“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words!”

I’m quoting Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in the title of this post.  As you might recall, Freddie, whom we now would define as a stalker, was hanging out in the street when Eliza burst out of the house.  He began to sing about his love for her, and she interrupts him with a song of her own about how sick she is of words.  The title of the song is “Show Me.”

Don’t talk of stars burning above.
If you’re in love, show me.
Tell me no dreams filled with desire,
If you’re on fire, show me!

Have you seen Gail Perry’s article listing the words and phrases fundraisers love to hate?  It’s at http://www.gailperry.com/2012/07/dump-the-cliches-words-and-phrases-fundraisers-love-to-hate/

My contribution is at the bottom – I submitted “impactful” and “make a difference.” 

But the article did prompt me to think a bit about the words we use when we communicate with donors and prospects.  It’s easy for us to laugh at Gail Perry’s list.  And we’re all probably nodding in agreement, especially when we see phrases we particularly hate.

But it’s not so easy to come up with alternatives.  We want our language to be fresh and noticeable, but we want our meanings to remain.  We really do mean “now more than ever,” every time we use that phrase.    Whenever your particular “now” is, whatever the date and time is on the clock, that really is when you want donor support.  So it’s always true.

And what about one of my own contributions to the list?  “Impactful,” — when did that even become a word?  But we mean it.  Kaboom!  Your gift is going to make the state of things different than they were prior to your gift, and will do so not with a puff, but with a boom.  We mean that.  Or, at least we want you to believe it.  Your $500 gift isn’t going to be nearly as splashy as that other guy’s $500,000 gift, but we’re certainly not going to tell you that.  We still need your $500 gift, and we want your philanthropic experience to be gratifying.

Maybe we should learn a lesson from the fed-up Eliza Doolittle and do more showing than talking.  If our donors truly are “making a difference,” do we have to tell them “Hey, you’re making a difference”? or will they get it if we show them?

Can we use really plain language, like “Look what you did,” and show them the faces of smiling children, successful graduates, new bridges, healthy animals, unspoiled wetlands, and so on?  Can we trust the donors to connect the dots from their generosity to our organization’s outcomes?

Or, if it’s during the cultivation or solicitation phase, instead of saying “I’m writing to tell you . . . “, could we say “You really need to see this”?

I don’t know.  I’m just asking.  I understand that a lot of issues don’t lend themselves well to visual imagery.  But doesn’t every issue have at least one story with it?  Could we use fewer cliches and tell more stories?  Or show more stories?

I have to confess to relying on more than one of the words and cliches on Gail Perry’s list.  My previous blog post referred to sustainability, and there is is, the fifth word on the list.  However, in my defense, I was using that word to a nonprofit audience.  I believe the sin is when we speak to other audiences in our own language, and not in the language we share.

There’s much to consider here!  Thanks for the chuckles, Gail Perry.  But thanks for the challenge to us to do better.


Ensuring your nonprofit’s sustainability

I’ve been asked to do a one-pager in a chart form for a particular agency to help guide their sustainability discussions.  Sustainability has become quite the buzzword among nonprofits, and it’s no wonder.  A significant number of nonprofits out there are in serious danger of failing.  A lot of people are doing a lot of analysis and scrambling for solutions.

I laud this very small nonprofit for bringing forward the issue of sustainability.  Many small nonprofits I encounter believe that they just need to find more money, and their problems will be solved.  It’s true, of course, that “more money” can solve a lot of problems, and free up resources to address other ones.  But it seems that nonprofits who are in desparation mode, spinning their wheels chasing money without a system or a plan, are doomed, I’m sorry to say.

One realization I had while working on this document is that planning for sustainability can be labor-intensive and a perceived waste of time.  It can be viewed as “navel-gazing” by staff and volunteers who just want to roll up their sleeves and get the work done.

However, in a report I encountered while doing internet searches on nonprofit sustainability, I read that organizations most likely to succeed are the ones willing to invest in the self-reflection, honest analysis, and think-work.  This document is from the TCC Group, and is written by Peter York.  You can find the document here: http://tccgrp.com/pdfs/SustainabilityFormula.pdf 

My advice for people who are involved with nonprofits is to put in the time necessary to learn nonprofit best practices that help ensure sustainability. It is hard to take time away from the actual work of the organization to put in this time.  I’ve been guilty of grumbling about being pulled into long thinking and planning meetings.  It’s hard to believe you can contribute anything worthwhile while work piles up at your desk.

However, I’ve also been involved with floundering organizations, and it’s not pretty.  Leaders begin leading through desparation instead of strategy.  Departments are asked to switch directions repeatedly.  Blame is distributed. Good staff members jump ship, and not-so-good staff members who are afraid they won’t be able to find another job flail around with unfocused efforts.  Mission and vision become little more than words on a document in a drawer somewhere.

The best organizations, the ones most likely to survive, are the ones that research what other successful nonprofits are doing.  Very generally speaking, the organizations most likely to survive are the ones who have the following:

–  Strong, decisive leadership that is also humane and inclusive

– A commitment to continually researching and contextualizing trends related to their organization’s issue area, political directions, constitiuent opinions, relevancy of programs and services, and community perceptions of their organization’s value to the community.

– Impeccable financial practices

– Strong relationships with key community leaders, grant-making institutions, and other entities whose goodwill can benefit the organization

– An institutional understanding of best fundraising practices

Even organizations who are patting themselves on the back with the knowlege that their organization can boast all of the above might do well to engage in some introspection, to ensure that there are no gaps or weaknesses.

I don’t anticipate that the environment in which nonprofits must operate these days is going to get any easier.

Is the right information TOO much information?

I just received a surprising email from Jerry Panas at Institute for Charitable Giving.  I wish it were posted on the internet so that I could link to it.  I don’t have permission to copy it verbatim.  But here’s the gist of it.

You’d think that if your charity’s overhead costs were low, you’d want to capitalize on that, right?

You’d want your donors and prospects to know how efficient your charity is.  You want them to feel good knowing that the greater part of their contribution is going towards the programs and services they intend to support.

It turns out that providing information on your charity’s overhead, even if it’s extemely low, makes donors less likely to donate!

Furthermore, when people are given the facts and statistics about an issue your charity addresses, they’re less likely to donate.

What works best?

Apparently, an image works best.  A hungry child.  An abused puppy.  A frightened woman.

When you give your prospects more than one thing to think about, it decreases the likelihood of a gift.

This is all according to the book “The Science of Giving,” co-edited by David Oppenheimer at Princeton University.  Apparently, the above findings were the result of research.

Of course, I have questions.

Who are the people he interviewed?  If most of his respondents were casual givers of small amounts, I am ready to believe the results of his research.

But in my experience, major and corporate donors require more information from a charity to reach a decision.

I suppose I should read the book.  I just received the email today.  If you’ve read the book and have comments, please comment!

If you’d like to subscribe to Jerry Panas’s email list through the Institute of Charitable Giving, you can go to the website here:  http://www.instituteforgiving.org.  I’ve attended some of the seminars, and they’re top notch.



Why I’m tired of the non-profit scene

I wasn’t going to post this.  Just thinking about it makes me tired.

It used to get me all riled up and put me in an argumentative mood.  But these days, I just sigh.

Senator Mark Montigny wants to reign in excessive salaries in the not for profit sector.  If you read the article here http://tinyurl.com/7fnj47f, you would agree that some salaries are perhaps a bit excessive.

However, the glib comment about salaries that are into the six figures needs a response.

Are we talking about a small, 3-person operation that serves soup to homeless people?  Or are we talking about a major university renowned for its research?

The problem with making a blanket statement for all non-profits is it doesn’t take into consideration the qualifications necessary for executing the work of some non-profits.  But there are those who believe that non-profits, across the board, should have artificially low salaries, even though they’re usually doing more noble work (and with far fewer resources) than their counterparts in the for-profit sector.

How about the person overseeing Harvard’s endowment of $27,557,404,000?  Do I really want someone who could be had for, oh . . say, my salary to shoulder this responsibility?  Or do I want the best possible candidate I can find?  What if the going rate for the person with the best qualifications can earn $300,000 in the for-profit sector, but will settle for $200,000 because he or she is a Harvard grad and believes in the instution?

If we’re going to determine the price of people’s labour in the non-profit sector, maybe we should also mandate other prices too.  Xerox charges $1,000 for the machine it just sold to Big Company.  Shouldn’t it be forced to sell that same machine for $500 to a non-profit?  (In truth, many corporations do offer huge discounts and gifts-in-kind to non-profits.  But should they be forced to?)

I suppose there are a million things wrong with that analogy.  I’m typing this while I’m tired.  I’m tired because the non-profit sector is severely misunderstood by those who have little experience with it.

There are even people who insist that non-profits shouldn’t pay anyone.  Non-profits should work solely with volunteers.  Sure!  And I should get a unicorn for my birthday.

That would be fantastic if all the right volunteers with all the right qualifications lined up to give their time to the causes of their choice.  But they don’t.

If we did it the way these people from some other reality insist we should, non-profits would be mismanaged, donations would shrink, services would shrink, and either the taxpayer would have to pick up the slack, or whatever ill consequences that could occur due to a shortage of programs would have to occur.  Losing a symphony or a dance troupe would be a bummer.  Losing children to hunger would worse.

And while I’m at it, why are we even considering holding the non-profit sector up to disproportionately high levels of scrutiny while Wall Street business people have been allowed to rape the population with impunity?  Just asking.

The State of the Sector survey results and my commentary

Nonprofits in the USA are being stretched, perhaps beyond their limits.  The Nonprofit Finance Fund released its State of the Sector survey results.  An overview of the findings (from http://nonprofitfinancefund.org/state-of-the-sector-surveys):

  • 85% of nonprofits experienced an increase in the demand for services in 2011.
  • This is on top of years of increased demand: previous NFF surveys found that 77% of      nonprofits experienced an increase in demand in 2010; 71% experienced an increase in 2009; and 73% experienced an increase in 2008.
  • 88% expect an increase in demand for services in 2012.
  • 57% have 3 months or less cash-on-hand.
  • 87% said their financial outlook won’t get any better in 2012.

I propose that this is not a matter confined to the realm of nonprofits.  This is a matter of concern to all of us, even those who haven’t donated a single penny anywhere and have no interest in volunteering.

This is a message to any of you who happen to fit into that above category, although it’s doubtful that you’d be reading this blog if you did.  Nevertheless, this needs to be said.

You’re going to have to pay for it somewhere.

If we don’t support the nonprofit organizations who are trying to smooth out those nasty rough edges like hunger, poverty, disease, etc. we’ll either have to fund bandaid solutions through our taxes, or tolerate living in a society of crime, hatred, and needless premature death.

Wow.  I’ve gone all dark.

But surely I’m not the only one who puzzles over the multitudes who simply don’t get it.  Where is the logic in thinking that a “blame the victim” mentality makes the problems go away?  Why do some of us think that as long as the problem belongs to “them,” “we” don’t have a problem?  Why do we see nonprofits as “nice to haves” rather than essential for the greater good?  Few people seem to like the alternatives – higher taxes or an even messier world.

And why do we hold the nonprofit sector, whose mission is to make the world a better place, more accountable than we’ve been holding the banking industry, whose mission is to make shareholders richer?  I’m not suggesting that the nonprofit sector not be held accountable.  But if we’re going to hold it up to intense scrutiny with demands of transparency and accountability, perhaps we should be prepared to fund the sector as lavishly as we’ve been funding the banking industry.

Granted, one might argue that there are simply too many nonprofits out there.  The National Center for Charitable Statistics estimates that there are over 1.5 million not-for-profit organizations in the U.S.  The law of supply and demand might indicate that duplication of services exist, the public doesn’t perceive a need for some non-profits, and that they are “voting” simply by not supporting them.  One might argue that the “lesser needed” non-profits should probably close up shop.  Fewer non-profits means each non-profit gets a greater share of the philanthropic pie.

While these might be valid arguments, the pervasiveness of the across-the-board struggle among the sector indicates something more systemic.  Not only does a broad swath of public misunderstand the non-profit sector and underestimate its necessity, but because of the economic downturn, people are focused on their own survival and lack any resources of time or money to spare.

The Fast Company has offered some advice for the nonprofit sector and its funders:

1. Funders must invest in organizational vitality and effectiveness.

2. Boards must take their roles seriously in advancing nonprofits.

The recommendations are offered in detail at http://www.fastcompany.com/1826938/nonprofit-finance-fund-state-of-the-sector-2012-a-system-under-pressure.  The article is well worth a read.

Why I won’t work for a percentage of funds raised

My “day” job is consulting to non-profits, usually in the area of fundraising.  If you’ve been following this blog, you’lI know that I walked away from a wonderful position at a wonderful organization to hang out my own shingle.

I’m learning that quite a few non-profits are in a bit of a spot – – they need to start fundraising, but they don’t have money to support fundraising.  So they decide to do some fundraising to raise money so they can afford to start fundraising.

I find myself being given offers of work with the promise that I will be paid a percentage of the donations that are raised.  Although some fundraisers accept this type of arrangement, I’m not willing to do this.  I decided to include a page on my website regarding why I’m unable to follow this practice.  But first, I’m posting the key points here.  So don’t look for it at my website yet.  (But if you want to go to my website anyway, it’s at http://www.begifted.net.)

So, why are my fees not based on a percentage of money raised?

From a non-profit’s perspective, paying a fundraiser a percentage of funds raised makes perfect sense.  First of all, the organization doesn’t have to pay until actual money comes in the door.  Secondly, the fundraiser is presumably motivated to bring in as much money as possible.

However, there are several flaws with this payment model:

–          When money becomes the primary motivation for a fundraiser, the organization is at risk.  Good fundraising is based on relationships, but when money becomes the primary motivator, relationships are sacrificed for “quick wins.”   This can have serious financial and public relations consequences for the organization.

–          Good fundraising is a collaborative effort.  Ultimately, the organization raises the money through its promise and delivery of value to the people/issues it serves, a worthwhile mission, a solid reputation, and commitment to good fundraising practices.  A fundraiser’s success is dependent upon the support, connections, and decisions of the executive director and the board.

–          There are too many variables outside the fundraiser’s control.  Mismanagement, bad luck, or poor fundraising strategies in the past may have soured the public’s attitude towards a particular organization.   Or the Board may disregard certain recommendations made by the fundraiser, recommendations that may be critical to fundraising success.

–          Donor trust is eroded.  Most donors understand that running an organization incurs expenses.  When a fundraiser is paid by the hour or by the project, it is similar to paying for any other service, such as those provided by accountants, lawyers, cleaning companies, and internet providers.  However, donors do not like a percentage of their money being diverted from the “cause” and into someone’s pocket.  From the donor’s point of view, the fundraiser provides the same service to a $100 donor that she does to a $1 million donor, so why must the $1 million donor be penalized for making a larger gift?

–          The relationship is to be between the organization and the donor, not the fundraiser and the donor.  An hourly or by-project fee encourages proper relationship alignments.

–          And finally, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, of which I am a member, very strongly states that a percentage-based payment model is unethical.

Regrettably, some non-profits respond by telling me they’re unable to hire me, because they simply can’t afford to pay for fundraising until they raise some money.  Besides, their cause is so good that perhaps, they hint, I should work pro bono.  However, just about all of the non-profits I’m coming into contact with have causes that are so good that I should work pro-bono.  We call this “volunteering” and that’s not what I’m trying to do for a living.

Having said that, as a new consultant, I’ve allowed myself to work dirt cheap these past few months, because some of the causes really have resonated with me.  I’ve decided that my next step will be to put together some recommendations that I can give non-profits (for free) to help them find money, until that magical time when they can invest money into resource development.

And because my bills haven’t stopped coming in, and because I’ve already reduced my lifestyle to as Spartan of a level as I’m willing to go, my fees have now gone back up to something a bit closer to the standard fee of a new consultant.  I do feel good that no matter how hungry I’ve been these past few months, I’ve stuck to principles that I know are ethical.