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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Getting Where You Want to Go

I am of many minds about a number of things:  feasibility studies, strategic planning,

endowment, special events, to name a few.  It’s not that I am against any of these, but I am adverse to anyone thinking they are necessary because, well, it’s what one does/needs.  

And sometimes—maybe oftentimes—it is not so much the what that worries me, but the how, the way these things are carried out.

Take feasibility studies.  Are they really necessary?  Well, if you are going to build or seriously renovate a building, it would be good to test the waters and see if the money can, indeed, be raised.  But too often I’ve seen how consultants assign the actual interviews to the greenest, lowest level consultants on staff, and watch opportunities to really assist the nonprofit in their fundraising efforts, never be broached.

I also worry about the emphasis on reaching a dollar amount for the campaign—without much thought about how it will impact ongoing fundraising.  Yes, comprehensive campaigns say they deal with this by including annual giving as part of the campaign, but I am not always convinced.

This is not to say I’m against comprehensive campaigns.  For some campaigns, for some organizations, it is definitely the right way to go.  But just because it is “the way we do campaigns now” it doesn’t follow that it is best in every situation.  Indeed, for some, separating a capital campaign from ongoing fundraising is far wiser and more effective.

Strategic planning is another one of those things that I absolutely, unequivocally think organizations need to do. But again,  the how is what is really important.  And the how influences the what—the what you end up with and whether it is useful or just a document that sits on the desk.

No matter what you are doing, the first step is to ask yourself why—why you are doing this and what you hope you will get out of the exercise.  Working backward, consider what you need to figure out in order to get where you want to go.

Janet Levine helps nonprofits get to one mind, moving from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  Sign up for the newsletter and contact

 to arrange for a free, 30-minute consultation.

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The Wrong Board

A colleague who has spent her career at large, well-resourced nonprofits was complaining

Your board, perhaps?

about a recent event she attended.  The purpose of the event was to match potential board members with nonprofits needing new board members.  The problem according to my colleague?  The potential board members were all inappropriate—too young, too unconnected, too little financial heft.

But aren’t these often the problem with board members of most of our nonprofits?  Individuals who can afford to serve on the board of a major university, hospital, large national nonprofit are mainly not interested in working with a nonprofit where the operating budget is less than the board gives at those larger organizations.  And so, what you get, are those who care—sometimes passionately—about your work but may not be sufficiently affluent or influential to move your organization’s needle much.

Does this make them inappropriate?  Not necessarily.  But it may make them very frustrating.

We have all come to believe our board members should be our main fundraisers.  And if your board is not well connected; doesn’t have a lot to give; has no experience in philanthropy nor friends who have such experienced, they will not effective fundraisers.  Unless, of course, you take the time to teach them not just what to do but also how to do it.

That means working with them—and that means taking the time to get to really know them.

How?  The same way you get to know anyone.  You spend time with them.

I strongly urge my clients to meet one-on-one with every single board member to discuss board roles and responsibilities at least two times a year.  Yes, it can be time consuming, but it is also well worth the time.

At those meetings, ask them open-ended questions and give them space to answer.  Then probe more deeply. At your very first meeting, ask “tell me why you agreed to serve on our board.”

Often, when I asked my board member that question, the answer was a shrug and then something to the effect of, “Well, Joe asked me.”

Keep smiling.  “Many people come on our board because of a personal relationship with another board member.  What I really want to know is what is it about our organization that keeps you on the board.  What do we do that really matters to you?”

It would be lovely if that opened a floodgate of words.  But often it does not. Or the floodgate it does open is not the one you wanted.  In either case, your job is to facilitate the conversation.  Sometimes that means nudging the person to focus in a different direction.

“Yes, I agree. We could do things better (or there are some interesting people on our board or that sounds like an interesting—note that word, it is so good and non-judgmental– program).  And I would love your input.  But first, I really want to understand what keeps you at the table.”

As you get to know your board members, you may discover that they are better connected than either of you imagined, or are more creative, helpful, willing than you every hoped.  And as you truly engage them with interesting projects and offer important topics for the board to discuss (and imagine, a board meeting where the members are passionate, engaged, involved!), you may well discover that rather than the wrong board you actually have a board that is totally and completely right for you.



Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to train boards to be the right board.  Learn more at  Sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30 minute consultation.

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Making the Most of A Bad Situation

Three weeks after we came home the mythologizing began. A few months after that, the
(yet another ) miserable apartment became the thing of stories.

Like the placein Rome where, if you didn’t squeegee the walls daily, moss would grow. What was awful,  just becomes a memory–mostly a funny one. The streetlamp that lit up our bedroom, making it so much brighter than our living room where reading, except on our iPads, was impossible. But we could bothlie in bed and read a book solely by the light coming through from the street. 

And so, maybe not next year, but certainly by the one following, even though we both swear we are done with these trips that are not vacations but work, and really not fun (though we have fun) while we are doing them, we just may, as we did this year, forget the reality and only focus on what the reality has become.   And, despite our best intentions, we just might say yes one “last” time. 

Work is often like that.  One little thing can make a good job feel bad…and a bad one feel good. The problem comes when you work on the immediate without considering the longer view.  

I’ve done that.  My first fundraising job was one that I loved. Then there was a bad bump.  Instead of trying to work it out–trying to make it better, I jumped into another position. It was a better title, and a lot more money – both good reasons to say yes. But I was too focused on what was currently wrong with my situation to understand the new one. And, for me, it turned out not to be a good move–something I should have seen before I leaped.  

At least I was being proactive. So many people are in bad situations and don’t do much to rectify what is wrong until something blows up and they have to start thinking about next steps. Those steps could be looking for a new job or they could be considering how to change the climate where they are. Either is good. But, sometimes, connected to neither of these, things start getting better. 

That can be terrific–if you are being gimlet-eyed and seeing what is really going on. Too often, however, we are not. Things are working now–that’s good and you keep doing whatever it is you had been doing– and soon the good thing is back to the thing that wasn’t very good before. Worse, you’ve stopped all the proactive things you were doing or about to start, and are back to square one–or perhaps even a bit behind that

Mythologizing is fine, if you keep your wits about you. 

My neighbor worked in the same company at the same job for almost 30 years. The thought of that could make me crazy. But while her title remained the same, she was very good at shaping the things that made up her job to suit what she wanted them to be.  What her job ended up being was very different from what it had started out to be. It took vision—seeing what was important to her and how she could convince her boss that this was good for the organization.  And that took negotiation.

Good negotiating requires that you are clear on what you want, what would be acceptable, and what is the point at which you walk away.  Smart work requires nothing less.  Consider what you really, really want your job to be.  Think about your current situation and be realistic at how close that comes. If you are looking for another job, be very clear what you want that job to look like. And then–because nothing is ever perfect–get real and strip it down to what is acceptable, both for your current situation as well as for another job altogether.  Don’t undersell yourself, however. Think also about the point at which you would walk away– from where you are and where you might be considering where you might go. Knowing where that point is an be critical.   

This is your (one) life; make sure it’s as good as it can be. 

Janet Levine can help you make the most of your job and of your fundraising. Learn more at While there, sign up for the newsletter and do arrange for a free, 30-minute consultation




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Opening Doors

January.  A word that often curdles my heart.  According to Wikipedia, “January (in Latin, Ianuarius) is named after the Latin word for door (ianua), since January is the door to the year and an opening to new beginnings.”

What I love about new beginnings is just that—an ability to recreate yourself, your job, your organization, your relationships—it all.  And that can be exciting and wonderful.  And daunting. And what I hate is my sense that I should be looking at new ways of doing things, new things to be excited about, new things to learn. 

It is not the things themselves that I find unnerving, it is the “should” that I seem to place on it all.

Clearly, this is a personal problem, but I am guessing there are a lot of you out there who feel the same as I.

There is a joy in the same old same old.  I know what to expect and I know when I will be excited or frustrated. And mainly I know what succeeds. In short, I know what I know and that can be a comfort.  It can also keep you from moving forward to places you don’t know yet and, sometimes, backward to things you have neglected, forgotten about, left by the wayside.  Often, those are things that push us to greater heights.

Months ago, my husband sent me this article a company that is very successful—after failing 32 times!  They learned 8 lessons—7 of which are so transferrable to the nonprofit sector.

Start with the idea of customers first.   As they write: “Always, always focus on your customers. Understanding what they need, not what they say they need…”  

For a nonprofit to be successful, focusing on our customers is key.  Our customers, of course, are legion.  They are our clients, our donors, our volunteers, our staff. Unlike the for-profit sector where the focus too often is on the shareholder and the returns that shareholder gets, our focus is more mission-driven.  

The lesson they learned that won’t work for us is the one that says don’t raise money unless you have to. Well, maybe that, too, is transferrable. Nonprofits typically have to.  We don’t have products or services that we can sell at a price that will cover overhead and more.  Indeed, too many people—including too many of our board members—think that we do not need to have overhead at all.  More importantly, we are community organizations, owned not by individuals but by the public at-large.  Raising money from our “owners” is simply asking those who care about what we do to invest in ensuring that we can do it and do it well.

As I post this, there are only three days left to January.  Three days to un-curdle my heart, walk through that open door and look for new ways to fail and more ways to succeed.  I hope you’ll join me.

Janet Levine works to move nonprofits from mired to inspired.  She works with you to turn failure into learning opportunities that lead to success, and to build on the successes you have.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation (via phone or Zoom).

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Getting Things Done

The new gym I joined after my long-time gym closed is really crowded during the times I always worked out. Because I really don’t like this new gym, I found myself just not going.  Which made me crazy and very unhappy.  I decided that the way to get myself to the gym was to put it on my calendar and treat it as if it were an appointment with a favorite client.  

Calendaring it made me do something else—the time I used to go to the gym was not working in this new place.  But if I get to the gym any time between 10-4, it is pretty empty, and I find that I don’t dislike it quite as much.  More to the point, I have good workouts.  Now, every Sunday, I look at my next week, and find 2 hours where I can plug in “Gym.”  If the weather is nice and I have the time, I frequently walk to and from the gym—a round trip of slightly more than 4 miles, and that makes me especially happy.

At this point in my life, being happy—in work and everything else—is paramount.  I no longer want to do things that do not please me, but I am also old enough to know that not everything I need to do will be something I want to do.  Again, I rely on my calendar.

My calendar is NOT a to do list.  I keep one of those also—and that is a list of the things I need to do:

  • Write a proposal to ABC organization
  • Develop scripts for XYZ
  • Follow up with QRS
  • Go to gym!

After every client conversation, I put on my white board what I said I would do and, as I do them, I cross that item off.

No, my calendar is more serious.  For example, “Follow up QRS” has been on my board for two solid weeks.  I need to follow up!  Now it becomes an appointment; on Tuesday at 9:15 AM, I have on my calendar, “Follow up…..” and when 9:15 rolls around, guess what?  I pick up the phone or write that email that I have been avoiding for too long.

Needless to say, simply putting something on your calendar, or on a to-do list, does not guarantee that you will get it done.  Committing to honoring your schedule and treating everything that is on your calendar as imperative, will.

I don’t, for that reason, put things that are unimportant to me on my calendar.  Or, as I recently told a friend, I’m not generally a procrastinator, but when I don’t want to do something, I never seem to be able to find time to do it.

Even if it is calendared.

Calendar Janet to help move your nonprofit from mired to inspired.  Set up a free, 30-minute consultation and check out her website:  While there, subscribe the the newsletter.

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