Move Your Fundraising From Mired to Inspired

About 15 years ago, when I was the Executive Director of a Community College Foundation, I attended the annual conference for the California Community College Foundations. At that time, most of us were offices of one (or part of one as many of us also had jobs within the college), and few of us were raising anything close to a significant amount of money. Planned giving hadn’t been on our radar, but a few of us were starting to push that agenda.  Accordingly, the director of planned giving at a mid-sized university was invited to speak.

She started by noting how important it was for us to get our “planned giving team” together weekly for a strategy meeting.

The room exploded….in laughter.

She looked confused. We explained:  for the most part, we were the team.  The team of it all.  We were all the foundation had.

This is not an unusual scenario.  While the vast majority—over 80%–of all public charities are very small, most of the advice, training, articles on fundraising come from the perspective of people who seem to believe that everyone has a robust development department.  Most consultants consult as if there is actually a backbench to support the person they are talking with.

But mostly, that is untrue.

Over my 11 years as a consultant, my clients have mirrored the sector.  Mainly they are small.  Mostly they are under-resourced. Typically, they are, mirroring my blog name, too busy to fundraise.  And yet, fundraise they must.

I pride myself on working with these organizations by first meeting them where they are.  And then helping them to figure out the best ways to raise the most money they possibly can.

That means that the plans we devise are specific to them.  The trainings I offer are heavy with specific tips on what they can do right now.

It starts by knowing what is making you too busy to fundraise.  And then figuring out how to change that dynamic.

Special events and grants are often the villain.  Considering the amount of money  (not so much) that is raised—and especially how much is raised for the all-important general or operating fund (way too little)—they are terrible ways to spend your precious hours.  But if you must, focus only on that which actually raises money.

When I was a one-person office, I left the logistics of the actual event—the food, the decorations, the a/v equipment—to the catering department of whatever venue we were using. I hoped my board would sell the seats and tables. If I was forced (by the board) to have a silent auction, I gave them a choice—they could form a subcommittee that would be 100% responsible for the silent auction, or I would hire a company that did silent auctions for charities.  I focused on sponsorships and I made sure that sponsorships were not cheap.  The benefits were all about public relations.  They could have a table, but unless they were willing to fill that table with senior executives and their friends, I would fill those tables for them.  I had been to too many galas where the most centrally located tables were either completely empty or filled with low-level staff who often drank themselves silly and created havoc at the event.

My second job was follow-up. Every board member was tasked with making sure we knew who was sitting in every seat and how we could get in touch with them. Certainly not everyone turned into a regular donor, but some did and a few made the effort more than worthwhile.

Likewise with grants. For starters, relationships matter there as much as they do with individual fundraising.  So most of my grant time was spent getting to know program officers at the various foundations and finding out what really mattered to them.

I did spend a lot of upfront time creating an internal case statement, which had everything I ever needed to know about my organization.  I also built two reporting templates—one for the end of the grant and one for interim reports.

For renewal grants, I allowed myself no more than 4 hours to gather and pull together the information. They were renewals, for heaven’s sake. I did not need to reinvent the wheel every single time.

New grants often took more time, but often I could repurpose information from other grants.  I kept a tight lid on time there also, often dictated by (a) the amount requested and (b) the length the proposal needed to be. Needless to say, government grants took a whole lot longer than proposals to private foundations.

There are so many ways to move yourself from “mired to inspired.”  It takes effort, but it is effort that is so worthwhile.

Janet Levine works to help nonprofits get inspired and out from under unneeded and time-consuming tasks. Learn how she can help you by scheduling a 30-minute free consultation (via phone or video conferencing).  And get help monthly via the newsletter. Subscribe at

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Making Things Better

Trying to get back into it. For 12 or so years, I wrote a blog at least once a week; a newsletter every month; random other articles for other publications.  I had so much to say!  But, it turns out, sometimes fundraising feels like such a small pool.  So for the past month or two, as my new website got finished (do check it out: and we discovered issues with my Too Busy To Fundraise blogsite (suffice it say, beware of who you give permissions to), I went cold turkey.

The more I didn’t write (and yes, I get it—it is an oxymoron), the harder it became to find things I wanted to write about.  Besides, so much of my writing has been taken up in rewriting one of my 4 online classes ( and realizing just how fundraising has changed since the person who originally developed this class put it up.  I wouldn’t recommend taking this class now—wait until 2020 when the revised version is done.

But you didn’t come to this blog to read about my travails.  You probably have issues of your own.  If you are a boss, you’re probably wondering why your fundraising staff (a) isn’t reaching their goals and/or (b) why you can’t keep even underperforming (by the standards set via those unattainable goals) fundraising staff. The reason, of course, is right there in the second parenthetical comment.

If you are staff, you might just be feeling burnt out.  This ridiculous goals with no support structures.  Why do you even get up in the morning?

Of course, we all get up because of the causes and people we serve.  We care about this sector and just want to make it better.

If you are a boss, one way to make it better is to support your fundraising staff.  They help to make sure that the important work you do gets done. Provide them with professional development (a fundraising coach would be awesome—and not a whole lot of money). More, provide them with an environment that says what they do is critical and—even more importantly—they are not doing it alone.

Create a culture of philanthropy at your organization.  Make sure all your staff and your board understand that they are fundraisers too. That means that they need to know what is going on beyond their office.  They need to speak positively about the organization; glowingly about the work that gets done.  They need to share insights into the community with the development team (even if it is a team of one) and work to spread the word about the organization.

A culture of philanthropy means that fundraising is no longer the thing off to the side that we whisper about and feel embarrassed that we have to do.  It means, rather, that we recognize that it must sit equally at the table, as important as programs and administration.  That the fundraiser must be welcomed at board meetings and asked to share what is going on in her department and in her world.  It also means that just as you don’t want your board telling you how to do your day to day business, you don’t want them telling your development staff how to do theirs.  No, thank you very much, another event will NOT increase your fundraising results, nor will it matter much what kind of centerpiece graces the table of the event you already have to deal with.  And no, sending out 100 ill thought out grants is not helpful to anyone—not to the foundations, your development director, you!

Supporting others to do their jobs well is arguably the hardest job any of us have.  But whether you work at or volunteer with a nonprofit, hard is what you do best.  As things seem to spiral out of control in the rest of the world, let’s all work together to strengthen our sector and make the good things we do for others even better.

Janet Levine helps nonprofits move from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  And do contact Janet for a free 30-minute consultation to start you on the road to more success.



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Try Yes To Fundraising

It’s one of my pet peeves.  People who say can’t to just about everything.  Recently I did a board fundraising training and no matter what was suggested—by me or by a board member—the executive director said, “Oh, we’ve tried that.  It doesn’t work.”

She’s not the first ED or Director of Development to tell me that.  Not so long ago I fired a client because the Development Director told me “That doesn’t work here,” to every single thing I offered.  Really?  It seems to work everywhere else.  I mean, let’s face it, fundraising is not a new field, and while each organization is a little different and there are tweaks and twists needed, there are certain things that just plain work.

But, as with everything, to work you have to work it.

Think about the first time you romantically kissed someone.  How good was that? There are probably some of you for whom it was divine.  Just as there are nonprofits to launch a new fundraising initiative and it just takes off.  But for most of us, that first kiss was awkward, uncomfortable, didn’t live up to the hype or, especially, to our dreams.

Imagine if you follow the advice of my executive director and never ever kissed another person because I tried that once and it wasn’t particularly wonderful.  How ad would that be?

Fundraising, like everything that takes skill—and yes, fundraising requires a certain level of ability—takes time to work well.  It takes practice to do it perfectly (or close enough).  It doesn’t just happen.

I am reminded of a study that was done a while ago with male and female college professors.  In the first year of eligibility to apply for a government grant from one of the agencies (I think, but am not sure, that it was NSF), the same percentage of eligible male and female faculty applied. But when rejected, the female faculty started to stop submitting proposals.  The males continued year and year after. By year 5, the percentage of eligible males submitting way overshadowed eligible female faculty submitting.  The result?  The percentage of males who got funded was way higher than the percentage of female faculty.

I hate this study for all sorts of reasons—my feminist leanings at the forefront—but I love what it shows us about the importance of persistence.

I know that Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity was doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.  But you know, sometimes that is just what you have to do.

Instead of finding reasons why you can’t or it won’t, think about what you can do and what will work. Maybe not the first time, but the second or third.  Certainly, if success doesn’t peek its head over the horizon, perhaps that is not the best technique for you.  But you’ll never know unless you give it chance and perhaps, just perhaps, it will turn out to be the best way to fundraise for your organization ever.


Janet Levine works to help nonprofits move from mired to inspired.  Learn how at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and arrange for your free, 30-minute consultation.

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Planning Ahead

Every month, a session of my 4 online classes offered through Ed2Go launches.  Each class is made up of 12 lessons, which are meant to be studied over a 6 week period.  And every session, at least one student—often more—spends one night and rushes through three to twelve of the lessons.

I wish they wouldn’t do that.

Inevitably, they focus just on the lesson they are reading now, and don’t see it as a part of a larger picture.  And almost always, they misunderstand, misinterpret, misread something in an earlier lesson that clouds what they might have learned in later ones.

I see this a lot in the way organizations fundraise (and market).  Instead of thinking long term, they focus right on now.  That means that they are not seeing how the things they do to raise money and awareness could build upon each other, creating a stronger whole.

We spend six weeks gearing up for a direct response appeal…and then that is done, and we are on to the gala or the golf tournament.  When we do have face to face meetings, we don’t visualize the entire arc of the relationship but think of each meeting as an entity in itself.  And certainly not as part of a larger plan.

Most insidious of all, when someone makes a gift and send out that thank you letter, we think this transaction is done, over, finished.  And too often, that becomes the case.  The donor, feeling unloved and unfulfilled, moves on to support another organization. Or to simply keep their generosity much closer to home.

Students in my classes who concentrate on one lesson, then come to the discussion to ask questions, read the postings of others, and ponder how what they learned connects with what they learned before and might impact what is coming next, have a much richer experience.

Organizations that see fundraising and marketing in a holistic way, also have richer (often literally) experiences with what they do.

Good planning starts with an understanding of where you are.  How are you fundraising or marketing?  Who are you reaching out to?  And what are the results?  I think it is also helpful to consider what you are leaving on the table because of what you are not doing.

Then think about where you want or need to be.  Often my clients become clients because they have been deficit fundraising for a long time. Instead of planning for where they want to be, they scramble about trying to fill a hole—ignoring the fact that what immediately surrounds that hole probably isn’t enough to fill it.

Now that you know where you are and where you want to go, our job is to create that roadmap that will get you there in the most effective and efficient way.

Good road trips first consider the entire map:  from point A to point Z, there are many paths.  Which ones are we going to use?  How can one stop serve more than one purpose?  And, as we travel from spot to spot, how can we preserve memories?
Preserving memories is to travel what stewardship is to fundraising—a way to prolong the pleasure, and keep the connection strong.

Planning your fundraising means planning it all—from identifying and qualifying your donors, to keeping them close and wanting to be re-identified for that next gift.  Walk carefully through every step and always be looking both backward and forward.  In this way, you will create a world of support for the important work you do.


Janet Levine helps nonprofits move from mired to inspired.  Learn how at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do connect with Janet to get a free 30-minute consultation.

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Good fundraisers borrow….

In the documentary series, Soundbreaking (now available on Acorn), one of the producers talks about the fact that there are just so many notes and so many beats in the world of music. Repetition and sometimes things that may sound like plagiarism abounds.  Or, as Picasso is widely attributed as saying “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

I’m not advocating plagiarism, but I do know that there is just so much that is truly new in

the world and much that is merely retreads.

Retreads, of course, aren’t always bad or boring or something to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes they are the only, the best, the most effective thing you can do.  This is particularly true in fundraising.

There are many people who think that following the newest, shiniest idea is what you need to do. However, often, the tried, the true, create a better path.  Doing something once doesn’t always make it; doing something because no one else is doing it may simply prove to you why no one else is doing it.

In fundraising what really works is building relationships between the donor and the organization. That means more personally than social media, closer than direct mail, more intimately than a large special event.

While all the transactional ways of fundraising can help to garner new donors and keep lower-end gifts coming in, they are truly awful in retaining donors (just look at our dismal donor retention rates) or moving donors up the giving pyramid.  Both those things—which if successful would increase your fundraising results by a great deal—are best done face to face.  And yes, I know—you don’t have the time and even if you did, donors don’t respond to requests for meetings.

But of course you do and they will, it just takes planning.

Plan to do your major donor strategizing at least 4 hours a week.  That’s arguably more important than the 4 hours you are currently spending on the gala committee meeting or rewriting the renewal grant (which, as a renewal, shouldn’t take much time at all).

Learn all you can about these prospects, including what they care about and who they connect to.  And then utilize those connections and that caring as you plan how to get in front of that prospect.

In my fundraising days, rarely did the natural partner—the person who could best open the door to a prospect—actually call for the appointment.  That, we both (eventually) agreed, was my job.  But I did use their connection to help get that meeting.

First I would ask them to send a note (or in later years, send an email) saying how they had asked Janet Levine to set up a meeting for the three (or four, if a spouse or partner was to be included) of us and that it was hoped that my call would be taken. It almost always was.

When I called, I didn’t say that so and so suggested I call.  Rather, I would say that so and so asked me to set up a meeting for the three of us. Most of the time, the only hitch was finding a time when the 3 of us could actually be in the same place at the same time.

Following the “old” ways, using the structures those way before we developed, has helped me to raise and to help my clients to raise a whole heck of a lot of money.  Doing what works, standing on the shoulders of the best, will help you to do the same.


Janet Levine helps to move nonprofits from mired to inspired.  Let her inspire you.  Learn more at  Sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.

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Fundraising Results By the Numbers

“We decided to do a gala this year,” my former client was telling me.  “And our net profits are 10 times what our goal was.”

That sounds fantastic, until I asked a few pertinent questions, starting with, “Is this new money?  Or are you simply moving money from the annual fund, where the donor typically gives to the gala?”

If Joe typically gives you $2,500 a year for your end of the year appeal, but this year tells you to put that amount toward the gala instead, you actually have lost money. Costs to produce a gala are way higher than the cost of an appeal (or a phone call or coffee meeting with a loyal annual donor), and those costs eat into your net profits.

Moving money from one pot to another may make that second pot look good, but it really doesn’t do anything for your bottom line.

The next question will take at least another year to quantify, but it is an important measure: How much of the money that came in from new donors for the gala translates into ongoing support from that donor?  If Joan bought a ticket, a table, or even a sponsorship this year because a friend asked her to, or that friend was an honoree, was the purchase solely because of the friend or does Joan have any interest at all in what your organization does?  If the former, odds are, you will get that one-time gift and then never see hide nor hair of Joan again.

Finally, while there are reasons to have large special events, the fact remains that they cost a lot to produce, not just in the direct costs but in the very high indirect costs.

The time your development staff and your ED spends on the gala means that much LESS time to be spent on other kinds of fundraising and outreach.  The opportunity costs can be huge.

Of course, a big event offers much in the way of possibilities—if you work those.

I’m always surprised when fundraisers tell me how they can’t wait until the week after their special event because they will be on vacation for the following two weeks.  That’s crazy.  While you may have worked hard during the two or three months prior to the event, the real work—the profitable work—actually starts the day after the event.

Just a few things can make a huge difference:

  • A personal thank you note from the gala chair or the CEO to first time attendees, thanking them for being there. And then, in a few weeks, a personal invitation from the letter writer to take a tour, come for coffee, have a meeting to share the results of the gala and what it will mean to the organization.
  • Another personal note to loyal donor, telling them how their support over the years has meant. This is also a good time to remind them that as important as their support for the gala was, their general support is equally (if not more so) critical for the work that the organization does.

This is also a time to run some lists and figure out strategies for bringing these event attendees closer:

  • Who, of your gala attendees, is also a current donor?
  • A former/lapsed donor (haven’t made a gift for at least a year before this gala)

For these cohorts, drill down further and look at the date of the last gift, the amount, the purpose of that gift and the total number of years as a donor.

From this information, you can create both group and—where appropriate—specific stewardship steps that are geared to move non-donors to becoming donors; low end donors to become mid-level donors and mid-level to either increase their gifts and/or become major gift prospects.

No matter how successful you think your event has been, you can make it even more successful by considering it a move in donor journey rather than simply a stop along the way.


Janet Levine moves nonprofits from mired to inspired by helping them to increase their fundraising results and empower, engage and energize their boards.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and for a free 30-minute consultation.


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