Secrets of Fundraising Success: Documenting Your Actions

Many years ago, for a now defunct magazine, I wrote an article on the value of documenting one’s development actions. While the magazine may have died, the need to track your development activities is still very much alive.

“The most embarrassing moment of my fund-raising career,” I wrote back in 1996 (!) “was when I called on someone I thought was a new prospect….Two months before I assumed my position, the prospect had committed to a very large gift—a fact about which I was blissfully unaware.  The prospect was, understandably, annoyed and told me in no uncertain terms to come back after I had done my homework.”

The problem was I had done my homework—checked our database, our files—and had found nothing to indicate that there was a relationship, let alone a pledge.  An extreme case, sure, but not an isolated one.

Too often we simply do not know what happened before we got to the job—or even what somewhat else has done out of our sight of vision.

The few minutes it takes to write a call report and make sure that it is somewhere visible to all possible players is worth gold.

Likewise, having a written, shared list of top prospects along with information about their history, interests and your intended next steps, will increase your effectiveness and efficiencies.  Instead of spending what precious little time you have trying to remember what you should be doing with whom, you will have it laid our beautifully in front of you.

“We don’t need to do all that,” I’ve had clients tell me. “We know who our prospects are and we know all about them.”  My reaction to that is a not so very nice word.  If that were true, then they would be raising a whole lot more money.

In small organizations, particularly, the temptation not to spend time doing call reports, making prospect lists, writing down your strategy for this particular prospect at this particular time is huge.  After all, you may be the only person charged with fundraising and therefore feel that you don’t need to document.  If your board is actively involved in development, you may feel that you don’t want to burden them with the task of writing a call report or keeping track of the donors and prospects with whom they are working.  That, I assure, would be a mistake.  Documentation is the unsung hero of fundraising—and you ignore it at your own peril.

When I was a development officer, my rule of thumb was to make sure that if I disappeared off the face of the earth, anyone in my office could pick up and continue moving my prospects toward the gift.  They would know the prospects interests, capacity and inclination, what steps I had taken to move them along and what my next projected steps would be.  In that way I would (a) leave my prospects and donors in good hands and (b) ensure the continued success of my organization and whoever took over from me.

“The first step to a solicitation,” wrote back in 1996, “is adequate preparation.  But you can’t prepare well if you don’t have the information.  So, each time you balk a the thought of a call report think about this:  It’s not the last thing you do after a call; it’s the first thing you do on your road to getting a gift.”

Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and be more effective.  Learn more at and while there, sign up for the free monthly newsletter.


About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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