are saying, by and large there is nothing outstanding about anything these people say.  More than that, they are all saying the same things—so much so that they become interchangeable.

This makes sense as a third thing I noticed (something I always notice) is that in the nonprofit sector there is a belief that one size fits all.  And that, as anyone who has worked at and/or with organizations of varying sizes, is patently ridiculous.

I am often introduced as someone who raised millions in my career as a fundraiser.  And I did.  I also worked at two very large research universities, one during a big campaign.  But I didn’t raise millions when I worked at small nonprofits.  Hundreds of thousands if they weren’t too small and too new to fundraising; one or two hundred thousand if they were.

Beyond the amount I could raise, the ways open to me to raise that money changed drastically.

I will agree with all the talking heads who intone that relational fundraising is best.  It’s also, quite frankly, the most fun.  But it’s not always the most realistic.

Most of my clients are small nonprofits.  And administratively, the word “lean” doesn’t Overwhelmed
quite express how spare the staff is.  If there is development staff, it is a staff of one or maybe one and a shared someone.  Usually, however, there is not.  In any case, relational fundraising is almost impossible.  The person responsible for fundraising is often responsible for other things as well and is always responsible for all fundraising:  grants and events as well as raising money from individuals.  And they typically also log the gifts in, send the thank you letters out—yes, those letters we insist should go out within 48 hours of a gift being received—write not just the grants but also the grant reports and are often asked to deal with anything involving people because they are “so good at that.”

With all that this one person does, it is no mystery as to why donor retention is worse the smaller the organization. Of course donors want to know the impact of their gifts, and they deserve to know.  But doing that in a personal, high touch way is hard for most of the staff I know who truly are dancing as fast as they can.

This is not to say that it can’t be done.  For example, utilizing board members in specific and important ways—like showing donors impact–will help not just to retain the donor but reinforce to the board why what they do is important.

to-do-listBut it takes time and planning.

That most small nonprofits could do better is undeniable.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying and that we need to start understanding that size does matter, and we cannot expect a nonprofit where the ED is also the program director and the development director is also the office administrator to be as effective as the organization where development staff numbers in two or three figures.

So let’s stop telling these people what they should be doing and focus on helping them to figure out how best they can accomplish what needs to be done.

As my clients and I work through what—given their resources, the culture of their organization and their community—they really can do, and then focus on how to best get it done, I am gratified and amazed at what actually gets accomplished.  And I am awed at the way that they really do change the world.



Janet Levine works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired.  Learn how she can help motivate you and your board at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do take advantage of the free 30-minute consultation.  And consider learning a new language—become fluent in fundraising with Compelling Conversations for Fundraisers, available at Amazon

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Who Cares?

“We don’t,” the potential client said, “have individuals who will fund us. ” 5 Generations of Hands

“Really?  Why do you say that?”

“Well,” she answered, “the people we serve are poor, as is the community in which we are located.”

“OK.  So what then do you need to do?”


To find those who may care—and show them why supporting your organization matters.

And it is not going to matter unless you connect this potential caring people to the work you do.

That’s why, instead of spending time telling them about you, you must spend most of your time learning about them:

  • About their values.
  • About the best charitable gift they feel they ever made.
  • About the best thank you they believe they’ve ever gotten

You have to find out what keeps them up at night.  And what promotes a restful sleep.  What angers them, and what makes them smile.  In short, you have to learn who these people are and what makes them tick.

You do that not by talking at them, but talking with them.  So if they tell you that the value that matters most to them is let’s say justice, you can talk about the ways that your organization ensures fairness for all.  If, on the other hand, what matters most is tradition or loyalty, can you talk about how you teach respect for things that are passed from generation to generation or the importance of commitment to a cause or an ideal?

Only if what your organization does—and most importantly, what it accomplishes—meshes with the things that your potential donor cares about, will you be able to move them to support you with not just their charitable gift but also their time, their talents and yes, their tentacles.  If they care, they will share that feeling with their friends and family, their colleagues and co-workers.  But if you can’t connect them at their core with the work of your organization, you may get a gift, once.  But probably not more than that.

SO WHATConsider, therefore, what matters about the work you do. Dig deeply.  Sit with your board members, your staff, and start with something your organization does.  Then ask, “So what?”  Keep asking that of each and every response until you all feel that you reached the essence of what you do and have clarity about why it matters.  This will take you from empty recitals of the activities your organization engages in to sharing passion and pride in what it all means.

And no, not everyone will care.  But that’s ok.  We can all be philanthropic in our own ways.  But you will find that many more do care, and over time and with a lot of work, you will build a community of people who care enough to regularly support your work and ask others to join with them in making sure that your important work can continue.

Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired–and to increase their fundraisers-coverfundraising capacity. Check out her website, and while
there, sign up for the free newsletter. Most recently, Janet co-authored Compelling Conversations for Fundraisers. Available at Amazon. Order now at And then leave a glowing review!

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Yes, And

When my son was in high school (a long, long time ago), he was in an improve group.  ImprovWhile the humor wasn’t mine, I was always fascinated by the way the group played off each other.  That was because they practiced the the most time-honored principle of improv: “yes and….”  What this means is that those doing a scene together accept whatever their partner says or does and builds upon that.  A big part of yes and means that you must listen—really listen and hear—what the other person is saying or you’ll be out of sync with each other and might end up saying yes and to something your partner didn’t expect.

Can you see how this relates to not just to fundraising but to your entire organization?

Too often we are stuck in an old reality.  This is the way we’ve always done it—and doggone, this is the way we will always do it.  Even if it’s not working anymore.

Consider, instead, a new reality—and say yes to opportunities, different ways of approaching problems, and an attitude that says we can (rather than we can’t or don’t—mainly meaning we won’t).

Saying, for example, “my board doesn’t fundraise,” doesn’t cut it anymore.  They don’t because they are uncomfortable; don’t know what to do; haven’t been asked.  Look at how they can say Yes to fundraising AND here’s what I can do (with your help!).

Respect fundraisingOften I start board fundraising trainings by asking them what comes to mind when I say fundraising.  Generally, that brings up negative feelings.  So I’m turning that around:  Picture yourself, I instruct, having just asked someone for support for your fabulous organization and they have said YES.  Resoundingly.

What does that yes mean for your organization?

  • More money to do the things that need to get done.
  • The ability to serve more children, adults, animals.
  • The capacity to take advantage of opportunities that will help our organization be stronger

All positive things—things that smack of yes….and from here we can jump to there.

It requires a sea change.  Trust that things can be done.  That your partners won’t drop the ball.  But it can be done.

Bring this attitude to your next staff meeting; the next board meeting.  Ask for thoughts on how to increase fundraising, build efficencies in programming, reach out more effectively.  Ask the next person to say Yes, and…then to build on that idea.  See where it takes you.

And, yes.  It may take you into places that are unreasonable, untenable, ridiculous perhaps.  But even in a bad idea a good thought may linger.  And from those lingering considerations, a new vision just might emerge.


fundraisers-coverJanet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired–and to increase their fundraising capacity.  Check out her website,  and while there, sign up for the free newsletter.  Most recently, Janet co-authored Compelling Conversations for Fundraisers.  Available at Amazon.  Order now at  And then leave a glowing review!


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Is It The End of the Year Already?

August.  And guess what?  It’s not too early to start planning your end of the year appeal.  In fact, if  you start now, you’ll avoid all that panic, stress, and possibly missed deadlines.

So first, what’s it going to look like?  In today’s crowded fundraising world, you need to Fundraising Camp topicconsider all the ways you can rise above the noise; stand out enough to get attention.

Most likely, that means using a lot of platforms to reach your various audiences:

  • A regular letter, delivered by the US Post office to kick off the whole shebang
  • Postcards for in-between the start and the finish of your appeal timeframe.
  • Email letters and e-blasts
  • Social media
  • You Tube or Vimeo or whatever video platform you like
  • Phone calls
  • Small group gatherings
  • One on one meeting for your large end of the year donors

Whew!   A lot of work.  But not overwhelming.  Especially if you start now.  First figure out how much you need to raise.  That will influence how you will go about raising these funds.  Then decide on the main messaging.  And figure out what changes with each segment you will focus on.

What is the theme of this particular end of the year appeal? The theme I’m talking about is not the design, though design is important.  The theme is a lot like a case in brief:  This is why we are raising money, and this is why it is important.

And now that you know your theme—now it would be good to brand it.  Every time someone gets a letter, an eblast, a social media post, there should be instant recognition.

Chose the vehicles and for each, figure out who will be your main audience(s)—and craft a message that is similar to the main message but slightly different.

Are you tying your end of the year to Giving Tuesday?  Or to your annual gala?  If so, what ties it all together?

Calendar*Now calendar them.  When do these go out?  And to which list.

Commit to working on this a few hours a week, and when it is time to launch, you’ll not only be ready, but you will be relaxed and ready to go.


Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired–and to increase their fundraising fundraisers-covercapacity.  Check out her website,  and while there, sign up for the free newsletter.  Most recently, Janet co-authored Compelling Conversations for Fundraisers.  Available at Amazon.  Order now at  And then leave a glowing review!


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Building Fundraising Infrastructure

The businessman was ardently telling me how awful it was that nonprofits spend donated Businessmanmoney on things like (gasp!) salaries, staff development, office space, benefits!  The money he gives, he told me, should only go to programs.  We’ve heard this before, and it doesn’t get less ridiculous because it keeps coming around.

“And how,” I asked him, “would you like these programs to be managed?  Who,” I asked, “will take care of those pesky things like being in compliance, providing the needed services, turning on the lights, making sure the plumbing is in order?”

It gets old.

The nonprofit sector provides over 5% of the nation’s GDP annually; we get about 2% in charitable gifts. We account for over 9% of all wages and salaries paid in the United States—and I’m guessing that the vast majority of those are way underpaid.

The vast majority—about 67%– of public charities have expenses of under $500,000.  Only a little over 5% have expenses of $10 Million or more.  Which points to the fact that the heavy lifting is being done by those with the least support.

Too many people start nonprofits because of a passion.  I’m not knocking passion; indeed, it is imperative.  But above all, those who starts these organizations need to understand that they are businesses—and like any business must have a revenue plan that will get them firmly in the black in a reasonable amount of time.  And, like any business, they must have appropriate resources so they can do the job they need to do—in our case, push their mission forward—well.  And you just don’t do that by cutting corners, trying to do more with less, expecting people who are making less than they should be making to work as if they were being paid more.

And passion is what drives many people to take low-paying jobs at a nonprofit.  They accept little because they care so much.  And, because they care, they get hired—despite the fact that often, too often, they do not possess the necessary skills.  This is especially true in fundraising.

To be fair, often they are not hired to do fundraising.  They are hired for general office work or to use the skills they have for programs.  And then, they get thrown into doing something for which they have no desire, no experience, and typically no one on staff who can guide them.

Success in fundraising relies on a number of things from having a compelling mission to building relationships to consistency.  It relies on having the right resources and that, I’ve found, is wholly dependent on having a culture of philanthropy at your organization.

That culture means that fundraising is considered important.  Not just the results of fundraising but the function itself.  It means that everyone in the organization sees themselves as having a role in raising money and that everyone recognizes the need to fully resource the  development department.

So yes.  We must spend money on our infrastructure;  if we don’t we cannot thrive and I’m not even sure we can survive.


Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired, build a culture of philanthropy, and raise their fundraising capacity.  She is the co-author of Compelling Conversations for Fundraisers, available at


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