First, let me emphasize that I’ve spent far more years as a staffer than a consultant. So I’m not pointing fingers away from myself.
But why is our immediate reaction to any problem asking if we can get it free or cheap? That way of thinking is hurting us. And it’s hurting all the people we could be helping.
So today, I want to take a look at some of the ways we’re stepping on our own feet – and paying for it, later if not now. And I invite you to add your thoughts.
The overhead myth
This idea needs to die, yesterday. It’s a poor way to measure effectiveness. And it prevents us from doing our best work, and raising the money we need to feed our missions.
Fundraising requires investment. Sometimes, that investment means spending more up front in order to raise more into the future.
So it’s summer. You’re near a lake or a river. You want to get on the water and cool off. So you buy a cheap float. It will get you on the water. But soon you’ll be paddling for your life as it falls apart under you.
But maybe you spend on a solid boat. One that will take you where you need to go and last for years if you take care of it.
Which is better?
Donors want to know their gifts have impact. It’s not complicated. Did what I give help someone?
Unfortunately, they’ve been told for years that responsible giving means looking closely at one ratio: fundraising dollars spent compared to dollars in. Simplicity!
But that number doesn’t tell the story. And it doesn’t help donors give wisely.
What can you do, all by yourself? Focus on showing donors how their gift matters. And be open with your finances, so they don’t have to wonder.
Why is it we believe we’re worth less?
Treating staff poorly doesn’t make an organization great. Turnover (the inevitable result) costs money. It hurts relationships. And it results in less mission accomplished.
Yes, donors hear the occasional stories of nonprofit bad behavior. Those stories are big news. But those situations are rare. They don’t mean you shouldn’t pay your people decently.
And as harsh as it sounds, if you can’t afford to treat staff well, you need to cut back on programs until you can. Your staff are the most valuable part of your organization and its mission. Fix yourself before you try to fix the world.
This goes beyond staff salaries. There are investments that you must make if you want to succeed.
A great donor management system, for instance. Your most recent google search might turn up one that claims to be free… but there’s probably a reason for that. That free system may require you to invest in consultants to make it work. Or it simply might be worth what you paid for it.
Instead, find the right one for you. Pay for it. You’ll raise more money.
Work environments are another area where we skimp – out of guilt, maybe? As my friend Vu Le says, everyone deserves a decent office chair. Add to that decent air (ever work every day in a mildewed building?) and a comfortable environment (heat is nice in the winter).
Staff are your organization’s treasure. Find good people, treat them well. Do more good.
Putting out fires today instead of planning for tomorrow
It’s easy to think you don’t have time to plan when your to-do list is pages long.
And fundraisers, if the pressure is always on this year’s budget, you’re stealing from the next five years’ success. I know it’s hard. It takes tremendous discipline to plan for the long-term while the finance person tells you they can’t make payroll. But running from one emergency to the next is not sustainable. You’ll end up a little behind, then a little more, then a lot.
Do it yourself fundraising
This isn’t always a problem. It’s actually a good thing. You want to be trying new things and learning, and trying again. So do read and learn and try. But know what success will look like before you do. And measure!
Then depending on the skills you and your colleagues have, there may be things you just don’t do well. That’s when it makes a lot of sense to find outside help.
If you’re eager to hand a project off, you can do that. If you want to learn, a consultant can do that for and with you, too.
Thinking time is free
Your time has value. Repeat that as often as necessary.
So if you do hire an outside expert, don’t let budget be the only driver. Because time is worth as much as money. And time is finite. Good planning means counting your time, too. Measure that as well as dollars and you’ll know whether it was time well spent.
For instance, maybe you want to hold a big event. But none of the staff have any expertise. You could spend hours and hours learning how to manage the permitting requirements for using that space you got for free. You could get lost in the details of chairs and tables and menus.
Or, if this isn’t your strong spot, you could hire someone who really knows their way around it all. And you could focus on your attendees. Which is likely to build a stronger fundraising program – time with people or time with permits?
It’s healthy to be thoughtful
And it may feel frustrating to take a beat or two to remember why your organization exists, the value you bring to it and the importance of planning. There’s so much that must be done today!
But prioritize: Money well-spent on your mission includes staff and critical resources. Long term success is more valuable than crossing items off today’s list. You and your mission are worth investing in.