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.


I am more than my checkbook

Does a well-written appeal really matter?

In the rush to get something, anything, out the door on time, does it really matter how good it is?

Judging from my mailbox, many charities – even large ones – don’t seem to think so. The mistakes range from simple to fix ones – like formatting problems – to an outright rejection of the donor as involved in the process – other than as a check.

I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised by these. Don’t nonprofits with huge budgets have the resources to work with writers who know how to do this? Are annual giving programs just that low on the totem pole? Are they actually having the signer write the thing?

I don’t understand why an organization would spend the money to roll out a huge mailing and give the content so little attention. If it came to a choice, I’d mail less and do it better.

Take a look at this appeal:


renewal appeal

click to enlarge



Paragraph one: We’re awesome.

Paragraph two: Your money makes us awesome.

Paragraph three: Did you know there are more ways your money can make us awesome?

Paragraph four: Here’s a brochure about more ways you can send us money. Or you can call us to talk about how to give us more money.

Paragraph five: Thanks for sending us money.

OK, I’m being a little tough. Paragraph two got close to involving me, the donor. But then they veered right off into “we’re awesome” again. They’re the hero here – donors just get to help.

Where’s my story?

How did the money I gave last time change someone’s life? For pete’s sake, this is a cancer research organization – they can’t find me a story? This organization has pages on their website dedicated to patient stories. Why did they choose not to use one here? Since it’s a soft legacy ask, didn’t they think good practice would be even more important?

Here are the facts: we’re wired for storytelling. A story, well-told, puts our entire brain to work. It awakens our empathy. It touches us in a way no fact could do. In short, stories have what’s needed to move someone to make a gift.

So don’t tell me about your ranking or your awards. Tell me about me (that I’m caring and generous) and tell me about someone who needs me.



Does a well-written appeal really matter? Yes. Always.

No fundraising plan? Don’t worry. Here’s what you can do.


So, it’s October and you still haven’t gotten around to making a plan for your fundraising through December.

Yeah. You’re screwed.

No, just kidding. You can still make this work. But you need to start today.

Why not just wing it? Just do what you always do, right? Who has time to think about this when there’s so much doing that has to happen?

Trust me, you do. Why? Well, first because doing what you’ve always done will – at best – give you similar results. Did last year’s final quarter kick big butt? If your answer is “no”, then you need to make a few changes.

Second, because if you spend some time now, you’ll save more of it later. And you and I both know things won’t slow down between now and December 31st. So block off some time and get your plan organized now.

At the very least, do this:

Review your budget and goals

You have to know where you’re aiming if you want to get there. How much do you need to raise between now and the end of the year? How much do you have to spend to raise it?

Review your list

You know what you need to raise – but where will that money come from? Run a few reports. Which dependable donors haven’t given yet? Do they usually make their gift now or has their usual date already passed? Get granular here – who gives what and when. Figure on some increases, and figure on some donors not giving. Get a good estimate of what you might hope for from this group.

Then do the same with past donors. And make a guess, based on your past results, about new donors.

All this just gives you a baseline idea of what you’ll need to do. But it will also point to where you should focus most of your effort. That’s probably with your loyal donors. And even more specifically, with the loyal donors who make the biggest gifts. Don’t write these off by assuming they’ll be there. Chasing new donors while taking your old ones for granted isn’t usually successful.

Get basic segments identified. Target as specifically as you can. But if all you can do is identify donors who “gave recently”, “gave in the past few years but not recently”, “have never given”, that’s miles better than directing the same message to the entire file.

Collect your stories

You’ve already got a folder somewhere with stories and anecdotes about your work, right? If so, you can review it and decide on a story or two to use. Remember, you don’t have to come up with brand new stories for every communication. No one will pay as much attention to your messaging as you will. When you’re sure donors are tired of hearing it, it’s starting to sink in for them. If you have one great story, use it. You can find different ways to share it.

Story folder empty? You’ll need to hunt some down. Talk to your program people. What would they like to share about why the work matters? Can they illustrate that with a story? Is there someone they think you should talk to? Reassure everyone that it’s OK if you use a different name to protect privacy.

How about donors or volunteers? Give a few a call and ask about their experience. Why is it important to them? Why do they volunteer or give?

Put it all on a calendar

Here’s where the work now will really help later. Plot it all out – who will receive what and when will they receive it? What channels will you be using and for which people? Having it all on paper (or a spreadsheet) and not in your head will make a huge difference. It gives you a chance to see where gaps are. It allows you to take advantage of particular dates – a thank you message around Thanksgiving, for instance. It also allows you to start building deadlines based on these dates.

Don’t forget your website! Is the donation page ready? Even direct mail donors often look at your website before sending a donation. Be sure the messaging on the site matches the messaging in your mail and email appeals.

On the practical side, don’t forget to talk with any vendors you’ll be using. I recommend finding a great mail house and sticking with them. I’ve seen organizations bounce from one to another each year, looking to save a few bucks. It doesn’t pay off in the long run. Find people you can trust and work with them. You’ll have a better grip on scheduling and you’ll save time communicating with them. You’ll speak each other’s shorthand. They’ll understand what you do and how you do it.

Now you should know:

How much I need to raise.

From whom?

How and when will I ask?

Deadlines and assignments: who will do what or how you’ll organize your time if you’re doing this solo.

Get cracking!

Time to start putting together those appeals. You have a story – now you need to use it. That topic is bigger than a blog post. But I’ve written about writing your appeals here and here. How many to write? That will depend on your organization, your list and your budget. But don’t be afraid to communicate often. Just make sure each message is compelling. Relevance matters much more than frequency.

Thank you

Don’t forget the thank you!

Don’t forget to build gratitude into your schedule! Saving acknowledgements until after the year-end rush is not acceptable. Mailing just a tax receipt is not acceptable. Or not if you’d like to keep your donors.

Here’s what I suggest: write a great thank you letter as you write each appeal. Code each of them, so donors receive a thank you that matches the appeal that triggered their gift. Here’s some advice on creating a great thank you letter.

Save time through the busy season by setting up a monster template document in Word with nested merges. You’ll run thank you letters once daily and get specific letters for different donors. Here’s a pretty thorough explanation of mail merges if you’re not already comfortable with them.

Try to build in some additional thanks as you plan. A grateful, human letter is a must. But don’t stop there. A thank you call from you or a board member is wonderful as well. Handwritten notes really stand out these days. Take exceptional care of your donors now, and you’ll raise more money in years to come.

UPDATE: Thanks to Tony Martignetti for inviting me to share year-end fundraising tips on Fundraising Fundamentals on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s site. Listen here.

Counting steps



Since mid-July, I’ve been counting steps. (The idea is to log 10,000 steps each day.) I started during vacation, when we tend to walk a lot. Then I decided to keep going. I downloaded a little app to my phone and carry it with me. During the day, I can check in to see where I am in relation to my goal.

It’s been a pretty easy way for me to push myself to move a bit more. Looking a bit shy of the goal? I walk a little more. Almost there? Well, there’s still time, let’s see if I can get another 1,000 today. Unfortunately, I’m a skilled procrastinator. So constant motivation and bite-sized pieces of effort seem to work for me when weekly or monthly goals do not.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it seems like I might be on to something. And that’s where it might matter to you.


The progress principle – and you.

Have you heard of something called “the progress principle”? I hadn’t, but here’s the scoop.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer shared:

…of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

So. Lots of smaller wins keep you creative and motivated. Just what we need at this time of year, right?

Even better, in a Forbes article, they connect their “progress principle” to our work. They recognize the intangible advantage we have – there’s an emotional satisfaction that comes from helping people. That’s often very motivating!

But they note:

In spite of this, it is often easy to lose the connection between the day-to-day work of an organization and its overall mission. So, leaders must make sure that employees understand how what they do contributes to that mission, and make it clear to them that those contributions are important. One way to help promote this connection is suggested by the research of Adam Grant and his colleagues. They have shown that workers’ motivation is increased if they can have some direct contact with people who have benefited from the services they provide.

That makes perfect sense, right? When you’re feeling unmotivated, the best thing you can do is reconnect with your mission.


Do something good


Counting down to year end – do something!

As of today, there are about 60 work days until year end. This is our busiest season. I hope you’ve already got your fundraising mapped out through that date. But I want to encourage you to add just a little to that plan, every day. Because small steps can add up to a more successful program in the long run.

It helps to have a goal, of course. I track my walking goal daily, but my real goal is feeling better and maybe feeling more comfortable in my jeans. Not world-changing, but meaningful to me.

I’m sure you have dollar goals. Maybe broken out into daily or weekly targets. Those are pretty easily measured, but not as easily controlled. (If you know how to guarantee you’ll raise a certain amount by a certain date, I definitely want to hear about it!)

But think about more than that. Stay focused on the larger goal – your mission. Why are you raising this money? What will change if you succeed? What will happen if you don’t?

And what about retention goals? Those go beyond the immediate dollars. Using the increased communication you’ve probably got planned for the next few months as a means toward bringing donors closer to the work they make possible will pay off now – and later.

Once you’re clear about what you want, you can add a few more steps. Find small, easily accomplished goals every day between now and year-end. Here are some ideas:

  • Talk to your program staff and find a new story.
  • Send a handwritten thank you note.
  • Rewrite your thank you letters.
  • Videotape an interview with someone your organization helps.
  • Interview a donor.
  • Call a donor just to say thanks.
  • Write a new appeal draft. Or write it again.
  • Update your database. Make sure you’ve got names right.
  • Check your numbers against your goal so you know where you stand.
  • Read an article on an area of fundraising you want to know more about.
  • Begin a new welcome email series or a mail welcome pack.

You get the idea. Promise yourself that you’ll take one step every day. One step to bring you closer to your donors and to your mission.

So what about you? Please tell me what your plans are for the rest of the year. What are you doing every day to make this the best year-end ever?




photo credit, steps: y.caradec via photopin cc

photo credit, sign: HowardLake via photopin cc

You just haven’t earned it yet, baby

Morrissey, Quart 06. Photo: Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Morrissey, Quart 06. Photo: Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Every time I hear a frustrated fundraiser talk about donors who aren’t giving, that lyric pops into my head. (In case you don’t know, it’s thanks to Steven Patrick Morrissey, of course).

I know it’s human nature to look around for someone to blame when things don’t go as planned. But we need to quit blaming donors for not giving. If they’re not giving, it’s because we just haven’t earned it yet.

Here are some ways you can start earning it:

Put your donor in the spotlight

Seriously, folks. It’s not about you or your organization. It’s about what the donor’s amazing generosity could do for the people who need her. I’ve suggested hanging a sign over your desk that says “It’s not about you”. I was only partly kidding. Keep it in mind every time you write or call a donor.

And remember Tom Ahern’s “you glue”. If you’ve just written an appeal, and the only time the word “you” appears is in “your gift”, go back and do it again. That page should be ALL about the donor. You should see “you” everywhere. It pulls the eye and makes your reader feel involved. You’re crazy not to do it!

Stop selling so hard

This is related. Maybe you’re tap-dancing up and down the page, sure that your whiz-bang statistics are going to wow your donor into giving. Or you’ve provided multiple logical arguments for the gift. If so, just cut it out. You can’t bore someone into giving. She’s not going to give because you’ve sold your organization. She’s going to give because she wants to help someone or something. Show her the why. Chances are, it’s not about numbers. It’s about one person (or animal) she can help.

Focus on what’s in it for your donor

And I’m not talking about tote bags and coffee mugs. What we offer is intangible. But intangibles like changing a life can be very powerful. I don’t like coffee mugs and tote bags, because they make the donation process feel transactional. So that’s not what I’m suggesting. But your goal should be to show the donor what she’ll get out of it – that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from helping someone.

Mind your manners and show some love

A tax receipt is not a thank you. A generic postcard is not a thank you. A letter that talks about tax-deductions is not much of a thank you. Say thank you. Say it well, say it promptly and say it often. Make it emotional. Make it effusive. Make your donor blush. This is no time to hide behind formality. Or to cut corners to make it easier on your staff.

Don’t ignore her

After a gift, first make sure you show lots of gratitude. But then don’t forget to keep communicating. Don’t put the donor on the shelf until next year, unless you’ve specifically been asked to do so. Let your donor know what her gift is doing. Let her know that she’s still needed. Make her your partner. Keep the relationship going!



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  • Mary Cahalane

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