On Asking

The other night I was the speaker at a Junior League general membership meeting.  My topic was about the fundraising ask.  But even before I got up to talk, one of the members gave the best workshop on why asking is such a good thing to do.

She was talking about why she has been a member, and stay active, for over 30 years.  “I joined,” she said, “because somebody asked me to join.”  It was as simple—and as transformative—as that.

Somebody asked.

Of course, not everyone you ask will say yes—unless you’ve taken the time to learn about them.  About their values, their dreams, what they hope to get out it all.

Once you know that, you can connect those dots and make a yes all but inevitable.

Asking really isn’t hard.  Asking the right person for the right gift and getting the timing right is a little more difficult.  As is knowing how much to ask for.

Yes, you must ask for a specific gift.  Stress levels rise when you ask for an open-ended gift.  No one wants to give too little, or too much.  You owe your donor the peace of mind of knowing where the negotiations need to start.

For that reason, you must always, from the very beginning, talk about money.

“It feels weird,” people tell me.  “Not natural.”

But let’s get real here:  There is nothing natural about fundraising.  Mainly it fills a need.  The need of the organization and the need of your donor.

Just as we buy things and stuff because we need the item, or we simply need to shop, we give generously because it fills a need—the need to do good, make a difference, impact something.  Or just to be thought well of as a philanthropic person.

Our job as fundraisers is find out what that need is, and to help our donors fill it joyously.  And in a way that meets the needs of the organization.

To do this, you must focus your cultivation on your donor.  Throw away that carefully crafted pitch; leave your laptop with that adorable video in your car.  Instead, learn about your donor.  Ask them about their philanthropy—what matters to them, what they hope to accomplish.  Find out about the best charitable gift they ever made.  And the worst. Ask them how they like to be recognized—and what was a great example of that.

Make sure you understand how their giving decisions are made, and who needs to be at the table.

And don’t spring a number on them months after you started talking.  Begin with clarity.  Tell them upfront why you want to meet with them. “I want to meet with you to talk about a very special gift we hope you will consider.”  And then at the meeting, mention things like cost, the part (financially) you hope they will play.  Remind them that you are not asking them now—you know they have to have a lot more information—but you do want to make sure that you are on the right page.

Above all, while fundraising is a lot about relationships, it is not exactly about friendship.  There are similarities, and it’s so much better when donor and fundraiser actually like each other, what really matters is the passion both have for your organization.  While I picture friendship as two people hugging each other, I see the fundraising relationship as those same people reaching out to a cause, an organization, a value.  The relationship is not really with you but with what you represent.

This doesn’t mean that you are unimportant.  After all, someone has to ask in order for that other person to join.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to build fundraising capacity and to build stronger, more committed boards.  Learn more at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.   While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact us to see how we can help you be more successful.


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What Are Boards For?

Boards.  Probably the biggest source of consternation for many nonprofit executives.  How
to get them?  What to do with them?  How to get them to do what you want them to do? If I were to compile an FAQ for what clients and prospective clients ask, these three would be at the top of the list.

A big part of this is the lack of clarity for both the staff and the board members on what the board roles and responsibilities are.

Do an internet search on that (why not? We do that for everything else!) and you will get close to 3 million hits.  A lot of verbiage on this topic.  And yet….too often what board members actually do is sit through interminable meetings where reports are read to them, and where they are asked to vote on things they know very little about.

I go to a lot of board meetings every month, and most are boring because most executives do not understand how to utilize the skills and knowledge board members bring.

Think about it this way: Boards are strategic; staff is tactical.  What that means in practical terms is that the Board sets the policies; staff hammers out and implements the procedures.

A policy is (according the dictionary) “a set of ideas or plans that is used as a basis for making decisions…”  Think about how much richer board meetings would be if board members got to grapple with developing ideas and plans that are meant to help you create the procedures (the steps for doing something) to accomplish those ideas.

Of course, saying policy is the responsibility of the board doesn’t mean that the staff sits around waiting for the board to decide to create or update a policy.  The ED, with the Board chair should be agenizing this; it should be part of larger discussions about the direction the organization is heading and what needs to happen in order to get there.

This is how your strategic plan becomes a living and breathing document.  And your board will also become more engaged, thoughtful and real partners in meeting your mission in the most effective and efficient ways.


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  Learn how we can help your nonprofit at www.janetlevineconsulting.com and contact us for more information.




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Why We Should Avoid A Business Model

All of us in the nonprofit world have heard the mantra that we must run like a business. At lunch the other day, a colleague questioned if that was anything we should even aspire to.


Not that we shouldn’t seek to be efficient, effective, productive.  But truthfully, many businesses, think that their only purpose is to make money for shareholders or stakeholders if they are not public.  That too often means they will do ANYTHING to increase their bottom line:  lie, cheat—throw ethics out the window.  USC, my colleague Usaid, personifies this.  All the scandals that are erupting now are happening because what matters to the powers that be is bringing in money.

I don’t want to make money the villain here.  There is nothing inherently evil about raising money.  In fact, for the most part, it is a good and honorable thing.  But like all things, it can become both more and less than it is.

Zagging here—but with a purpose—I was recently at a gathering of nonprofit consultants.  While talking about one thing, we got on the tangent of what is success.  We were divided:  some felt that it was doing a good job for your client (and here I will admit my bias: to me that is satisfaction).  The rest of us thought it was seeing your client move in the direction they need to go.  Interestingly, no one mentioned money as a measure of success.

Whether that makes us better than USC is up for grabs.  What it does show me is that all of us are clear about what matters:  our clients.  USC has forgotten that it should be about their students.

Which brings us back to the business model.  There are businesses that focus on making excellent products and providing their workforce wonderful working conditions.  These are models to emulate.

The excellent product—the services we provide our clients—is something most nonprofits do well.  We don’t do as well in providing our workforce those wonderful working conditions.

Salaries at nonprofits are notoriously low.  Benefits, if they exist, are on par with the salaries.  The amount of work needed, however, is very high.  Many people are doing many different jobs, with no support—and often no training.

We need to copy those businesses that invest in staff—from salaries to training. Clearly we should follow those whose efficiencies and effectiveness are high.  But we also need to be proud that money is not at the core of what we do.  Mission is.  And mission is much harder to quantify.

USC can brag about how much money they’ve raised in the past five years.  However, one has to wonder at what cost?


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits helping to increase fundraising capacity and build stronger boards. Learn more at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, subscribe to the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.





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Say What You Want To Say

It’s that time and my mailbox—both actual and electronic—is filling with annual reports.  I’m always of several minds about these, but that is for a different blog.  This one is about the way nonprofits often report their expenses and revenues in their annual reports and other materials that should be viewed as mainly marketing.

Percentages can be a wonderful way to express revenue and expenses, but only if there is a solid grounding about what they mean.  And thinking about the messaging you are sending.

I just received an annual report that proudly told me that fundraising revenue was 3% of the operating budget. Nowhere in the report was the amount of the operating budget mentioned.

Three percent of an organization whose operating budget is under $20 million is not a lot of money.  And yet, this development team was comprised of 5 people.  Let’s assume that the operating budget is—as so many operating budgets of nonprofits are–$2 Million.  Three percent of that is $60,000.  I’m not paying one person’s salary.  How is this justified?

Maybe it is because maybe this organization spends more than $2,000,000 a year.  But I don’t know.  And that is the point.

Make sure your messaging is getting the right message across.

Another annual report talked about the amount that annual giving brought in last year, and how much Giving Tuesday accounted for.  They talked about which constituencies made gifts to their Giving Tuesday campaign, but did not say whether this was part of annual giving or in addition to annual giving.  I am unsure if this is double dipping or if Giving Tuesday is kept completely separate.  More to my fundraising heart, was this an additional ask of existing donors or was Giving Tuesday targeted (as I think it should be) to entirely new prospects?

Many annual reports focus on programs.  That’s good and fine, but I rarely see a shout out to the donors who help make these programs viable.  Yes, there is typically an honor role of donors and a paragraph that says, “Thank to the generosity of our donors,” but I am talking about a lot more than that.

What percentage of this program was supported by charitable gifts?  How did the generosity of your donors enhance an existing program?  What impact did giving have on what your organization does?

Too often, annual reports are things that nonprofits do because—well, we’ve always done them.  Or the organization down the street does one or it is yet another place to put an envelope and hope that someone will reply with a gift.

Before you start on your next annual report—or any collateral material—ask yourself what the purpose of this piece is.  What do you want to accomplish?  Who is your audience or audiences?  What do you need to say to them, show them?  What is the best way to convey your message?

Clarity matters.  Do I want to tell a new audience about the importance of the work we do?  Or am I going to mainly be sending this to my existing donors?  Your messages should be different.  If you are going to use this for many different audiences, perhaps you should fashion specific cover letters that fit the audience you are targeting.  As my husband loves to remind me (a lesson that is well-learned), one size does not fit all.

Try this for every publication you consider:

Who is my audience (one line for each audience you target) What do I want THIS audience to learn? What call to action will I make for this audience

Then consider the best ways to get these messages across.  And though I am far more verbal than visual, I never underestimate the value of visuals, be it a picture, a chart, a graph.

Once you’ve pulled together your document, show it and the filled-out table above to someone you respect but who does not work at your organization.  As that person if what you’ve produced accomplishes what you hoped for.  If so, how?  If not, what is missing?

And then, if necessary, go back to the drawing board until you know that what you are sending out into the world is what you want the world—your world—to see.


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  Let Janet inspire you.  Go to http://janetlevineconsulting.com to find out how.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.

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Cooking and Fundraising

If you, like me, watch the PBS show Endeavor, you know that the days of the week can be


defined by the sandwiches Mrs. Thursday makes for her husband’s lunch.  My mother was that kind of cook:  we had the same thing every Monday, every Tuesday, and so on.  Except for Fridays, when once a month we went to Joe Yee’s Chinese restaurant for our monthly meal out.

I’m not that kind of cook.  I like to try different things and don’t have anything resembling a standard repertoire.  Trying new recipes, however, usually means that I follow the instructions very closely.  Only after I’ve made the dish once do I think about replacements, tweaks, changes.

Successful fundraising is a lot like that.  Your recipe—your development plan—should be followed closely until you know from experience with your organizations, your donors, what things can be successfully changed.

Like recipe, your development plan should start with a list of ingredients—what ways we use to make the delicious dish.  Instead of 3 TBS of this and 1 cup of that, however, I look at who the target audience for a specific ingredient—the technique—is, when we do this, and how much we are aiming to raise.  I also like to consider cost so I know how much I am netting.

After that, I develop the specific steps for each of the techniques.  And, oftentimes, as in cooking, ingredients (techniques) are combined.  A gift club or giving circle, for example, may be mixed together with an annual appeal or as part of a house party.

Sometimes, just as I am finishing a dish, it becomes obvious that it is lacking something.  Then, based on my years of cooking experience, I can add a pinch of this, a pat of that.

Despite best efforts, however, sometimes a dish just doesn’t live up to expectations.  Then I have to decide if I ruthlessly toss that recipe or spend some time figuring out what I now need to do to make it better.  What matters is that I take the time to consider what the best option will be.

What I know is that not every recipe will sing.  Or it will resonate only with some of us.  Sometimes my husband loves a dish I cannot abide; sometimes he finds something boring that I declare delicious.  In those cases, we don’t throw the recipe away, but we only make it for the one who loves it.  Likewise, with a lot of your fundraising approaches.  I may never come to your event, but I may happily respond to your direct mail.  Figuring out which donor likes what is key for your success.

And yes, sometimes I cook without a recipe at all.  But again, it is based on experience, knowledge, and—mostly—what I have on hand.  Unless I plan my meals and shop accordingly, I am stuck with making do.  That can lead to an amazing dish.  But it can just as easily lead to an unfulfilling meal.

With planning, I can test an untried recipe with something I know we both like.  In that way, I can be confident that we won’t wilt from boredom, nor will we starve from an unpalatable dish.


Janet Levine Consulting can help you cook up a fantastic fundraising meal!  Check out our menu at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.    While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact us for a free 30-minute consultation.

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