Fear Gets In The Way

One of my dogs gets really spooked by loud noises.  For that reason, he won’t use the doggie door.  As a result of that, he is either in the house or outside in the backyard, depending on where my husband and I are.  In other words, what he does is totally dependent on what WE want, rather than what HE wants.  He is totally constrained by his

Tramp, hiding in the fireplace


Our other dog, on the other hand, blithely goes in and out of the doggie doors (we have two—one upstairs to the balcony and garage roof, where she can survey her entire kingdom!—and the outdoor one to the backyard).  She is much more free than he is.

Letting our fear control our actions is almost always debilitating and very limiting.  It keeps you stuck where you are instead of looking to grow.

Grow doesn’t always have to mean getting bigger.  It can and often does mean enhancing something, making it better.  In fundraising we should always be looking at how well what we are doing is doing, and whether we need to make changes.

In one of my online classes, students often tell me about events or appeals that have been going on for years without assessment and which they believe don’t utilize their time well.  In a recent class, a student posted several times about a 25-year-old golf tournament that took her staff most of 8 weeks to produce and manage, but only brought it a small cadre of golfers who were friends of the ED and were not donors in any other way.  Does this seem like a good use of their time?  But fear of upsetting the ED and looking to do something different (or doing the same thing differently) has held the development team back.  

In my trainings, I often get told how awful boards are, or clients bemoan non-functional staff.  What holds them back from making needed changes is almost always fear.  

How do you get over that?

Consider what the situation could look like—a golf tournament where players were also donors or where there was no golf tournament and staff had time to focus on more profitable ways to raise funds.  Boards who were effective and worked with you to make your organization stronger.  Staff who actually did what they needed to do, freeing you from aggregation.

Then think about what it will take to get there.

I’ll argue that mainly it will take education, and educating people often takes time.  It is that time that often defeats us.  We want the change now, but that is unrealistic.

One of my clients spent much of his first year on the job assessing the effectiveness of his staff.  While board members were pushing him to make changes, he very diplomatically educated them on what he was doing and why.  He also tried to educate staff on what the new expectations were, and what they needed to do to gain his support.  

After his first year, several key positions have new occupants, while the former occupants were released into the workforce.  As a result, the organization is stronger and working more effectively.  And the board, seeing the good that has occurred is more supportive and more engaged.  They have also been put gently on notice—they, too, are being evaluated and should they not perform, they too will be freed to find a different board on which to serve.

None of this is easy.  But as I look at my dogs, Minnie going in and out as she pleases, Tramp dependent on my good mood and my presence to let him in or out, and I know who I’d rather be.

Janet Levine works to move nonprofits from mired to inspired.  Learn more at http://Janet Levine Consulting.com.  Sign up for the news letter and contact Janet for a free, 30-minute phone or zoom consultation.  


#board development

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Hiring Spree

My client is depressed. Her HR department has determined that her expectations of a pretty new staff member are too high. “Hmmm,” she grumbles, “expecting competence is unacceptable?”

I know that feeling. For too long, I worked at too many places where I was expected to simply make do; where my staff was not held accountable.  It’s a big reason my consulting practice is a practice—just me—instead of a firm—with employees.

The obvious answer, of course, is to hire better, but I’m not sure that is even possible.

Over the years of my pretty-long career, I have become convinced that fully 50% of everyone you hire turns out not to be who you thought he or she was. Sometimes that’s good—someone for whom you have low expectation turns out to be terrific. Often it is beyond bad.  I remember hiring an adorable (can I still say that?) customer service associate with a great sense of humor who seemed to be very empathetic and a good listener, only to find that the person who actually showed up to work turned out to be a curmudgeon, with a capital C.  And that was just one of many cases where I am convinced that I hired one person and the evil twin turned up.

None of this, of course, means you throw up your hands and leave your staff to their own devices. It does mean that you have to be better at creating clear expectations for your staff, providing those expectations before you hire, and then have ways to evaluate whether they are meeting those expectations.  And oh, evaluations have to happen way more often that once a year just because that is what is required.

If you already have staff on board, there is no reason you cannot wind back the clock a bit and have those conversations about expectations and institute regular reviews.  OK, if you work for a state or other government institution, you may have check first with HR, but if you do this across the board with every single person on your team, there should be no real problem.

Begin with having clarity about what you want this person to achieve over the next year.  When I was interviewing for jobs, the one question I would ask would be:  If I was to come to work with you, what will I have accomplished in my first year that will make you feel you made a great hire?

The answer or answers told me worlds about the organization, the department, whether I wanted the job or not (and sometimes made me wonder why I had accepted the offer when all those red flags were flying).

What do you expect this person to do?  Specifically. Not “identify, cultivate…” but rather, “Identify two new major donor prospects a month.”  And do define what “New” means: New to the organization, to the major gift program, to this round of cultivations?

If you expect them to cultivate donors, how many face to face meetings each month does that translate to?  What do they need to have after those meetings (hint:  A solid call report; action items for next steps).  How are they reporting this to you?  And how often are you evaluating what they are doing?

Having a great team is a lot more than luck.  It is having a roadmap for the team as a whole and each member individually.  It is ensuring that each staff person understands his or her roles and responsibilities and that you are constantly working with them to celebrate what is going well and to correct what is not.

If you do this, you will have a great team.  And you will accomplish all those goals your boss has set for you.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to move them from mired to inspired.  Having the right team with the right goals will set you on the path to success.  Let Janet help you—contact her for a free, 30-minute consultation.  And do sign up for the newsletter at http://janetlevineconsulting.com



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The Deafening Noise of Silence

Years ago, when I was making a living (kind of) as a freelance writer, I would send out manuscripts with visions of how it would feel when my pieces were published.  That happened sometimes, but mainly it did not. Not, mind you, because my work was rejected.  Oh, that also happened, sometimes.  Mainly what happened was…..nothing.  A great big silence that did not crack no matter how hard I followed up.

That silence eventually defeated me, but then, for reasons still unclear to me, I decided to go into sales.  Mostly there I heard a resounding “no!”  But even that was preferable to being left hanging on the cliff.

And then I fell (as most of us do) into fundraising.  And that great silence returned.

I would call to make an appointment and never get a real response:

  • Not right now, dear. Call me in a few weeks.  But when I called back, either the call was never picked up or the response was exactly the same
  • Let me talk to my spouse, partner, boss and I’ll get back to you. No, you will not.  Though I admit to ridiculous bouts of optimism.
  • Let me check my calendar. I’ll email some dates.  No, you won’t.  See above!
  • Voicemail, which would never be responded to. Emails that seemed never to have been read.  Ditto with texts.

I could handle the rejection.  The silence, not so much.

Consulting turned out to be eerily familiar, except often, instead of me calling for an appointment, it would be a someone at a nonprofit reaching out to ask me for a proposal. Which I would send.  And follow up on.  And follow up on again and again and again.  Arbitrarily, I set 4 months as a OK, they are clearly not going to do this now (or, perhaps, ever), and take them off my active list.

About half the time, I was absolutely correct.  But in at least 50% of the cases, many months, and sometimes years would pass and suddenly I’ll get a call: We are now ready to move forward.

What I discovered was that mainly silence meant “I don’t know,” and the inability to make any kind of commitment, even one that is merely to respond to a call or an email or a text.  I move those people to quarterly or bi-annual check ins, just so we don’t forget about each other.  If I were still fundraising, I’d use those check-ins to tell my prospect about a recent success or a new initiative.  I’d invite them to respond to learn more about that.

Yes, yes, I know. That’s what newsletters are for.  But let’s be honest here; most people don’t actually read your newsletter.  Or do but promptly forget what they have read.  And besides, if they did read it and found it interesting, they will be even more responsive to your outreach.

Silence can be deafening. Don’t respond by loudly being silent yourself.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  See how she can help you get the responses you want at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for the newletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute phone or zoom consultation.


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Getting Where You Want to Go

I am of many minds about a number of things:  feasibility studies, strategic planning,

endowment, special events, to name a few.  It’s not that I am against any of these, but I am adverse to anyone thinking they are necessary because, well, it’s what one does/needs.  

And sometimes—maybe oftentimes—it is not so much the what that worries me, but the how, the way these things are carried out.

Take feasibility studies.  Are they really necessary?  Well, if you are going to build or seriously renovate a building, it would be good to test the waters and see if the money can, indeed, be raised.  But too often I’ve seen how consultants assign the actual interviews to the greenest, lowest level consultants on staff, and watch opportunities to really assist the nonprofit in their fundraising efforts, never be broached.

I also worry about the emphasis on reaching a dollar amount for the campaign—without much thought about how it will impact ongoing fundraising.  Yes, comprehensive campaigns say they deal with this by including annual giving as part of the campaign, but I am not always convinced.

This is not to say I’m against comprehensive campaigns.  For some campaigns, for some organizations, it is definitely the right way to go.  But just because it is “the way we do campaigns now” it doesn’t follow that it is best in every situation.  Indeed, for some, separating a capital campaign from ongoing fundraising is far wiser and more effective.

Strategic planning is another one of those things that I absolutely, unequivocally think organizations need to do. But again,  the how is what is really important.  And the how influences the what—the what you end up with and whether it is useful or just a document that sits on the desk.

No matter what you are doing, the first step is to ask yourself why—why you are doing this and what you hope you will get out of the exercise.  Working backward, consider what you need to figure out in order to get where you want to go.

Janet Levine helps nonprofits get to one mind, moving from mired to inspired.  Learn more at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  Sign up for the newsletter and contact

 to arrange for a free, 30-minute consultation.

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The Wrong Board

A colleague who has spent her career at large, well-resourced nonprofits was complaining

Your board, perhaps?

about a recent event she attended.  The purpose of the event was to match potential board members with nonprofits needing new board members.  The problem according to my colleague?  The potential board members were all inappropriate—too young, too unconnected, too little financial heft.

But aren’t these often the problem with board members of most of our nonprofits?  Individuals who can afford to serve on the board of a major university, hospital, large national nonprofit are mainly not interested in working with a nonprofit where the operating budget is less than the board gives at those larger organizations.  And so, what you get, are those who care—sometimes passionately—about your work but may not be sufficiently affluent or influential to move your organization’s needle much.

Does this make them inappropriate?  Not necessarily.  But it may make them very frustrating.

We have all come to believe our board members should be our main fundraisers.  And if your board is not well connected; doesn’t have a lot to give; has no experience in philanthropy nor friends who have such experienced, they will not effective fundraisers.  Unless, of course, you take the time to teach them not just what to do but also how to do it.

That means working with them—and that means taking the time to get to really know them.

How?  The same way you get to know anyone.  You spend time with them.

I strongly urge my clients to meet one-on-one with every single board member to discuss board roles and responsibilities at least two times a year.  Yes, it can be time consuming, but it is also well worth the time.

At those meetings, ask them open-ended questions and give them space to answer.  Then probe more deeply. At your very first meeting, ask “tell me why you agreed to serve on our board.”

Often, when I asked my board member that question, the answer was a shrug and then something to the effect of, “Well, Joe asked me.”

Keep smiling.  “Many people come on our board because of a personal relationship with another board member.  What I really want to know is what is it about our organization that keeps you on the board.  What do we do that really matters to you?”

It would be lovely if that opened a floodgate of words.  But often it does not. Or the floodgate it does open is not the one you wanted.  In either case, your job is to facilitate the conversation.  Sometimes that means nudging the person to focus in a different direction.

“Yes, I agree. We could do things better (or there are some interesting people on our board or that sounds like an interesting—note that word, it is so good and non-judgmental– program).  And I would love your input.  But first, I really want to understand what keeps you at the table.”

As you get to know your board members, you may discover that they are better connected than either of you imagined, or are more creative, helpful, willing than you every hoped.  And as you truly engage them with interesting projects and offer important topics for the board to discuss (and imagine, a board meeting where the members are passionate, engaged, involved!), you may well discover that rather than the wrong board you actually have a board that is totally and completely right for you.



Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to train boards to be the right board.  Learn more at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  Sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30 minute consultation.

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