Engaging Suspects

A reader asked if I have “new strategies to take lists of people I have that I know are interested in our type of nonprofit but I don’t have a referral or a direct connection….But I do have a really good reason to believe they are worth reaching out to, warming up and then asking (giving them an opportunity to get into my funnel)”

“New” I’m not so sure about, but yes, I think there are ways to reach out to these not quite prospects (those you have reason to believe have Linkage-Interest–Ability, and to whom you have Access) but more than suspects (those missing one or more of those three).

You can, of course, simply cold call—and I addressed that in this post   But as I discovered when I sold insurance, cold calling tends to follow the 100-1 rule.  That is, for every 100 people you ask, one may be interested in talking to you.  Worse, making 100 calls doesn’t guarantee 1 interested person—it may take you 500 calls and then you may get 5 potential whatevers.

There has to be a better way—and I think there is.

As with all things fundraising, start by considering commonalities. Find out as much as you can about that person, especially his or her philanthropic interests. I once discovered (by reading the playbill at a concert) that someone I wanted to connect with was a big supporter of the Master Chorale that I loved.  That had nothing to do with my organization, but I sent him a letter the next day, thanking him for supporting something that gave me so much pleasure, and asked if we could chat so I could tell him about another organization that might please him.  He responded favorably and over a number of years, became a nice sized donor to us.

Believing strongly that people give when they are connected, I look hard for ways that will create that connection.  I’ve asked those I wanted to get involved to speak to a group of students or clients or other donors on subjects in which I knew they had expertise.  Where possible, I asked them to become a judge, or help us award scholarships. Or be part of a focus group on a topic I thought would be of interest to them or where they actually could bring something important to the table.  Inviting these suspects to something—be my guest at an event or come for a tour—is nice, but getting them to do something is so much better.

And when they do, I make sure I have a clear follow-up program, which, I shouldn’t have to say but will, is NOT asking them to support our organization.  There are many more steps that need to be taken.

The fundraising process starts with identifying those you think could be prospects and learning as much as you can about them.  Then you must get them interested and involved in your organization.  Too often we think that all we have to do is send them our newsletter, tell them how wonderful we are and presto! They will become donors.

Sadly, that is not generally true.  Instead of sending them a newsletter, you might consider asking them to write an article for your newsletter.  Instead of telling them about you let them shine.  And show them how they make a difference.  Once they see that, they will want to give not just of their time and their talent but also of their treasure.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping move them from mired to inspired.  Let her help your organization increase your fundraising capacity and get your board more engaged with the work you do.  Learn more at www.janetlevineconsulting.com  And while there, sign up for the newsletter.


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Don’t Forget to Ask

ASK-1This time of year I am spending a lot of my time working with clients on developing their end of year appeal.  And while I push for a multi-platform approach, the direct mail letter is almost always the launching mechanism and is always the piece that sets the tone.

I work hard to make sure the letters I write reflect what the organization accomplishes in a very personal way.  And that the letter is clear about its purpose:  To ask for a gift.  That, after all, is why it is called an appeal.  Which brings me to the point of this post.

I don’t think that my words are perfect or that editing them is some sort of sacrilege. But I do worry when almost every edit is the one that takes out the ask!

If you are not willing to ask for support, you should not be surprised if every year you are scrambling to pay your bills, your staff, keep your doors open.  Or that first time donors don’t become second time donors and prospects never turn into donors.

The first thing to recognize is that people expect to be asked to support organizations and causes they care about.  But they also want to be shown what their support means and what it will help to accomplish.

The worst ask is the one that says we are in trouble and we need you to keep us afloat.  The best ask is to tell your donors and prospects how their gift supports the work that matters to them.

Simply put, that means that they don’t always care that much about the specifics of what you do as much as they care about the results.  Don’t talk about the 4 workshops or the 5 locations but, rather, tell what happens because of those workshops and in those locations.  How are lives changed?  How are things made better?  Problems solved?

Can you personalize it?  Tell a story—but keep it short and to the point.  Extraneous information is just that—extraneous.  And keep the focus on the purpose of this correspondence.  And that is?

YES!  The fact that all this happens because of you!  Your support ensures the success of our clients.  YOU—the donor—make the difference.

And so, won’t you give generously this year?


Janet Levine helps to move nonprofits from mired to inspired and helps them to raise more money to accomplish their important mission.  Learn more at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet to schedule your free 30 minute consultation.

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Energize Your Board

Many years ago, I worked at a University whose Foundation had a board of 66 members.

“Are you crazy?” I asked the Executive Director.  “How do you manage 66 board members?”
“I don’t,” he responded, shrugging.  “Only about 20% of them are involved, so I only have teamworkto deal with about 13 of them.”
I asked the obvious question, “Then why not have a board of 13?”  And he said that because then he’d only have 2 or 3 active members.

I know a lot of ED’s feel much the same—only a handful of any board’s members actually step up to the plate.  But if my University Foundation’s board was made up of the 20% who actually worked, then the entire board would be involved.  And if you, the Executive Director made board engagement a key role for yourself, those numbers of active members would definitely increase.

First, of course, you need to understand what you want and need from your board.  Not big things, but the little, actually do-able things that will make your organization better.  So not “fundraising” but helping to engage one new person in our cause.  Not “governance” but engaging in substantive conversations about strategic directions.  Not “financial oversight” but having a clear understanding of your financials—and asking questions until that understanding happens.

But it’s not (alas!) all about you.  You also have to have an understanding of your board members’ needs and wants and, critically, what they are willing to do!  And that,  I have to tell you, requires that you meet with them—one on one—at least once, preferably twice, a year.

It starts, of course, with gratitude.  Gratitude for whatever it is they do.  Saying thanks—even if it is just a “thank you for being on the board” can go a very long way.  And then the key is to find real things for them to do—things that make a difference and excite them.

Most of these things should happen at board meetings—if only you had time!  But your meetings are chock full of reports that you, your treasurer, your development director and your various committee members read out loud.

Oh, please.  Could anything be more boring?  No wonder your board members are barely awake.

Start using a consent agenda where all those reports are sent prior to the meeting and discussion only happens if there are questions or concerns.

I know, how are you going to get them to read the reports beforehand?  They don’t and that is why you read them to the board!

Honestly, they are trainable.  It just takes time and effort

Don’t jump into a consent agenda where they will be voting totally blindly, but do step reading those reports out loud.  Send them a week before the meeting:

  • Tell members you will be asking them for thoughts, concerns, questions.
  • Have a cover sheet that has 4-9 bullet points of the most salient information.
  • Prepare leading questions and ask one at the board meeting.
  • Or ask your Board president to do so.

Whatever you do, you must manage the process.  As my therapist once told me about my kids:  If you don’t manage them instead of wringing your hands over what they are or are not doing, then they are in charge.  And if they are in charge, they are probably out of control.

Son engage them.  Use their time, wisely.  Their talent to do do interesting and strategic things, their treasure to support you and the more they are engaged, the more high-level strategic works they get to do, the more they will be willing to use that fourth T—their tentacles—to engages others in their sphere of influence.

And that is well worth the effort you will have to put into energizing your board.

Janet Levine takes nonprofits from mired to inspired and spends a lot of her time helping
ED’s get over their fear of managing their boards, and their boards to love being board members. Learn more at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.

She is also the co-author of Compelling Conversations for Fundraising, available at Amazon. Order now at http://tinyurl.com/hu6rgpa


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Is Fundraising The Board Responsibility?

According to BoardSource, nonprofit boards have 10 basic responsibilities.  They range from determining mission and purpose to enhancing the organization’s public standing.  In between there are responsibilities about selecting and evaluating the chief executive, ensuring effective planning, providing oversight and building a competent board.  And, at number 7—to ensure adequate financial resources.

So how is it that many organizations seem to think that the board’s only responsibility is fundraising?

I’m not denigrating fundraising.  In fact, I think it is critically important. But I’m not at all sure that it is the board’s primary job.

Don’t read that as saying that the board has no fundraising responsibilities—just that it is not THE thing that the board does.

Fundraising, good fundraising, is a structured process.  It has a lot of moving parts.  Respect fundraisingAsking someone to purchase a ticket or table for an event, make a large or small gift, is only a small part of what goes into raising funds.  And for all those pieces, you need dedicated staff.  And even small organizations—if they are ever going to be anything but small—need more than one development staff person.

For starters, there are many ways to raise funds, and even someone who has the skills to excel at all these ways can’t be effective if she is jumping from one to another and then yet a third.  That gives no time for planning, developing strategy, recording what is happening and figuring out what should happen next.

A one-person development office is a recipe for failure; though not as bad as a development office of none.

The best fundraisers have a certain amount of business they are responsible for. That might be making sure the annual appeal goes out on time or the grant is written (well!) and submitted by the due date.  It may mean managing an event or meeting with prospective donors one on one.  They also have the responsibility to facilitate and coordinate board members’ fund development activities.  That might mean helping a board member craft a really good thank you letter, training members on making follow up calls for the appeal.  It could be creating the structure for how board members are ambassadors at the gala or out in the community.  And it may be staffing meetings that board members have with potential larger donors.

In short, fundraising is a partnership between staff and board and it is the responsibility of everyone at the organization.  So yes, the board needs to be on board with fundraising.  But they aren’t driving the train, nor are they the only passengers.

Janet Levine takes nonprofits from mired to inspired and spends a lot of her time helpingfundraisers-cover
boards get over their fear of fundraising.  Learn more at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.  

She is also the co-author of Compelling Conversations for Fundraising, available at Amazon.  

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Getting Real About Fundraising

Article ReadingI spent much of yesterday catching up on work reading.  You know, those reports, articles, ebooks and blogs mainly on fundraising and issues surrounding it.  And I noticed two things:

1.  Most of what being said and especially that which was touted as “new thinking” is what I and my colleagues have been saying for year.  And I mean years—I started working in the nonprofit sector in the 1980’s.

2.   Regardless of who was writing or the provenance of the material, there is a handful of people who are quoted, referred to, called experts. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with what they are saying, by and large there is nothing outstanding about anything these people say.  More than that, they are all saying the same things—so much so that they become interchangeable.

This makes sense as a third thing I noticed (something I always notice) is that in the nonprofit sector there is a belief that one size fits all.  And that, as anyone who has worked at and/or with organizations of varying sizes, is patently ridiculous.

I am often introduced as someone who raised millions in my career as a fundraiser.  And I did.  I also worked at two very large research universities, one during a big campaign.  But I didn’t raise millions when I worked at small nonprofits.  Hundreds of thousands if they weren’t too small and too new to fundraising; one or two hundred thousand if they were.

Beyond the amount I could raise, the ways open to me to raise that money changed drastically.

I will agree with all the talking heads who intone that relational fundraising is best.  It’s also, quite frankly, the most fun.  But it’s not always the most realistic.

Most of my clients are small nonprofits.  And administratively, the word “lean” doesn’t Overwhelmed
quite express how spare the staff is.  If there is development staff, it is a staff of one or maybe one and a shared someone.  Usually, however, there is not.  In any case, relational fundraising is almost impossible.  The person responsible for fundraising is often responsible for other things as well and is always responsible for all fundraising:  grants and events as well as raising money from individuals.  And they typically also log the gifts in, send the thank you letters out—yes, those letters we insist should go out within 48 hours of a gift being received—write not just the grants but also the grant reports and are often asked to deal with anything involving people because they are “so good at that.”

With all that this one person does, it is no mystery as to why donor retention is worse the smaller the organization. Of course donors want to know the impact of their gifts, and they deserve to know.  But doing that in a personal, high touch way is hard for most of the staff I know who truly are dancing as fast as they can.

This is not to say that it can’t be done.  For example, utilizing board members in specific and important ways—like showing donors impact–will help not just to retain the donor but reinforce to the board why what they do is important.

to-do-listBut it takes time and planning.

That most small nonprofits could do better is undeniable.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying and that we need to start understanding that size does matter, and we cannot expect a nonprofit where the ED is also the program director and the development director is also the office administrator to be as effective as the organization where development staff numbers in two or three figures.

So let’s stop telling these people what they should be doing and focus on helping them to figure out how best they can accomplish what needs to be done.

As my clients and I work through what—given their resources, the culture of their organization and their community—they really can do, and then focus on how to best get it done, I am gratified and amazed at what actually gets accomplished.  And I am awed at the way that they really do change the world.



Janet Levine works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired.  Learn how she can help motivate you and your board at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do take advantage of the free 30-minute consultation.  And consider learning a new language—become fluent in fundraising with Compelling Conversations for Fundraisers, available at Amazon

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