What, exactly, are you waiting for?

Looking at blank phone

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez

I was fortunate to view a webinar provided by Pamela Grow’s Simple Development Systems membership program. The presenter was the amazing Leah Eustace of Good Works. She talked to us about bequest fundraising for small shops.

Yes, you read that right.

As I listened to her practical advice, I realized too many smaller shops don’t even attempt some kinds of fundraising. Maybe you believe you’re too small. But if you’ve ever said, “Oh, planned giving? We can’t manage that.” or “Monthly giving? Let’s wait until we have more donors.” then you’ve been cheating your organization of the support it needs.

Many of the things we know we should be doing are possible. Too often, we allow fear or bureaucracy to get in the way.

Considering a planned giving program?

Is your first stop a big board committee and lawyers? Are they focused on your largest donors and securing complex planned gifts? Figure on that taking years…

Leah suggests you start by making sure donors know you’ll accept bequests. Get that on your website and all your fundraising materials. That wasn’t so scary, was it?

Then what if you looked for the most loyal donors on your list and sent them a simple and personal mailing? There’s a lovely example here on SOFII. I know planned giving sounds scary. You immediately think of complicated legal documents and tax maneuvers. But most legacy gifts are bequests. Bequests are not that complex. And you won’t be handling the legal work. (Read some more good advice on the topic of bequests here from my friend Michael Rosen.)

This is definitely a situation where some action is far better than doing nothing!

Monthly giving is another.

Years ago, I read an article by Harvey McKinnon about monthly gifts. (I’m pretty sure it was in Mal Warwick’s newsletter at the time, but I can’t find a link. Here’s a presentation that might help, though.)

I guess I didn’t know any better, because my first thought was “let’s do this!” It wasn’t all that complex. The biggest hurdle was selling the idea internally. 

I knew it would take time to build a program – maybe years. But I also knew any step in the right direction was positive. So I came up with a name for the program. Wrote some copy. Targeted some of our most loyal donors. And just did it. Does the organization now have hundreds of monthly donors? Nope. But the program grew every year that I solicited for it and we saw very little attrition.

What else are you putting off?

Is your website very 1995? It’s far less expensive and easier to set up a decent site now than it was then. Do a little research and push for a refresh, because you’re probably losing money every day!

Are you short on staff, but blessed with a loyal donor base? Have you ever read Mal Warwick on raising $1000 gifts by mail? I read an article he wrote on the topic years ago. (I’ve since read the book – and you should, too. As he promises, it’s “mercifully brief” and packed with good information.) Following his suggestions, I put together a very personal mailing. The early responses were great. (Unfortunately, it was the fall of 2008. And just as I started getting responses, the market crashed. Some timing, you just can’t control.)

Your smaller size shouldn’t prevent you from trying.

You can roll things out for smaller groups and see how they work. You probably don’t have to climb through layer on layer of bureaucracy before you go ahead. And you can offer donors very personal attention. That’s a huge advantage.

The things you put off aren’t likely to raise any money. So quit stalling. Pick something today and do it!

Are you ignoring your annual fund?

Red coat walking away

Don’t put the most important part of your program on autopilot! Ignore your donors and they’ll go away.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported:

Some 77 percent of organizations with an annual fund meet total fundraising goals as compared to just 55 percent of organizations without such a fund, according to a new report on the impact of annual-fund campaigns in overall fundraising.

I know you’re focused on the end of the year and all that needs to be done through December. But let me ask you to think about planning for 2015.

Your budget defines your priorities. What areas will get the most attention? Where has your funding come from in the past? Where is there room for growth?

I believe you should spend a good part of your time, money and energy on your annual giving program. By that I mean gifts from individuals, most intended to fund your general operations. You usually ask for these through the mail, personally or via email. (Social media is still more effective for relationship building than for gifts).


An annual fund is NOT a once-yearly appeal. Sending one general appeal a year is, well, stupid. Neglecting your donors throughout the year is simply asking them to find someplace better.


If you currently have a robust giving program, congratulations! You already understand people drive philanthropy. But if you depend on grants and a few major gifts, I urge you to think again.

Individuals make up almost ¾ of all giving in the U.S. Where do you think you should be focusing your investment?


A wide base of support

It’s easy to depend on a a few large grants and gifts. But what happens when you lose one? That huge hole in your budget is hard to recover from.

A thriving annual giving program will create a wide base of support for your organization. While you should work to keep every one of the donors you attract, a wide base leaves room for some attrition. (Unfortunately, even the best program will lose donors every year – people move or die).


The welcome mat

Your annual giving program is where donors begin their journey with you. A good program gives them reasons to love giving to you. That means loyalty and increased giving over time. Bloomerang reports the Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s 2013 survey found only 22.9% of first-time donors made a second gift. That’s awful! Make retention your priority. You’ll watch your base grow.


Where major donors come from

Major donors don’t arrive at your door with a big check. Most begin as annual fund donors. Major donors grow from happy average donors. Give all your donors a wonderful experience. You’ll build relationships and learn about them. Then you’ll know who’s ready for more personal cultivation and solicitation.

That’s also true for legacy donors. Loyalty is what you’re looking for here more than gift size. Give your annual donors a reason to be loyal. When you do, you seed your legacy program. That $100 a year donor may become a bequest donor – because you’ve taken the time to make her a priority.


Institutional givers are also people

Foundation and corporate giving decisions are not only based on your proposal. People staff those institutions. If decision makers know your organization as donors – or friends of donors – you’re in a better position to receive the grant.


Lifetime value not short-term thinking

Do you have to persuade someone at your organization that your annual giving program is important? Talk to them about donors’ lifetime value, not one year’s return on investment. More donor databases are building retention measurements into their reports. But if yours does not, here’s some detailed information on how to measure lifetime value.

Your annual fund is the foundation of your giving program. Smart fundraisers will make it – and their donors – a priority.


How a professional can help

We often turn to consultants for a big capital or endowment campaign. But consider the value in optimizing your annual giving program. Get that right and you’ll start in a good position for that next big campaign.

If your program isn’t at its best, here’s how a consultant could help:
• Fundraising program planning
• Copywriting and donor communications planning
• Segmentation and list analysis

Your consultant’s role should be to train you and your staff to succeed on your own. Training your staff and your board is a good investment. When they have the skills they need, they’ll be happier and more productive. And you can look forward to a more secure future for your organization!



Need some help right now with your year-end appeal? Pamela Grow, of Simple Development Systems fame, and I are teaming up to help you make the most of your appeal. Interested? Click here. But we can only take a few of these before the end of the year. Don’t wait too long!

Are your donors voting with their feet?

walking away


I’ll admit to being a political junkie. I’ll be glued to the set tonight, watching returns until I fall asleep. The drama is better than most entertainment television has to offer. And of course, the stakes are huge.

Think about all the people who don’t vote. In the US, only about 40% of people vote in mid-term elections. I never understood not voting.

But how many of our donors are quietly voting with their feet? How often do we not even notice their absence? Donor retention rates are as awful as voter turn-out. Are we even paying attention?

Political campaigning is all short-term. If you don’t win the election, it’s over. The goal is precise and immediate. Most of our organizations, however, expect to be needed for years to come. So why do we focus on today and sacrifice tomorrow?

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton offered a list of characteristics good politicians have. Maybe there’s a lesson here for our nonprofit organizations, too. This is what he says a good politician is:


Trust is so valuable and so easily lost. Don’t play around with your donors. They deserve – and want – to know about the organization’s successes and failures. And if they ever feel they’re not being treated honestly, you’ll lose them. And everyone they talk to!

Focused on the task

Yes, you should focus on your mission. But let me plead for the same focus on your donors. They should be where your energy is – not their dollars. Build relationships and the money will follow. Chase the money and you’ll waste those relationships and quickly run through the money. That’s why retention rates in the gutter are so frustrating. It’s short-term thinking and it’s terminal.


Good politicians know who they are and they know their own limits. Good organizations do, too. That’s where donors come in. If your messaging is all about your good news, there’s no room for donors. Donors need to know they’re needed. It’s ok to let them know.

Good communicators

Memorable politicians are skilled communicators. They find their message and they sell it. Showing donors how they’re needed is part of it. But you have to communicate that message repeatedly. In the US, mailboxes will replace political mail with year-end solicitations. Make sure you’re getting your message out. Worry more about your message and less about over-communicating. Here’s the truth: donors are not paying as much attention as you think to what you say. The few that are want to hear from you.

Genuinely like and are comfortable with people

We all know the aura that surrounds those politicians with true gifts in this area. Charisma isn’t so much about a person’s attractiveness as it is about how they make you feel. A great politician instinctively makes each person he or she talks to feel special. Do your donors feel that way about your organization? Do they feel special, unique, needed? Do staff members genuinely enjoy interacting with donors?

Sensitive – able to read their audience and quick to respond

Do you know how your donors are feeling? Do you know what matters to them? Do you understand how to communicate with them? Can you predict the best messaging to reach them and then use it quickly as circumstances demand?

And are you responsive? Make sure your contact information is easy to find. Respond immediately to calls or emails. Thank donors promptly and well.

Good listeners

This goes hand in hand with the two characteristics above. It’s an important skill for fundraisers, but also for organizations. How much of what you say is about your organization? How much is about your audience – your donors, prospective donors and the people you help? If you’re doing all the talking, that’s not communication.



Like politicians, nonprofit organizations can change lives for the better. That comes with responsibility. Regardless of how this election turns out, you have the chance every day to do something great. Give it your best.

If I was really your friend, you’d know my name

You’re busy now, getting those appeals ready for the most wonderful time of the year. I know how crazy it can get. But don’t forget the role good data and personalization play in your success or failure. I’m amazed at how many “Dear Friend” letters I still get. Even smaller organizations can make their appeals personal – and increase their results!

Cleaning equipmentData matters

Practice good hygiene. Spend the time to be sure your information is correctly captured, categorized and entered. You’ll save time and raise more money later. Review your lists regularly. When it comes time for an appeal, review the lists again. Make sure all necessary fields are filled in. Double check salutations.

There’s no faster way to say “you’re just a name on a list” than getting that name wrong.

If you find empty fields, set those records aside. Don’t include them in the mailing until you’ve done some research. If they’re donors, you probably have their information somewhere. Check the correspondence in your hard files. If you can’t find anything, try Google. I like to look for other organization’s annual reports or donor lists. In a smaller community, you might also be able to run the information past a board member. A few smart searches can often turn up useful information.

Getting names right is so important if you’re trying to build relationships! Here’s an example. At one organization, we knew a lovely couple whose formal names were Nelson and Helen. They never said anything when we addressed them that way. But when I arrived, I knew from my work at a former organization that they really went by Skip and Jo. At the next event, they seemed more relaxed when their name tags had their preferred names. Imagine if your friends always called you one name and strangers another. Which category do you want your organization to fall in?

Of course, we can collect much more than names. Just don’t edge into creepy. (Have you seen those Facebook ads that pop up after you’ve visited another site to window shop?) If you’re approaching donors who don’t have much of a tie to your organization, using little touches in your letter can bring them closer. You can refer to their town and how your organization helps people there. Or if you know one aspect of your work excites them, you can focus your ask on that work. That’s data you can use to bring donors closer.


Merge into effective fundraising

I know. It’s easier and a less expensive to send one generic letter, addressed to “Friend”. It used to be that using variable merges was very expensive. You couldn’t manage it in-house. (Anyone else remember dot matrix printers?) But hello, 2014. You can easily merge letters and print them, even in-house. Or if you send them to a mail house, they can do so at low cost. Is it worth it? Do you even have to ask?

Research shows one of the first things your donor will look for when she reads your letter is her name. Response rates for personalized mail – or email – are significantly higher. It’s worth it.



Lots of missing information when you review your list? Or are you unsure of the way your donors would prefer to be addressed? The best way to fix that is to ask them. Try including a question about how they’d like to be addressed in a welcome package. If they’ve already been giving, include that question in a donor survey.

And remember assumptions are dangerous. I can’t tell you how many organizations have decided I must be “Mrs. Husband’s LastName”. I am most emphatically not. Never changed my name, never intend to. And it rankles to be reduced to Mrs. Someone Else. If these organizations had bothered to ask (or even looked at the check), they’d know that. And their appeals might not end up in the recycling bin.

Bottom line – if I matter enough to ask for a gift, I matter enough to call by name.

Saving the world, losing your mind

stressed woman


The Association of Fundraising Professionals says 75% of fundraisers are women.


A Harvard Business School study shows that however lofty her professional position, family issues are still seen as a woman’s problem.

(An article in Slate summarizes the information contained the the HBS study).


Go skim the Slate article at the least. Then put those two sentences together. I’ll wait.

You see where I’m going, right?

We expect women to hold down the fort at home, while raising enough money to feed the mission at work. So it’s no surprise the top jobs, and the top pay, still go to men. For most women, there are too many compromises to make that top job a reality.

I’m not claiming my male colleagues don’t feel stress. What we all do is inherently stressful. If we don’t succeed, someone might miss a needed meal or class or job.

But I am saying culturally, women are usually the ones held responsible for the well-being of their families. All of which makes it particularly tough for those of us in the nonprofit sector.

Our “real world” friends might rest easy on a Friday night, able to sleep without worrying about the whachamathingers their company produces during the week.

Work-life balance is a little harder when our work so directly affects our organization’s survival, and more importantly, our mission.

If you’re like me, what happens more often is work and life bleed into one another. The boundaries get hard to find. We leave at 4, but put in another 3 hours at night. We spend free time reading about our trade. We check our phones to see how the last email is doing. We run out of the office to take care of a family emergency. We schedule meetings with donors on Sunday afternoon. It’s all part of the job. And the job has tremendous emotional benefits that whachamathingers could never provide.

Time for a break!

But how can we stay sane long enough to do good work?

I’m not even going to pretend I have the answer for you. I left my development director position to consult to nonprofit organizations. But I also left because being my own boss meant working on my own terms, and around the needs of my family. Believe me, I don’t claim to be anyone’s role model!

First, we need to be more aware of the pressure and ready to support one another. Knowing you’re not alone can help. Having a friend or colleague reinforce your confidence or praise your skills can make a tough week more manageable.

We need to stand up for one another in the larger sense, too. Why does our culture still expect women to handle most of the home and child care? How can we change that attitude? It’s not going to change without us. (Sharing those duties is likely to make for happier, more balanced men as well. Too many don’t even realize what they’ve missed!)

In the meantime, self care matters. Here are some ideas I’m trying to take to heart. And regardless of your gender, maybe they’ll help you, as well.

Writing for Huffington Post, Kris Carr suggests:

Disappoint people. In short, guilt happens. Try to let it go.

Keep emails and meetings short. No explanation needed, right? We all spend way too much time talking instead of doing.

Hit delete. You don’t have to respond to every email. She suggests putting an away message on when you need to work, explaining that you may not respond. Then hit delete.

Let them judge. Spending time living up to other people’s standards just hurts you.

You don’t need to fix people. I suspect this one is tough for all of us in the nonprofit world. But it’s not our job to fix everyone – especially people who haven’t even asked to be fixed.

Trust. Other people are also capable. Trust them.

You can’t give it all. Perfection isn’t attainable. Sometimes good enough has to be good enough. (Wisdom is in knowing which is which, I think).

You can’t have it all. You can do a lot. You can achieve a lot. But don’t kid yourself – there are always choices to be made. Accept that.

You are worthy just sitting still. Take time to just be present. (I had a boss once who would bark at us “What have you done today to justify your existence?!” I think he was joking. I’m still not really sure. And unfortunately, that message is still alive and well in my subconscious. Someday I’ll beat it.)

small divider

We’re all headed into the busiest time of the year. I hope you find the time to take care of yourself so you can take care of the world. Your hard work, your sacrifices, your late nights are not unnoticed. You should know that.


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  • Mary Cahalane

    Mary Cahalane

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