Feedback and continuing to shift

I received some feedback from some of you (and thank you very much!).  The feedback is that I do in fact need to post more frequently, and that practical how-to advice is appreciated.   Waxing philosophical is okay sometimes, but what people really want is advice on all things fundraising.

I probably won’t be able to resist the temptation to ruminate over the intricacies and peculiarities of the fundraising world sometimes.  But I promise to include more practical advice on attracting donors to the cause.  I’ll probably focus on major gifts fundraising since that my favourite area.

It’s also been suggested that I pretty things up a bit around here.  Someone said that this blog looks like a cold room!  I’ll do what I can to make this a more engaging place to visit.

These suggestions are very much appreciated.


How to get meetings with prospects when you can’t even reach them on the phone

Thos of us in major gifts can spend hours and hours trying to get our prospects’ attention to ask them to meet.

Okay, in the ideal world, we’d get volunteer peers to open the doors for us.  But volunteers have only so much time, and sometimes there are many good prospects mined from our databases but no volunteer that has a connection with them.

Besides, often our prospects are already connected through previous giving history.  Many of them are giving way below capacity. Since the connection presumably exists, it seems like a no brainer that the major gifts office should be able to schedule a discovery meeting to see if they qualify for a major gift.

The problem is often on the other end – – we call, but nobody picks up the phone.  Maybe after a few tries, we leave voicemails.  Our calls are never returned.

I don’t know about you, but when I can actually get someone to talk with me on the phone, my success ratio of getting a meeting with them is quite high.  And then when we meet and I tell them what my organization is up to they almost always want to support.  But if I can’t even get them on the phone, I have a hard time getting them to that next level.

And of course, part of the problem is that we’re often measured by activity.  No completed phone calls equals no moves, so it looks like we’re not doing anything with our time.

So here is my arsenal of strategies that I use to try to connect with donors to schedule meetings.  I’m going to break them into 2 categories – calls to people’s homes and calls to people’s office.

Calls to people’s homes

TRACK – I make a series of calls without leaving a voicemail at first.  Hardly anyone returns voicemails, even the most charming, compelling ones.  When I’m at home, I hardly return voicemails either.  Do make a note of every time you tried to call and didn’t get an answer.  This will help you pay attention to when you’re calling, so that you can try to call different times during the day, and even different days of the week.  It will also help you see how many attempts you’ve made.

FINALLY LEAVE A VOICEMAIL – I know I said I don’t leave voicemails.  But after I’ve tried about 5 times, I do leave a voicemail.  I thank them for their support, assure them that I’m not calling to ask for money (because I’m not – – I’m calling to get to know them, do discovery, get their feedback, etc.), and I tell them that I have a few questions and would really love a moment of their time.  Then I leave my number.  They don’t call back, but guess what – – I record this as a move.

LEAVE ANOTHER VOICEMAIL AFTER A FEW DAYS – because I can’t stand giving up after one try, and besides, upon very rare occasion, people have called me back.  And it’s another move.

TRY THE OFFICE – If you don’t have their office information, do a Google search or peek at LinkedIn.  (They’ll see you looking at their profile though.)   Skip to the next section – Calling people at their offices.  If you don’t have their office number and don’t know where they work, skip to the next step.

SEND A LETTER – Ideally, have your executive director or board member sign it.  The message should say something to the effect of thanking them for their support and telling them that we’d just like a few minutes of their time.  Then the text should say “That’s why I’ve ask (insert your name) to call you to arrange an appointment as soon as possible.”


If you’ve still gotten nowhere, park them for a few months.  There’s a problem with this – your boss wants you to only have hot, active prospects in your portfolio and wants to see moves on all of them.  However, I have connected with people after failing to reach them for over a year, and then when I finally do connect with them, they become major donors.  So, fight for space in your portfolio.  You’re the fundraising expert anyway, right?  Does your organization want major donors or not?

While they’re parked, continue to send them cards, information, invitations to events, and so on.

Revive them again after a few months and try again.  If you don’t have any success, then reassign them elsewhere – direct response or leadership giving or wherever is appropriate.

Calls to offices

REACH THE EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT – I have good success with executive assistants.  If you don’t know who your donor’s assistant is, call the main number for the company and ask “May I speak to whomever handles XXX XXX’s calendar?”

When you reach the executive assistant, say something like “I’d like to make an appointment with XXX  XXX – – I’m calling from (your agency), but just to be clear, I’m not calling to ask for money.  Since he’s a community leader with a history of support, we’d really like to get his thoughts on a promising initiative.  Would he have any openings on (insert a date a few weeks from now)?”

Usually the executive assistant will ask for a followup email outlining the purpose of the meeting.  This is good because now you’ll get the executive assistant’s email and the correct spelling of her name.   Then follow up with the email with the above message, and be sure to thank her very sincerely for her assistance.

If she offers reasons why the prospect can’t meet, never just go away.  Always have a follow up plan.

He’s too busy – – express that you understand completely.  Might you try again in a few weeks?

He’s too busy now and will always be too busy – – again, you understand completely.  However, he does have to eat lunch – could you buy him lunch at his favourite spot in exchange for the opportunity to ask him some questions and get his feedback?

He doesn’t support this cause – – again, you understand completely.  Just to reiterate, you’re not asking for money right now.  You wouldn’t be calling if this weren’t so very important.

Call our Community Investments office – – thank you so much, we will certainly do that to talk about corporate support!  However, this meeting request isn’t to ask your company for money – it’s about getting XXX XXX’s thoughts.

With these strategies, I have a good “get the meeting” ratio.  Of course, the best way to get the meeting is to have someone open the door for us – – ideally a peer volunteer who already has a connection.  But while we’re working on that, we have to continue meeting prospects in the meantime!




The job interview – it’s not just about you

This is a post directed to my fellow fundraisers in the trenches.

It’s pretty much a cliche in the charitable sector that fundraiser turnover is high.  We’re told that boards and executive directors are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do about it. Some play the blame game, accusing fundraisers of jumping ship when a better salary is dangled in front of them. Others try to make their workplaces more attractive by offering more vacation days, free parking, gym memberships, and so on, to compensate for the fact that they can’t manage a salary competitive with the for-profit sector.

Let’s just  put the truth on the table.

Most charities don’t know how to be attractive to fundraisers, because they don’t know how to be fundraising organizations.  That is why, you might argue, they’re hiring fundraisers, right?  Fair enough.  But many charities limit their fundraisers’ influence and refuse to take advantage of the expertise they’re paying for.  So, in frustration, the fundraisers leave.  The charities come up with all the wrong reasons, blame the fundraisers, talk about “It wasn’t the right fit,” and proceed to go through the same pain again.

Too many of us have been there.  We’ve been charmed by a wonderful cause, engaging executive director, and eager board.  We accept the job only to find out that the board wants the money now, the executive director already feels her head on the block, and that in order to even begin fundraising, years of crappy stewardship and bad public relations have to be cleaned up first.  We tolerate it as long as we can, but then we tell ourselves life is too short, and we start looking for other opportunities.

Fundraisers need to break the cycle during the interview process.

We need to collectively own the job jumping that is rampant in our field.


We need to help charities understand how to hire good fundraisers, and to know what to do after they get them.  We can lay the groundwork before we even get the job offer.

It starts with asking better questions during the interview process.  This will help charities know what kind of organizations they should strive to be in order to attract good fundraisers.

I’m amazed at how few questions job applicants tend to ask.  In an ideal world, the applicant would ask as many questions as the interviewer.  After all, the fit needs to be right on both sides.

There are dozens of good questions to ask, and among them are these:

1.  How engaged is your board in the fundraising process?

You might not be looking for a board with 100% participation – – anything over 75% is good.  (Hint: that’s not the correct answer on a certain professional certification exam.)  You also don’t need to look for a board in which all members are comfortable going on asks.

You’ll want to see a board that is not looking to offload the entire responsibility of fundraising to staff.  Board members should be willing to make thank you calls, attend events (or better, host them), sign appeal letters, look at suspect lists, and so on.  And a handful of them should be willing and able to open doors and accompany on donor visits.  And if a few of them are willing to make asks, then hallelujah!

The wrong answer is “The board doesn’t fundraise.  That is why we would be hiring you.”

During the keynote speech at AFP Calgary Chapter daretodo! Professionals Forum & Awards Lunch, Rory Green had us proclaim in unison “I am not an ATM!”

When I ask how engaged a board is in the fundraising, I’m looking for a sense that I won’t be seen as an ATM.  I’m looking for some level of understanding of how fundraising works.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  Many boards, especially those for smaller or new charities, have no idea of how to foster a culture of fundraising.  But if they’re willing to invest in a little eye-opening on behalf of the organization they claim to support, it can be an exciting journey for everyone.

2.  What kind of leader are you?

Reactions to this question can be quite interesting.  There are no right or wrong answers, but it does send the message that we prefer to be managed well.

I like to hear clues about employees’ autonomy.  Several years ago, a prospective boss answered this question with “I like to hire good people and get out of their way.”  I was offered the position, and I accepted.

3.  What are the targets and how are they set?

I’m not a fan of targets being handed to me without my input.  If a charity has a small donor base, but the board believes they can raise millions if they but hire the right fundraiser, I recommend moving along.  However, if a target is handed to me after a careful and well-thought-out process, I might still be interested in the position.  If they already have a target in mind, I ask how the target was determined, how it compares to what was raised last year, and other good questions along these lines.

I also like to know if I’ll be growing an existing portfolio or building one from scratch.  If it’s the latter, I ask questions to determine their timeline expectations.   If they believe a robust giving program can be built within six months and the cash will flow like a river, I move along.

By the way, these charities exist.  An executive director of a small, very niche-y charity with a very small donor base said to me once, rather flippantly, “Universities raise millions and millions!  I don’t think a couple million dollars our first year is asking too much.”

4.  How much time in this role would be dedicated to non-fundraising activities?

If you’re hired to raise money, then you want to be given the time to do it.  All time spent in non-fundraising meetings, social committee work, database cleanup, shooting the breeze in the break room and so on means unrealized revenue.  The greater the expectation that you participate in non-fundraising activities, the lower your targets must be.  And there’s a point at which you won’t be interested in the role because, after all, you’re a fundraiser.

I also ask questions about their philosophy on work/life balance, what happened to the role’s predecessor, where they’d like to see the organization in 5 years, and more.

Most interviewers expect two or three questions from applicants, and are a little taken aback.  Usually they see it as a sign of keen interest.  Sometimes they apologize and state that we’ve run out of time.  That’s fine – – usually there’s a second interview with more opportunities to ask questions.  If I’m offered a position before I’ve had answers to my questions, I simply say that I can’t make a decision until all of my questions are answered.  And of course, if there’s any unwillingness to entertain all of my questions, then they’ve self-selected themselves out of consideration for me.

But these questions do more than just help us find the best fit for ourselves.  They send a message to charities that want to hire us.  When more of us take responsibility for asking these kinds of questions, charities will learn that in order to attract good fundraisers, they need to put a good deal of thought into the role.  They need to ask themselves how they can best set the role up for success.


How prospects steal from charities

It happened again.

And once again, I placated myself by telling myself this is just the way it is.  We have no right to complain.  We are in the business of being thankful for what we get, and we’re not to complain about what we don’t get.

Or more specifically, we’re not to complain about what gets taken away.

You see, sometimes, in the non-profit world, money is stolen by people and institutions that think they’re trying to help.  They set themselves up to be philanthropic, yet they take money away from charities.

This can mean fewer children get fed.   There are bona fide, real, actual children out there who missed out on food because someone unknowingly stole from the charity that wants to feed them.

It can mean fewer services.  A homeless person misses an opportunity for assistance.  A teenager in distress has nowhere to go.  A victim of domestic abuse goes back home because the shelters are full.

Often, it’s the same people, the same corporations, the same institutions who bang the drum about the lack of accountability among non-profits that are the worst offenders.

So what happened that is sending me on this rant?  I recently experienced just one more very small example of a kind of situation that happens over and over again in the non-profit world.  Instead of shrugging it off as we usually do, I decided that this is a blogworthy topic.

Example 1:

Most corporations have set up an online funding request application system   I do understand this.  A company’s primary duty is to earn money for its shareholders.  While a community investments strategy plays a role, it can’t take over the entire company.  It has to be contained.   Investing in a searchable and sortable database that the nonprofits themselves populate is actually a brilliant idea.

(If you continue reading and believe I’m complaining about  online application systems, go read the last paragraph again.)

I was directed by the community investments person at a large corporation to proceed with an online application.   As with most of these online application sites, there was a document available that listed the questions that I’d be asked during the online process.  It’s recommended to review these questions before starting the online application.   This is very handy.  I always answer these questions in a separate word document before beginning an online application.

This company had many questions not found on other online applications.  I contacted the executive director more than once for specific information, some of which she had to dig for herself.  It took me longer than anticipated to complete the list of questions, but when I finished, I knew the hard part was behind me.  All I had to do was start an online application, and copy/paste the answers from the document into the online form.

However, the questions in the online application form were very different than the list of questions provided prior to starting the application.  I had to call the executive director again and request different information.

Perhaps even worse were questions that made no sense.

For example, one question asked how much money had been raised to date.  The next question asked how much more was needed.

How do you answer that?  It depends on the organization, the cause, the issue.  For an organization that serves the homeless population, how much more is needed?  Ten million?  One hundred million?  One billion?

I was tempted to write “All of it” in the response field.  However, the response field only accepted numbers.

Should I assume the question referred to a specific project?  The application didn’t allow for this.  No previous questions referred to or asked about a specific project.

I was extremely annoyed with this company.

But, as usual, I placated myself.  After all, this company didn’t owe the organization a dime.  By having the online application system in place, the company was inviting the organization to apply.  This company could have gone the route of many others – no online system, no access to the community investments personnel, perhaps no philanthropic presence whatsoever.  I should focus on how nice this company is to even be open to an application.

However,  I regretted the hours of my time and the time of the executive director that could have been saved, if only the list of questions they offered matched the actual questions on the online application.

From the company’s perspective, there are no consequences or implications.  So what if their list of questions doesn’t match the actual questions on the online application?  They have bigger priorities.  Besides, if a charity wants a shot at a donation, they’ll suck it up and like it.

However, from a nonprofit’s perspective, money has been lost.  I’m operating under a contract, and that wasted time could have been put to other use.  The executive director draws a salary, and had to spend her time digging up information.

(If you’re going to argue that we should be volunteering our time, and that nobody in the non-profit world should draw a salary, you’re not even far enough along to be reading this blog.  If we ran the sector according to your model, far less money would be donated, meaning more children would die of starvation, cures for diseases would be farther away, and so on.)

Okay, so let’s move on.  This whole thing was a minor annoyance.  I admit it.

Example 2:

A few days later, I heard from another executive director who faced an even more annoying and disheartening experience.

She was returning home from a friend’s funeral.  During an airport layover, exhausted and depleted, she noticed a text message on her phone from a community investments person she had been in communication with prior to her departure.

Would she be able to present to the committee at 7:30 a.m. the next morning?

This was a surprise because the community investments person had been very clear that their company only funds programs involving poverty reduction.

Our executive director hated to say no to an opportunity.  She texted a response to verify the community investment person’s understanding that her organization dealt with environmental issues, not poverty reduction.

The community investments person assured her that the committee wanted to hear from her.  So our executive director accepted.

It was nearly 3 a.m. before our executive director made it home and got to bed.  After three hours of sleep, she patched herself together and drove to the company’s head office.  When she arrived, she was asked to sit in a waiting room adjacent to a meeting room.   Eventually, the door opened, and to her surprise, a representative from another non-profit was escorted out, with handshakes and thank yous.

She realized that she was not the only person presenting to the committee that morning.

However, being the professional that she was, she did an excellent presentation in front of the committee.  They applauded and indicated how impressed they were with the organization.

However, they concluded, unfortunately they only fund programs dealing with poverty reduction.

Smiling politely, she tactfully reminded them that she had been invited to present.  She suggested that there were many ways the company could support the organization that did not necessarily involve a donation.  Perhaps they would host an event.  Encourage staff to volunteer.  Put up posters.  Sponsor something.

They stood up, murmuring thanks for her time.

“If you were impressed by this organization’s work,” she said as they ushered her to the door, “perhaps you might help us open doors to companies who do support environmental causes.”

“Thank you,” they said again as they guided her of the room, where she encountered the next representative from the next non-profit, sitting in the waiting area.

In her car, she admonished herself to pull it together.  These things happen.  At least she had the opportunity to present to the company.  All opportunities to get the word out were good opportunities, right?

But then she grew angry.

They had wasted her time.  They knew ahead of time that her organization wasn’t involved in poverty reduction.  She even clarified this with the community investments person.

And the community investments person didn’t even bother to inform her that this was a cattle call.  She had been led to believe that the committee had wanted to hear from her organization specifically.

In addition to feeling angry, she became aware of something else – – a feeling of being condescended to.

The message from the company, and from many companies, in fact, is that those of the non-profit world are “less than.”   The company’s time was more valuable than her time.  They might, I repeat, MIGHT, have a little something for her, a little treat, and if she jumps and sits and rolls over, they might give it to her.  Or maybe not.  But her job was to drop everything, show up, sit respectfully, and wait.

Her anger grew.

Why was her time less important than theirs?

Perhaps most insulting of all is that this company was one of the companies contributing to the mess that her organization was trying to clean up.

They were trying to make their shareholders rich.  She was trying to make the world a better place.

When she told me this on the phone, it was shortly after I had closed down the online application to reconsider whether or not I should even complete it.  I was angry at one company, she was angry at another, but the reasons were the same.

We were the supplicants, the companies were the possible benefactors.

This in itself isn’t such a bad thing, and we’d be more willing to take it if it didn’t sometimes result in a net loss for our organizations.  It’s not that we don’t like to wait or don’t like to provide information when requested.  It’s when we’re treated with the old “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality that we become upset.

We’re not begging.

We’re cleaning up your messes.  We’re fixing things.  We’re making your world a better place.  Whether you choose to support us or not, our work is just as important as your work.

We are so noble that we are willing to let you behave like we’re stuff on the bottom of your shoe, because doing so MIGHT help us further our important causes.  We’re willing to do that.  That’s how good we are.

We prefer the much healthier donor-as-partner relationship, based on mutual respect and the furthering of all our agendas.  We prefer it when you’re excited about the causes, and not only want to donate money, but you also want to come to our events and tell your friends about us.  We like to get your feedback and your ideas.  We like you to join our boards.

That’s all Fundraising 101 stuff.

Unfortunately, throughout my non-profit career, these “We’re important, you’re not so much” scenarios have repeated themselves over and over, in slightly different situations, but the overriding message remains the same.

How many prospect visits have we made, where the prospect was called away but didn’t think to tell us, and we only learn about it after we show up at his or her office?

How many hours, days, and weeks have we put into developing proposals and presentations to prospects who strongly hint that there WILL be a substantial donation at the end of it all, only to find out that the odds of actually receiving support were slim all along?

Many of us draw salaries – not huge ones, but salaries, nonetheless.  When we invest our time sitting in waiting rooms for appointments that don’t happen, filling out needlessly complicated online applications, or endure any number of indignities that take up our time needlessly, this takes money away from the services our organizations provide.

Additionally, there are opportunity costs to consider.  Instead of working my way through one poorly-crafted online application system, I could have completed three other online applications instead.  This may have increased the odds of receiving funding for the organization I was working for.

Again, if you think I’m whining, you don’t get it.

I’m not complaining about the inconvenience or the waste of time itself.  I’m complaining about the cost this has on a small charity already struggling to survive.  Most are already operating on the edge.  Cumulatively, these small and seemingly innocent thefts could tip a charity over the edge and out of business.

Do I have a proposed solution?  Not really.  However, I’d propose that if a person or a company is trying to be philanthropic, the way they treat all charities that interact with them says a lot about their true motivations.  Are they philanthropic or aren’t they?

Donors giveth, government taketh away

Kudos to Calgary Mayor Nenshi for speaking out on the provincial budget cuts that affect Mount Royal University.

Of course, whenever we read about anyone protesting budget cuts, our eyes glaze over.  Of course there will be whining when budgets are cut.  Of course budget cuts are unfair.  They always are.  Nobody likes them.

However, Mayor Nenshi pointed out that the cuts may affect programs that occur in a venue that was made possible by significant private donations.  How do you message that to a donor?  “Thanks for the theatre, but turns out we don’t need it anymore.”

Mayor Nenshi put it especially eloquently when he said that he hoped “that other potential donors will not be put off by the possibility that the intent of their generosity may be lost to provincial politics.”


beGifted bulletin launched today

Today, the first edition of my e-newsletter was emailed out to a wonderful group of subscribers.

If you would like to subscribe, go to  The signup form is on the left.  BONUS:  If you sign up, you’ll get a free report called 50 Fundraising Secrets.

Then, once a month, you’ll receive a short and sweet newsletter with a few short-but-informative articles and links to resources of interest to people in the non-profit world.


Boards who pass the buck

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I left a large organization to hang out my shingle as a fundraising consultant.  You probably know that most of my fundraising experience has been at larger shops. 

I knew that there was much I needed to learn about fundraising in smaller shops.  I anticipated (correctly) learning first-hand about the difficulty of stretching resources nearly to the snapping point.  I also anticipated witnessing up close the frustration of executive directors who are also their organization’s sole paid employee, trying to accomplish everything under the sun, and often feeling guilty because they’re unable to achieve the impossible.  I also anticipated working with boards who need to understand a few basic principles of fundraising.

I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of the third issue I listed.

Perhaps I’m naive. 

But I’ve been a little astonished at the “We don’t want to know” attitude of many board members when it comes to understanding fundraising principles. 

It’s one thing, and in fact, a cliché, for a board member to fold his arms and say “I don’t fundraise.”  But it’s quite another for a board member to say “Not only do I not fundraise, but I don’t even want to know how our organization can attract funds.”

Of course, this is followed by the boardly nose elevating into the air, with the comment “I was brought on board for my expertise.”

What good is this board member’s expertise when the organization can’t remain afloat and must close its doors? 

I get that some board members are highly uncomfortable with fundraising.  Of course, this is a topic for a separate blog post, and probably most of you reading this could write the post yourselves.  And you probably already have.

But to be unwilling to even learn the basic principles of fundraising is the same as saying “Don’t show me the financial statements – – I don’t want to know.” 

Often, their justification is that they have an executive director who handles these things.  Or perhaps even a fundraiser.  So the board doesn’t need to be bothered with sordid details such as how to attract more money for the organization, because it’s not their problem.

Newsflash:  It’s their “problem.” 

Board chairs and fellow board members must become more courageous and begin working on exit plans for damaging board members such as these.  And they mustn’t be allowed to roam the non-profit sector pretending to be among us.  Board candidates should agree to a very clear and comprehensive set of expectations before signing on.

And yes, I also get that it’s hard to recruit board members.  The temptation is to grab anyone who seems to appreciate your organization’s cause and knows how to breathe in and out. 

Perhaps we as a sector need to push even harder to elevate the nonprofit board experience, so that it’s a more sought-after experience.  For example, board members who are decision-makers at their companies should encourage the hiring and promoting of employees who have volunteer experience.  If enough employers did this, people would be standing in line for volunteer opportunities. 

I recently advised a fundraiser to tell her organization’s board that her salary is fixed.  But the quality and quantity of successful fundraising efforts could be affected dramatically with Board support.  So, theoretically, it could take her one year to raise a particular sum, or it could take 3 -5 years if she does it without support.  If the Board is willing to pay her 2 or more years of additional salary to raise a sum that could be raised in 1 year, then the organization must be so flush that they really don’t need a fundraiser after all.