Fundraising–it’s not brain surgery

Throughout my development career—almost 30 years now—I have been reminded regularly that fundraising just isn’t brain surgery.  But I’ve begun to think that maybe it is.  If it isn’t, if it is something that is not very hard and doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power, surely more people would be doing it.

Maybe that is bogus.  Ditch digging also is not brain surgery, and how many people actually dig ditches?  However, for most, digging ditches is not the difference between survival and failure; fulfilling your mission and unable to do your work.

People are afraid of asking for money.  I get that.  But there are so many to raise funds that don’t require anyone to approach another person and ask for anything, up close and personally, and still too often, fundraising just doesn’t happen.

As a consultant, hired to help nonprofits with fundraising programs, I see this over and over again.

After a thorough assessment of who the organization is, what resources they have to hand, what the organizational culture is, we development a fundraising plan.  The plans I provide for my clients are not big and strategic (though I like to think they are that, too).  They are very granular, very tactical, very much of the now you this and then you do that.  In other words, not just what you need to do but actual instructions on how you will do it.

And still, what I see often, is after the plan is adopted, the board and staff do everything but follow the plan.

We agree on an end of the year appeal that is integrated in a number of platforms—and instead the organizations opts to sell holiday ornaments.  And then is depressed by (a) how little has been netted; (b) the realization that the only people buying were themselves and (c) it did nothing to solidify relationships.

We go back to the drawing board.  We spend an hour or two talking about attitude, goals, what is wrong with the plan we developed.  They are, they say, going to do it.  It makes sense; it looks like it could succeed.

It takes time, I remind them.  Commit to this for at least three years.

Some do.  They start to raise money.  They find that in raising money, it is also easier to find terrific board members.  Programs start to grow.  Fundraising gets more personal—and more money is raised.

See—it’s not brain surgery.  It is just something you have to do.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to go from mired to inspired.  Learn how she can help you increase your fundraising capacity and build board commitment at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation

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Surviving the Existential Crisis

I am, my sister wrote to me, “stuck in an existential crisis.”

I know exactly what she means.

I wake up each morning, dreading what the news will be.  What fresh indignity.  What calamity or threat to my core beliefs.

And then I have a weekend like this past one, and all seems fantastic.

I don’t usually name my clients in this blog, but I am going to do that here.

On Friday night I went to the first night of Another Ways retreat.  Alas (though more of why that should really be a hurrah later) I had another commitment on Saturday and so could not stay for that day’s activities.

Another Way is part of the Inland Regional Center—set up more than 25 years ago by case workers whose clients needed more than the Regional Center could offer. So they took it upon themselves to raise money to help support their “consumers” and provide funds for emergency services.  Services like help with rent, food, medical bills and medical devices. This matters so much to their clients are adults and children with developmental disabilities.  In Another Way’s own words:  “The organization serves as a last resort for IRC clients who live at or below the poverty line, are uninsured or underinsured; and/or are underserved due to: a devastating financial setback; poverty; a chronic illness or deteriorating health; being ineligible for services because of immigration status; or are left without care because an elderly parent or caregiver has died or becomes too frail or ill to care for them. ”

I am fortunate to work with a lot of oganizations that do amazing work.  It lifts me up and keep that existential crisis at bay.  What is special about Another Way are the employees of the IRC who donate their time and their resources.  On Friday night, those employees got to introduce themselves and tell why they are members of Another Way.  And to hear their passion and commitment to the work they do reminded me of how extraordinary the nonprofit sector is.

Then on Saturday, I spent the day with members of the 49th class of the Riordan Leadership Institute, part of the LA Chambers Leadership Network.  This nine-month fellowship consists of early­ to mid-­career professionals who are committed to creating a lifelong community engagement and leadership through service on nonprofit boards.

Being able to engage with this incredible group of men and women who are the future gave me such hope and happiness.  For many nonprofits, the most difficult task is finding committed board members.  Members who understand their roles and responsibilities and take those very seriously.

The organizations that get the graduates of RLI are lucky indeed.

As a nonprofit consultant who works primarily with small nonprofits, I have my share of frustration.  Too often my clients are too caught up in the day to day crises that define their jobs to move forward on the reasons I was hired in the first place.  They cancel meetings, don’t follow through, and go into radio silence mode more often than I would wish.  But then, almost every day, I get to work with groups like Another Way and interact with people who like the participants in RLI take their commitment to the nonprofit sector very seriously and I know that what I and they hold dear will not just survive but thrive.

Janet Levine is a very lucky woman who gets to help nonprofits go from mired to inspired and learn how to increase fundraising capacity and build stronger boards.  Learn more at  Contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation and see how together you can move your nonprofit to a higher plane.

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Think like a donor

My days are spent working with nonprofits, helping them to identify and implement ways to get new donors, keep old ones, move all donors up the fundraising pyramid, and help a select group of donors to make additional gifts.  The focus is always on being donor centric, making sure the donor is at the heart of everything they do. We look at the process of fundraising:  Prospecting, Cultivating, Stewarding, and, of Course, Asking.  People, I remind my clients, don’t give unless they are asked.  BUT, and it is a very important but, that doesn’t mean you have to ask and ask and ask and then ask again.

As a donor, I’ve been, frankly, appalled, at how often the organizations I give to ask me for another gift.  Often before they thank me for what I’ve just done.  Equally often along with the thank you for the gift I’ve just made.

As a fundraiser, that seems to make sense.

We all know that he best prospect is an existing donor—someone who has shown you that what you do matters to them.  But let’s get real—that’s only true if you treat your donors well.  And that 60% or more first time givers to an organization never make a second gift to that organization, it is clear we are not treating our donors well.

For a moment, take off your fundraising hat.  And now, think like a donor.  What, when you make a gift to an organization that is NOT the one for whom you toil, makes you feel that you have done a smart thing?

It’s not, I’ll venture, that they send you a newsletter.  Or send an impersonal invitation to some event.  And I’m pretty sure that it’s not because they held out their hand again, asking you support even something you care passionately about once again—and so soon after your first gift.

No.  It’s when they show you what you and your gift did.  Or helped to do.  It when you learn how what they do and what you care about has real and positive impact.  And it especially is when they make you feel like an insider, an important part of the work that matters so much to you.

How you do that will depend on who you are—and who your donors are.  Local organizations will reach out in different ways than national or international ones.  Small ones will do different things than larger ones.  Your cause may dictate certain do’s and don’t.  Your culture may prescribe others.

Going online and searching “stewardship” is not a bad way to start, but the way one organization takes care of its donors may not resonate with yours (and, truth to tell, it may not even resonate with theirs!).

Don’t sit at your desk and write a plan that makes sense to you, the person responsible for raising the money.  Ask your donors what matters to them.  Ask them what was the best thank you they ever got from a nonprofit (and what was the worst).  What kinds of recognition make them happy.  What is it that keeps them connected.

And think about yourself as a donor—what is it that an  organization does that keeps you being a donor?


Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them move from mired to inspired.  Go to to learn how she can help your organization.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet for a free 30-minute consultation.



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Meaningful Planning

A lot of my work is helping organizations develop plans.  Plans for fundraising, board development, strategic plans.  Often, I am brought in to help them figure out how to implement existing plans.

What amazes me too often is what passes as a plan.planning

A plan has many definitions and many meanings. The Business Dictionary defines a plan as a “Written account of intended future course of action (scheme) aimed at achieving specific goal(s) or objective(s) within a specific timeframe. It explains in detail what needs to be done, when, how, and by whom…”

It’s that last sentence that seems to elude most planners.

I see plans that tell what must occur but don’t show how to make it happen.  And I see a lot of plans that do not bother with reality.

An organization that has 235 names in a spreadsheet is not likely to increase direct mail by 445%.  In fact, with these kinds of numbers, direct mail may not be the most effective strategy to pursue.

To be of value, a plan needs to sit on a foundation of facts. For a fundraising plan, for example, beyond knowing the mission and who is served, you do need to know

  • What is the operating budget?
  • What are the sources of revenue today
    • Are these sources generating enough?
    • If not, how large is the gap?
    • Is fundraising part of the mix?
      • If so, how much is raised sustainably?
      • What are the techniques that are being utilized?
      • Are revenues from each technique growing? Shrinking?  Stagnating?
    • What new initiatives are being planned for the coming year? Two years? Five years?
    • What is the culture?
    • What resources are available for use? These include things like:
      • Donor Lists (Database)
      • Prospect Lists
      • Research Ability
      • Collateral Materials (brochures/newsletters/website)
      • Paid Fundraising Staff
      • Strong Fundraising Skill of CEO
      • Fundraising Volunteers
      • Public Relations (Awareness)
      • Fundraising Budget

The plan then needs to get down and specific about what you are doing, what it consists of, who is the target audience, how much you plan on raising, how much it will cost, when you will go it and, of course, who is responsible.  In other words, don’t just say, “Direct Mail would be a good way to raise annual funds.”  Show what, exactly and explicitly, a direct mail campaign will look like and what steps—detailed, please—you need to take to reach the goal (how much you will raise or how many new donors you will attract or whatever you state as your intention) you set.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to go from mired to inspired in their fundraising and board development.  If you have a plan that is sitting on the shelf—or don’t even have a plan—see how she can help you at or contact her at and take advantage of the free 30-minute consultation.

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Integrated Fundraising


We talk a lot about the different kinds of fundraising and different kind of donors:
Annual, Major, Planned Giving and Planned Givers

We divide this up and in larger shops, have directors and associate directors of….but truth sony-rx1-a-user-report
to tell, there is only two kinds of fundraising:
Arm’s length (or transactional)

Up close (or relational)

And the thing is, we cultivate and solicit our donors using a variety of techniques, some of which are transactional and some of which are relational.

For example, we send out direct mail, and then cull out the donors who make larger gifts, or have shown their loyalty by giving for 5 years straight, or have had a sudden bump in the amount they give.  These, we think, may be worthy of closer attention.  But until we are actively working with them on a much larger gift, they stay in the pool of those who get direct mail.

And, along with everyone else, get the newsletter, the e-blast, the phone call that is part of the phone program. And, of course, the invitation to our special event.

And then, perhaps, you call and ask them out for coffee or a meal.

But it’s too often haphazard, especially if you are a small or one-person shop.  Then that phone call and asking for a meeting never (or rarely ever) seems to happen.

Meanwhile, we focus on one thing at a time—the direct mail, the eblast, the event invitation.  Is it any wonder so many of our donors complain that there is too much fundraising and that they, our donors, are fatigued?

We should be integrating all our asking—even if we are not asking for anything large.  On our direct mails, we should remind our donors that they can leave a legacy or sponsor our upcoming event.

At the event, we should talk about the many ways that our attendees could support the work we do.

Our newsletters should highlight to many ways to give to our organization.  And when we do meet with donors and prospects we should talk about their comprehensive giving—for this year and maybe the next few years.

But while we are doing all this asking, we must not forget to spend even more time thanking our supporters for everything they do—and all that is possible because of their generosity.

Which means we need to reach out to them more often to simply appreciate the things they do and to show them how their gifts truly make a difference.

It’s a balance—which takes thinking and planning.  It takes involving our donors in all we do.  It takes not just integrating our fundraising but integrating our donors in our work and with our  mission and remembering that without them, none of what we do can happen.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to move them from mired to inspired.  Hire Janet to facilitate your board or staff retreat, help you to develop a fundraising program, or rethink the ways you are raising funds.  Learn more at And do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.




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