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Girl Friday: Broad Solutions for Nonprofits

Taking a Broad Approach

There is no holier grail for a nonprofit than unrestricted funds (clouds part, angels sing). Unfortunately, holy grails are notoriously hard to find, especially if you’re looking for them in the grant world. So, in lieu of that holy grail is there something a little less holy, maybe just this side of divine, which is easier to acquire? Not quite unrestricted, but less restricted? The answer is yes, but you have to be willing to think outside the box or at least unpack that box a little and repackage it.

Let me take you back in time. A first class postage stamp was slightly cheaper than it is today and the price of gas was… Oh, about the same as it is now, actually. YouTube had just launched, providing us with a whole new set of cave walls on which to watch shadows flicker.  I, a fresh-faced and green-horned grant writer, faced the daunting task of writing proposals for a slew of programs each of which was almost identical but the data and the outcomes were all just a little different. The organization had started a decade or so before, providing arts programming at a local public school. Soon they expanded to two schools, then three, and so on. At this point, we were working with over a dozen individual schools as well as two small school districts. Each expansion was funded discretely, meaning that each was treated, at least by the funders and fundraisers, as a separate program.

This wasn’t a bad strategy for expansion. There were some definite pluses. The organization was able to expand incrementally and funders felt very connected to the schools they funded and to the community served.

But, there were also quite a few minuses. Big ones.  If the total cost for a school’s program was $25,000 a year, we were leaving money on the table with funders who could be awarding twice that. If a school’s demographics changed due to gentrification or an increased reliance on bussing in students from other neighborhoods, it could jeopardize grants which targeted a higher percentage of low-income students or students from a specific geographic area. Not to mention the fact that we were creating fifteen different grant templates and managing fifteen separate data sets in multiple formats — don’t even get me started on the accounting nightmare — for what was, essentially, one program. The bookkeeper and I were both tearing our hair out. Something had to be done.

I find the best ideas happen on walks and the best way to flesh them out is over coffee or tea or other beverages with smart, creative colleagues. After many walks to the local coffee shop, we designed an overarching framework of goals and outcomes to combine these into a single visual and performing arts education program. This process helped us to create a consistent set of demographic data to collect and track from all sites and disciplines. While our goal was to be able to go after larger grants with fewer restrictions, we also found that having universal data sets made it much easier to unpack and repackage information for those funders we would continue to solicit for specific school sites or arts disciplines. Standardization allowed us to be a lot more flexible in how we targeted funders and crafted our solicitations.

Step back and take a look at your programs. Are there ways you can repackage multiple programs as components of a larger single program or into just a few programs? Perhaps you have programs with similar outcomes which target different clients or communities. You might have programs that serve the same clients at different stages of their lives, educations, transitions, or recoveries which could be viewed as sequential components of a larger program. As you do this, you may find ways that you can streamline your data collection, tracking and analysis. You may even discover new angles for framing your work. It’s amazing what you can discover when you start unpacking your programs.

The First Quality

The best part of having smart, articulate friends is that you can share a tiny seed of an observation and they will grow it into lush, blooming, fully-fleshed out ideas and concepts right before your eyes. For example, this excellent piece by my friend and colleague, Janet Levine, on the audacity required to be a good fundraiser.

Too Busy To Fundraise

Winston Churchill
The first quality that is needed is audacity. —Winston Churchill.

My friend and fellow consultant Viva Kransinski  sent me this video  of filmmaker John Waters talking about the audacity of Cy Twombly.  There is, Viva wrote, an audacity to being a consultant.  She is right.  But there is also audacity in in being a fundraiser.

Other words for audacity include boldness, daring, courage, fearlessness and courageousness.  And it takes all that and more to approach prospects and get them to Star jumpshare with you their hopes, dreams, values and then to match those to the work your nonprofit does.  If you are simply asking for support but not finding out about your prospects, you may be arrogant, thinking that what you want and need is reason enough for them to support you, but you don’t have audacity.

Audacity means you stand out, get things done. Audacious people—and audacious organizations—are not…

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No Volunteer is an Island

I love a good mystery.  So, when a check for $5,000 came in from a donor who was not on our mailing list and lived on the other side of the country, I hit the internet and started searching.  Unfortunately, she had a very common name and kept a relatively low profile online. Thus, our mystery donor remained just that until about a month later, when a volunteer stopped by my office to tell me that he had received our end-of-year appeal.  While he wasn’t able to give, he had passed it along to a few of his friends and family members.  He wanted to know if anyone had contributed so he could call and thank them.  Our mystery donor was his aunt.

This was the first year we had included volunteers in the end-of-year appeal and we received quite a few donations in response.  While most of these were under $100,  many were matched by employers. Better still, almost ever single volunteer who gave to this mailing, gave to the end-of-fiscal-year mailing six months later.

When I first floated the idea of asking volunteers to become donors, it was not received warmly. There were some very vocal objections from staff and board members who feared that asking would offend if not downright alienate this dedicated, generous group.

But who better than volunteers, who have already demonstrated their passion and commitment to the mission, to understand the need for financial support? Who is more invested in your cause than your volunteers?  Why would you not give them the opportunity to deepen their involvement?

I cringe every time I hear someone say  “Our volunteers already give us so much, we couldn’t possibly ask them for money, too.”  Listen, if that ask were any hotter, you’d need to wear protective gear to make it.

The Best/Worst Things About Being A One-Person Development Department

Last month, I visited my daughter’s homestead in Hawaii.  Some people go on Hawaiian vacations and sip fruity cocktails with umbrellas in them on pristine sandy beaches.  I go on Hawaiian vacations and help build bunny hutches out of recycled wooden palets.  Some people stay in luxurious hotels in Waikiki or Kona.  I stay in a ten by ten cabin on the rainy side of the Big Island, with plywood and screen “walls” that let the trade winds blow through and keep (most of) the mosquitos out.

Before you get out your tiny little violin, let me say that I LOVE my Hawaiian vacations.  I am not opposed to pristine beaches and lovely hotels. Nor am I opposed to cocktails – perish the thought!  But I am a dyed-in-the-wool-DIY-punk-rock-hippie-earth-mother.  I grow vegetables in pots on the patio of my apartment which I then can and pickle.  I like to make things from scratch. I like to build things.  I like to figure stuff out.  I like to jump in and get my hands dirty.

It shouldn’t be any wonder why I love working with smaller organizations.  Much like my daughter’s homestead, everything is built from the ground up.  When I walked into my last development position, it was the first time that the organization had an in-house fundraiser on staff.  As a one-person development department, I got to create my own systems and procedures and learn by trial and error.

Of course, the downside was that I had to build everything from the ground up, create my own systems and procedures, and learn by trial and error.  There is nothing more overwhelming than an empty slate.  Where do you begin?

The answer to that question will be a little different for every organization, but there are a few basics you will need in order to build a strong development department.  The order in which you tackle these will depend on your organization’s needs and priorities as well as the level of infrastructure already in place.

Donor Database – If you are building an individual giving program, you will need to be able to track who gave what, when and why.   There are a lot of options out there, from software developed specifically for nonprofits like Raiser’s Edge and Donor Perfect to CRM, or Customer Relationship Management programs, like Salesforce and Dynamics.  Many of these databases offer the option of hosting your data on their servers, allowing you to access it from any computer, or even your smartphone, via the internet.  If you don’t have an IT person on staff or you’ve cobbled your network together with donated computers this can be a great way to ensure your data is always backed up and secure.

Grant Calendar/Database – Some organizations track this information in their donor database while others prefer to keep it separately in an Excel spreadsheet or in something more robust like FileMaker or Access.  Whatever you choose, your tracking system should include contact information, application processes, due dates, history of past applications and support, report requirements, and a section for notes.

Gift Acceptance Policy – Do you accept gifts of stock? How about real estate? Are your Board members able to place restrictions on their annual contributions?  What is your process for acknowledging and receipting gifts?   Everything you need to know about donation protocols and procedures should be in this handy-dandy document.

Editorial Calendar – How do you make sure that your sponsors don’t get an end-of-year direct mail letter a week after they received your sponsorship appeal?   How do you integrate social media and blog posts into your end-of-year campaign?  Easy! And editorial calendar!  Yours should cover every print and digital communication from gala invitations to social media.  An editorial calendar not only keeps your communications timely, it ensures that your content is always targeted and on message.

Finally, you may want to conduct a Grant Readiness Assessment of your organization.  Is there adequate fiscal infrastructure in place to track grant funds as they are expended?  Are you in compliance with the IRS and any licensing requirements? Are program evaluations being conducted and the results being used to make programs more effective or efficient?   A grant readiness assessment is a top-to-bottom, in-depth evaluation examining the organization’s administrative, fiscal and program operations.  Just because the organization has received some grants in the past, doesn’t mean its grant ready.

I know it looks like a lot.  But you can do it! I have faith in you!  And if you do get stuck, contact me.  I can help.

Data Collection Can Be Fun and Simple. No, Really.

I sit on the board of an arts organization and, this past weekend, I had the pleasure of working with a couple of colleagues to collect data at our annual music and arts festival… Wait! Did I just use the word pleasure in reference to data collection?  Isn’t data collection something we do because funders make us? Isn’t it complicated and time consuming and boring?  No! It can be fun and simple.  It does take a little time, but if you do it right, not nearly as much as you think.  Anyway, time flies when you’re having fun!

In the festival’s 13 year history, this was the first time any data, other than observational, was collected.  Everyone agreed that information needed to be gathered, but the very idea seemed too daunting to even think about.  Enter Mary Milelzcik, Emily Wiseman and I.  Let me say here how lucky I am to have such great colleagues in Mary and Emily.  Smart and creative don’t even begin to do them justice!   Talk about a power trio!

We knew it was going to be tough to get attendees to stop having fun for a moment in order to fill out a survey.  So, we had to make the survey fun and simple.

The first thing we did was figure out what information we needed to gather.  We looked at the questions our funders were asking, which was mostly demographic, and thought about what information would be most useful to the organization as we plan next year’s festival.  We settled on five questions: age; race/ethnicity; neighborhood of residence; mode of transportation to the event; and past attendance.

With the simple out of the way, we started working on the fun.  As we brainstormed about the process, we figured that our biggest challenge would be getting attendees to come to us rather than having to go out and coax them in.  We decided that the best way to do that would be to make it look like something fun and interesting was going on at our booth.  The best way to do that?  Make it actually fun and interesting!

First, we blew up a map of Los Angeles County and gave people pins to tell us where they live.  You wouldn’t believe how much excitement this generated.  We heard attendees squeal with glee that they were the first to push their pin into a neighborhood or that there were so many of their neighbors there that day.

Data collection @ 2015 TarfestFor the remaining four questions, we constructed and painted a six-foot tall, four-sided obelisk (read: giant cardboard box).  Each side had a question with four to five answers listed below in a clearly defined column or row.   Attendees were given sheets of brightly colored stickers with which to identify their answers by sticking them in the appropriate column or row.

Our final consideration was location.  The survey booth was situated right between the main entrance to the festival and the entrance to the bar.   We could not have asked for better placement!  We were the first thing everyone saw on their way in to the festival and those wanting to get into the bar, lined up right next to our booth.

The survey was a big hit!  Not only did attendees gravitate toward the booth and complete the survey, they talked about the trends they were seeing in real time.  We overheard discussions of the pin patterns on the map and of the range of ages represented.  Respondents also gave us feedback that will help us refine our survey for next year.   A couple of dozen attendees took photos of the surveys.  One, who runs a program at a botanical garden, told us he was going to steal our idea to find out more about his program participants.

The entire survey process from brainstorming to conception to implementation to final analysis took the three of us less than a week.  At the end of the day, out of about 4000 festival attendees, over 400 volunteered to participate in the survey.  That’s a 10% voluntary response rate without offering any incentive!

The moral of the story?  When it comes to data collection, sometimes you need to think outside of the box!

Now is the Time to Start on Your End of Year Appeal

The problem with end of year fundraising is that it happens at the end of the year.  Smack dab in the middle of a disharmonic convergence of deadlines and time off requests.  If you are running a small organization with just one or even no dedicated development staff, your final quarter may be a blur of grant reports, annual contract renewals and open enrollment.  If the end of the calendar year is also the end of your fiscal year, may the gods help you.   All this at a time when half of your staff is out and those that are in the office are likely spending more time working on holiday plans than actually working.

For most nonprofits, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is when most individual giving happens.  It is make or break time for annual campaigns.  So, how do you get an end of year appeal out in addition to everything else you have to get done at the end of the year?  You don’t.  You get it out before the madness hits.  You sit down during the summer to strategize and develop a work back schedule.

Start by looking at last year’s appeal.  What worked and what didn’t?  What would you like to do differently this year?  Make sure your nonprofit postage permit is paid up.  Start gathering anecdotes and success stories to use in your appeal materials.  Check in with your mailing house about pricing and timing, or schedule an in-house mailing party with volunteers and clients.  After the letters go out, will you be following up with an e-blast?  How about a social media component?  Start generating that content now.

Create a plan with realistic deliverables scheduled for each week.  Of course, once you have a schedule in place, you have to stick to it.  If the day you planned to shop around for a new mailing house turns out to be the day one of the toilets in your preschool explodes and you have to track down a Board member for a second signature for the check to the plumber, by all means deal with the toilet first.  Just make sure you block out the time later in the week to research mailing houses and gather quotes.

End of year appeals don’t have to be overwhelming if you invest the time up front to plan.  Now is the time to start.   Still need help?  Contact me.

Weingart Announces New Assessment Framework And Changes To Its Unrestricted Grant Program

Continuing their efforts to help nonprofits build capacity, the Weingart Foundation has developed a new Learning and Assessment Framework.  This evaluation tool will aid Weingart in assessing the impact of its unrestricted grant funding.  With the new Framework comes changes to Weingart’s Unrestricted Operating Support grant application and reporting program.

Vice President Belen Vargas will host a webinar the new Learning and Assessment Framework on September 15th.  To find out more about the Framework, changes to the Unrestricted Operating Support program, and RSVP for the webinar, read Belen’s announcement here.

People Come And Go But Missions Are Forever

When Susan left the Board, she left the organization with a pretty big hole to fill.  How big?  Oh, about $300,000 – over a third of the total operating budget.  Susan, herself, had never written a check for more than a thousand dollars, but her friends sure did.   Susan had cultivated and solicited her small group of wealthy friends for the whole five years she was on the Board and the three years before that when she was on the event committee.  Now that she’d termed out and her priorities had shifted to another charity, all of her friends would be shifting over with her.

During the eight years that Susan was raising money for the organization, she had but one caveat: that she would handle all communication with them.   She was afraid the organization would inundate her friends with direct mail letters and phone calls asking for money.   It was not Susan’s intention to leave the organization in the lurch when she left the Board.  She did not understand that there is more to development than just an ask.

For their part, the organization, understaffed and overworked as they were, didn’t exactly push back.  Rather than invest some time and energy at the front end to reassure Susan and work with her to create a shared communication plan that they could both feel comfortable with, they did nothing.  “Hey,” they figured, “less work for us.”   Now they suddenly found themselves scrambling to fill a hole wide enough to shut down half of their program.

This is why it is critical to build donors’ relationships with missions rather than individuals.  Staff, board members, volunteers and even clients will come and go but missions, like diamonds, are forever.

Creating a plan that focused on thanking donors and demonstrating the impact of their gifts would have directly connected donors with the mission and would have primed them for Susan’s annual solicitation.  It could be as simple as just sending a newsletter a few times a year and inviting donors for an open house or thank you event.

Do you have a Susan on your board?  If so, now is the time to bring her in and make sure her donors are your donors, too.

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