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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Hiring Spree

My client is depressed. Her HR department has determined that her expectations of a pretty new staff member are too high. “Hmmm,” she grumbles, “expecting competence is unacceptable?”

I know that feeling. For too long, I worked at too many places where I was expected to simply make do; where my staff was not held accountable.  It’s a big reason my consulting practice is a practice—just me—instead of a firm—with employees.

The obvious answer, of course, is to hire better, but I’m not sure that is even possible.

Over the years of my pretty-long career, I have become convinced that fully 50% of everyone you hire turns out not to be who you thought he or she was. Sometimes that’s good—someone for whom you have low expectation turns out to be terrific. Often it is beyond bad.  I remember hiring an adorable (can I still say that?) customer service associate with a great sense of humor who seemed to be very empathetic and a good listener, only to find that the person who actually showed up to work turned out to be a curmudgeon, with a capital C.  And that was just one of many cases where I am convinced that I hired one person and the evil twin turned up.

None of this, of course, means you throw up your hands and leave your staff to their own devices. It does mean that you have to be better at creating clear expectations for your staff, providing those expectations before you hire, and then have ways to evaluate whether they are meeting those expectations.  And oh, evaluations have to happen way more often that once a year just because that is what is required.

If you already have staff on board, there is no reason you cannot wind back the clock a bit and have those conversations about expectations and institute regular reviews.  OK, if you work for a state or other government institution, you may have check first with HR, but if you do this across the board with every single person on your team, there should be no real problem.

Begin with having clarity about what you want this person to achieve over the next year.  When I was interviewing for jobs, the one question I would ask would be:  If I was to come to work with you, what will I have accomplished in my first year that will make you feel you made a great hire?

The answer or answers told me worlds about the organization, the department, whether I wanted the job or not (and sometimes made me wonder why I had accepted the offer when all those red flags were flying).

What do you expect this person to do?  Specifically. Not “identify, cultivate…” but rather, “Identify two new major donor prospects a month.”  And do define what “New” means: New to the organization, to the major gift program, to this round of cultivations?

If you expect them to cultivate donors, how many face to face meetings each month does that translate to?  What do they need to have after those meetings (hint:  A solid call report; action items for next steps).  How are they reporting this to you?  And how often are you evaluating what they are doing?

Having a great team is a lot more than luck.  It is having a roadmap for the team as a whole and each member individually.  It is ensuring that each staff person understands his or her roles and responsibilities and that you are constantly working with them to celebrate what is going well and to correct what is not.

If you do this, you will have a great team.  And you will accomplish all those goals your boss has set for you.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to move them from mired to inspired.  Having the right team with the right goals will set you on the path to success.  Let Janet help you—contact her for a free, 30-minute consultation.  And do sign up for the newsletter at



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The Deafening Noise of Silence

Years ago, when I was making a living (kind of) as a freelance writer, I would send out manuscripts with visions of how it would feel when my pieces were published.  That happened sometimes, but mainly it did not. Not, mind you, because my work was rejected.  Oh, that also happened, sometimes.  Mainly what happened was…..nothing.  A great big silence that did not crack no matter how hard I followed up.

That silence eventually defeated me, but then, for reasons still unclear to me, I decided to go into sales.  Mostly there I heard a resounding “no!”  But even that was preferable to being left hanging on the cliff.

And then I fell (as most of us do) into fundraising.  And that great silence returned.

I would call to make an appointment and never get a real response:

  • Not right now, dear. Call me in a few weeks.  But when I called back, either the call was never picked up or the response was exactly the same
  • Let me talk to my spouse, partner, boss and I’ll get back to you. No, you will not.  Though I admit to ridiculous bouts of optimism.
  • Let me check my calendar. I’ll email some dates.  No, you won’t.  See above!
  • Voicemail, which would never be responded to. Emails that seemed never to have been read.  Ditto with texts.

I could handle the rejection.  The silence, not so much.

Consulting turned out to be eerily familiar, except often, instead of me calling for an appointment, it would be a someone at a nonprofit reaching out to ask me for a proposal. Which I would send.  And follow up on.  And follow up on again and again and again.  Arbitrarily, I set 4 months as a OK, they are clearly not going to do this now (or, perhaps, ever), and take them off my active list.

About half the time, I was absolutely correct.  But in at least 50% of the cases, many months, and sometimes years would pass and suddenly I’ll get a call: We are now ready to move forward.

What I discovered was that mainly silence meant “I don’t know,” and the inability to make any kind of commitment, even one that is merely to respond to a call or an email or a text.  I move those people to quarterly or bi-annual check ins, just so we don’t forget about each other.  If I were still fundraising, I’d use those check-ins to tell my prospect about a recent success or a new initiative.  I’d invite them to respond to learn more about that.

Yes, yes, I know. That’s what newsletters are for.  But let’s be honest here; most people don’t actually read your newsletter.  Or do but promptly forget what they have read.  And besides, if they did read it and found it interesting, they will be even more responsive to your outreach.

Silence can be deafening. Don’t respond by loudly being silent yourself.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  See how she can help you get the responses you want at  While there, sign up for the newletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute phone or zoom consultation.


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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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