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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Think Big, But (Sometimes) Act Small

As the two ends of the rubberized bar touched each other, I remembered how, back in October, I could barely bend it at all.  I couldn’t hold a 2-1/2-pound weight, while now I have no problems with 10-12 pounders. Not too long ago, I reached to grasp something with my right hand, something I hadn’t done since I broke my wrist over the summer.  Progress. And much of it achieved through very small baby steps.

Too often—and I am frequently guilty of this—we want to improve immediately.  If we want to lose weight, we seem to think that refraining from dessert for one night should translate into an immediate loss of at least 3 pounds.  Increasing our workout twice should mean cut arms, and saying we need to raise more money should result in—right—more money raised!  But, alas, things don’t happen that way.

Baby steps do work….over time, and with effort.  Sending out an appeal after not doing so for some years will not result in a lot of positive responses.  Nor will reaching out for the first time to your donor list.  You have to do it, and then do it again, and then struggle to keep on doing it.

To be successful I think you have to think big, but often act small.  If you want to double what you are raising know that it could take years to reach that goal.  But don’t lessen that goal, just be more realistic about what it will take to get there.

That starts with doing a real assessmentof your fundraising program and the resources you have to improve your results.  By resources I mean mainly human ones—people to identify, cultivate and solicit prospects, and people who are viable prospects and donors. This includes a board that is both well connected and engaged and someone on staff who understands how to facilitate board members’ fundraising activities.

You also, of course, need to have a plan.  One that is strategic, thoughtful, viable, and considered.  A plan that looks at your resources—both the human ones and those that include your mission, your programs, the people you serve—and that identifies the ways you will fundraise, the steps you will take and who is responsible for what.

But a plan is just the first step.  The real test is whether someone—preferably everyone—uses the plan, follows the steps, and actually raises money.

Critically, everyone must also understand that yes, raising $300 can be a win.  It won’t keep your doors open, but it is a baby step in the right direction.  As is asking someone for a meeting, for a gift, to come to an event.  Any action will lead to many actions, and those will ultimately get you where you want to go.

Janet Levine works to move nonprofits from Mired to Inspired.  Get inspired at  Subscribe to the newsletter, and contact Janet for a free 30-minute phone or zoom consultation. 

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Sometimes newer is NOT better

I just wrote a post.  It all looked ok, but when it came into my mailbox….oi, as my mother used to say.  I THINK it is all fixed on the site, but if you got a strange looking post, apologies.  Just go to

New, it is clear, is not always better.  It really isn’t better if you don’t let the people who are affected by your change know what is happening–and what they need to do to adapt.  It would have been helpful if WordPress had let me know what was occurring so I could have ensured that I wasn’t blindsided.

Change is always hard, but it is  harder still if you don’t plan for it, get necessary buy-in, and ease into it slowly and with care.


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Help Your Donors!

Okay.  Now I am irritated. I tried, really hard, to make a charitable gift online.  A renewed gift, I might add.  But after 3 tries, I gave up.  I care a lot about this organization, and I will feel awful about not donating, but they are making it too hard.  The online form now wants so much information and if you get one thing wrong, or leave one thing out (really?  I can’t donate because I didn’t chose a title?) and then everything I already filled out once, twice, multiple times, gets erased and I have to start all over again.

Over the years, I have felt myself become less and less philanthropic.  Sure, I still support a host of organizations, but I don’t get the same kind of joy I used to.  And mainly it’s because of the way I, as a donor, get treated.

Beyond the difficulty of giving to some (not all, but it only takes one to put a bad taste in my mouth), there is the automatic “thank you” responses—which almost always ask me to make another gift!  I just, and I do mean just, gave, and already you want more?

Then there is the fact that I am either totally ignored until the next appeal or my inbox is so inundated with mail—usually asking for more money, so maybe it is all the same—that I wish I didn’t have an email account.

Beyond that, too many organizations are asking me to give because of the tax deduction—which most of us won’t take because most of us will not be itemizing on our income taxes. This is like the huge number of organizations who sent me email on Giving Tuesday asking me to support them because…well, it IS Giving Tuesday! Try telling me how you impact your clients, and how I get to impact your mission.  In short, tell me why my gift matters.

Most charitable giving comes from individuals like you and me. And while most of us make smaller gifts, most of the money comes from a small minority who give larger gifts.  And, guess what?  Most of those people give because they have a personal relationship with someone or some program at the organization.  And yet, few organizations reach out personally to any of their donors. Is it any wonder that retention rates are low?

Note that I said “reach out” not take to lunch (and who does that anymore?), or coffee, not visit or even see in person.  Reach out—via phone, email, letter.  Say, hey, thanks for joining us.  Could you share with me why you care about what we do?  What part of our mission sings directly to you?  And, by the way, what do we need to do to keep you close?

Once you know what matters to me, then you can give me a thank you I’ll cherish.  You know, you said you cared about our program than helps educate adults, and guess what?  Your support allowed us to…..

It’s really not so hard. If every person in your organization who is responsible for fund development (and really, that should be every person in your organization) took 30 minutes a day to reach out personally to a few (pre-assigned) donors and start a dialog, it wouldn’t take that long to touch every one of your supporters.  The results will astonish you.

And now, frustrated as I am, I am going to try once again to make a gift to that organization that matters to me, and hope that somehow I also matter to them.


Janet Levine Consulting works to move nonprofits from mired to inspired.  Start this year off right by contacting me and arranging for a free, 30-minute zoom or telephone consultation.  And while you are doing that, go to, sign up for the monthly newsletter and see how I can help you increase your fundraising capacity.

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Getting Closer to Your Prospects and Donors

It’s that time of the year when we tend to reflect about what has and hasn’t occurred in the past 12 months.  A time to consider what you’ve done; what worked, what didn’t.  And what you haven’t done.  And what you probably should have.

One of those things is probably more relational fundraising.

I am constantly amazed at how much time nonprofits spend on transactional fundraising. And, truthfully, the further away from your donor you are, the easier it is for the donor to say no or to say yes to a very small gift.  Get closer, you’ll be more successful.

I know a lot of development directors who have been in the field for over 20 years, and have never, ever done a face to face ask.  Or had a cultivation meeting.  Or made a call to find out how things were and, by the way, let me tell you how much your support means.  That’s stewardship and it is so much more than a thank you letter—no matter how nicely handwritten.

I am also amazed at how much effort goes into defining the “right” message for telling people what you need. Of course, the right message is not what you need (or how you do what you do), but rather in finding out what your donor needs and how you can connect that to your organization’s mission.

And yet, too many development directors spend all their time sitting at their desk, noodling over brochures that don’t raise money and events that raise something but nothing near the amount of time spent on them would make for a good ROI.  Or writing a grant for something they don’t exactly do but maybe they can tie themselves in knots to fit.  All that for $5,000.

OK, I apologize for being grouchy.  But honestly, people, it is so much more effective to meet in person—face-to-face, whether an individual meeting or in small groups—and hear what it is that you do that they care about.  And to work with your prospects and donors on crafting gifts that meet your needs and theirs.

So as you are reviewing last year and making plans and resolutions for next, try this one on for size:  Next year, I will have at least three face-to-face meetings with prospects and donors a week.  These meetings will be focused on learning about them, helping the to make the gift that will matter to them (and to us!), and to talking with them about how much their support has meant in the past and will mean in the future.


Janet Levine Consulting helps nonprofits move from mired to inspired.  Contact Janet for a free, 30-minute (phone or zoom) consultation and find out how Janet can help you.  And do visit our website, sign up for our newsletter and tell your friends about this blog.


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